Thinking through disability on Star Trek 🖖🏻📺

I wrote this a week ago to sort through my thoughts on disability on Star Trek. It is essentially a freewrite, not a carefully structured essay.

Some context: I write this as my mom has recently changed from being a person with variable and invisible disabilities to someone with consistent and visible disabilities. She has lost the use of her legs and must ride a wheelchair if she wants to move around independently. But for years, she has had problems with sometimes falling down, for decades she has had chronic illness with debilitating fatigue as a symptom. Disability is not new to her but her recently developed disability is quite different from her disability in the past.

I myself have lived with chronic illness as my primary disability for a long time, though I did not conceive of myself as disabled until the COVID-19 pandemic. My disabilities are variable and invisible, like my mom’s earlier ones. I sometimes have debilitating fatigue or brain fog. I struggle with activities of daily living due to challenges of executive function, rather than physical limitation.

And on top of all of this is my experience as an autism sibling - while this hasn’t impacted me much because Micah’s diagnosis came when I was away at college, I’m still keenly aware of it. I also am perpetually working on foregrounding the voices of autistic people themselves rather than trumpeting my thoughts on it. But it is work, not something that comes to me naturally. I’m too keen on talking about my own thoughts and ideas for that to be my default state.

With all of this in mind, I’m thinking lately about two depictions of disability on Star Trek: Christopher Pike’s experience as a quadriplegic who can communicate only using assistive technology and, for whatever reason, that assistive technology is limited. (Maybe in the 60s it was the best they could imagine? Maybe his cognitive damage is so strong that he can only formulate yes or no as thoughts?) And Geordi Laforge, whose disability is mitigated by assistive technology that not only gives him sight, but allows him to use his sight in ways that people who are born sighted cannot do.

And then there are others as well who I would love more details about. On Discovery in particular, Airiam and Detmer. What about on Lower Decks? Is the character with an implant there using it as assistive technology? Or is it an augmentation? I should look at these characters more closely and look for others as well.

What about Sarek as he nears the end of his life?

There are plenty of possible examples for me to look at.

Today, though, I’ll focus on Pike and Laforge.

Pike’s plight is presented as a kind of death or “the death of the man I am now,” as Pike tells Spock in SNW 1x01. In TOS (I’ll admit I have yet to watch this episode and have only read about it on Wikipedia), Spock kidnaps Pike and takes him to Talos IV where he can live with the illusion of his body as it was before his disabling event. What does this mean about disability in Star Trek? How does the illusion on Talos IV work? Is he actually lying in a bed somewhere? Rolling around in his chair? He gets to live out his days with Veena and that’s nice but what is the nature of this “solution”? And what does it tell us about disability in the world of Star Trek? I need to watch “The Cage” before I can know at all. And also perhaps to revisit Pike’s experience of the future on Discovery and take notes on his mentions of it in SNW.

(Also who else is writing about Star Trek and disability?)

Now Laforge. This is someone whose assistive technology effectively eliminates his disability but who 1. is once again disabled if his VISOR falls off and 2. if I’m remembering correctly, is always in pain and that’s the tradeoff for using the visor.

(I feel like there is somebody else on Trek who’s always in pain but I wonder if I’m actually thinking of Miriam from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.)

Geordi Laforge’s disability isn’t a thing until it is. I’ve been falling asleep to the TNG episode, “The Masterpiece Society,” in which a colony has systematically bred its citizens for optimum living, including eliminating disability. Laforge reads this (and I do too) as a suggestion that as a disabled person, he has no contribution to make to a society. And then there’s delicious irony that the technology from his VISOR is just the technology they need to save the colony from being essentially doomed by tectonic activity responsive to a star core fragment. (Still not sure what that is, though I can guess from the words. Maybe I’ll look it up.)

I talked to W about this last night, and he suggested that it’s not that Geordi wouldn’t have been born, but that he would have been born sighted. I think this is a set of hypotheticals that it’s hard to think through. To what extent do our disabilities make us who we are? Are we the same person if we’re born without them? This is something that we’ve thought about a lot in our family with my brother and whether being able to isolate an autism gene would change his life. We wouldn’t have wanted to terminate Mommy’s pregnancy with him but it might have allowed us to prepare better. But if it were possible to manipulate the autism out of him, would he then be himself? I know he doesn’t think so.

Neurodivergence is a different sort of disability, I think, than physical limitation. (I’m keenly aware of this deficit-based language and know that I need to change it before I write anything for wider publication on it.) We want autism acceptance, neurodivergent acceptance.

But there is a real tension between the social model of disability and the medical model of disability. Is the world what disables you, or your body? I think it’s both. Star Trek sort of shows us with Geordi that it can be both. The Enterprise is a pretty accessible place, as long as the turbolifts are working, and Geordi has technology he needs to live and work. By the social model of disability, as long as he’s wearing his VISOR, he’s not disabled.

But he is sometimes in circumstances where he’s not wearing the VISOR, especially in environments that are NOT DESIGNED. And that limits his potential activity, and so in those cases, it is his body that disables him.

I need to be careful not to feel like I have to do a complete literature review on critical disability studies before writing about this any further.

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Kimberly Hirsh, PhD @KimberlyHirsh
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