RP ON WHEELS
My Experiences Role-playing a Paraplegic Character
When I decided to make my main role-playing character paraplegic, I have to admit that I didn’t have any special reason for it. I simply decided on it because I thought it would be an interesting challenge to have her go through something that left her disabled, and when considering all options, paraplegic stood out. I hadn’t seen any other role-players try to handle it, or at least not nearly as much as some other disabilities (blindness is actually a rather common one to see, as is being mute).
I’m not physically disabled, and knew from the start that there was a full experience of living with such a thing that I didn’t and couldn’t ever truly understand. Even now, after over two years of playing the character, I wouldn’t say I know a fraction of the true, lived experience. I have a great respect for those who do, and when I made this character choice I was determined to do it right, and do it justice. This wasn’t a temporary setback, but rather a new normal; and while things changed for that character, she wasn’t necessarily weaker or lesser for it. It turned out to be a very unexpected journey.
Preparing Got Weird, Which Was a Good Thing
I was already somebody who loathed starting an ongoing concept like this without some preparation, and that had to go double or even triple for this. As I went about designing her new wheelchair, and finding inspiration for where to go with her, I started realizing there was a pretty big gap in something very important for me to cover, especially in the medium of role-playing:
I’d need to depict a whole lot more of a normal, day-to-day life than what was usually depicted.
In fiction, people in wheelchairs are typically secondary or supporting characters, and their struggles are never really given the spotlight, largely because it’s not the point of the stories. You never saw Professor X or Batman’s Oracle struggling with a staircase as the focus of a scene. Documentaries and other real-world, serious media were rarely useful, either, as they also rarely focused on those sorts of scenes. I needed to look somewhere else.
I grew up watching Australian comedian, Adam Hills, who has quite a lot of material about only having one foot. He also hosted The Last Leg with Alex Brooker, another comedian with arm deformities. I found a lot of honest depictions of the smaller experiences inherent in a disability in comedy. Eventually, one piece did become sort of a bible to me: an article on Cracked by a man who became paralyzed from the waist down due to an accident.
A lot from that article found its way into the earliest scenes in particular. The one part that stood out to me was, of all things, his description of the extremely labored process of independently putting on pants when you can’t use your legs. Logically speaking, I knew beforehand that was a hard thing to do, but seeing it spelled out was enormously powerful and showed me in great detail one of the important parts of what I’d have to end up doing.
The very first scene of my character after that accident, specifically because of that article, was her attempting to put on pants. It was also the start of what would become a regular first step for so many regular, daily acts. I’d perform them in real life. Usually not doing a great job of it, but going through it all, just to ensure I was describing what she would have to do just right. I was bad at it early on; but at that point so was she, and it gave me the right perspective to understand all of those simple components of her actions.
If I have any specific advice to give when writing a character with a disability, it would be to make sure to write those hard early parts and to get them right. For yourself, more than anybody, those pieces don’t have to be seen by anybody but you. Even if you’re jumping straight in as a Paralympic champ or daredevil-level character, I think that’s still important.
It’s Not a Problem to Most, But it’s a Problem To Solve For Some
Once my character was ‘back in action,’ I found that almost everyone was extremely considerate. Very rarely will a game let you physically depict a disability. I found myself leaning on an old trick I learned years before, when playing a male character using the female model. I would simply mention it in the very first paragraph of my role-play with others. You can mention it in a character bio all you want, but with people rarely reading those right away, if at all, it’s best to put it unavoidably out there from the start. It can feel uncomfortable at first, but over time you learn natural ways to fit it in.
You can tell very quickly whether discrimination or ignorance is in or out of character. I could tell that almost every player was understanding, even in the rare case their character was not. Even out of character I would see similar, well-meaning overreactions to what you would expect in real life. Even once my character had found her (proverbial, not literal) feet and regained independence and self-confidence, there were still players who were over-worried about her. Sometimes, more so than their characters were!
Strangely, in an environment like this, it wasn’t even people being an ablest or discriminatory that caused problems. In an open role-playing environment, playing a character with an impairment brings out the Fixers.
Fixers, in my experience, are people who don’t always realize they are one. They usually mean well, and are just trying to engage with the role-playing hook you’ve thrown out for them; but it looks different to them. It exists on a different scale. To the Fixers, this huge component of your character is a problem to be solved, same as any other challenge. If they can heal the tank, why can’t they heal your legs?
I’ve seen several different ways to deal with Fixers. A friend of mine, who plays a character with minor brain damage, treats Fixers very simply as an in-character issue with boundaries: this character doesn’t want you to heal them, regardless of whether or not you can. Another person I once saw put an out-of-character note in their bio next to their ailment (a curse in this case), with a request not to try to fix it. I have to imagine that warded off the worst of them, but the existence of that note alone showed that they had faced problems in the past.
My approach ended up being to simply block their methods. The the human body doesn’t naturally repair a broken spinal cord, making healing it ‘regularly’ impossible, and potential alternatives very risky. I don’t think any one of these approaches is better than any other, but I do think that having an approach is important. The Fixers will always appear, sooner or later.
...But Some Parts of Role-playing Aren’t Wheelchair Accessible
I reached a point in my role-play that caused me to eventually have to reevaluate my experience. It was more than two years after I’d been playing my character that I started noticing what had been happening the whole time.
A wheelchair-bound character, in role-playing especially, (but really any action-oriented media) is relegated to a support role. They provide leadership, like Professor X; intel, like Oracle; and technology, like Metal Gear’s Huey Emmerich. Support characters are crucially important, and I wasn’t the only person playing one in the circle I role-played in during this time. There was a crucial difference between my character and the other support characters who eventually became the biggest problem for me. My character was the only one who couldn’t physically be there for scenes that took place out in the field.
At first, it did not seem a big sacrifice. My character was already influencing the team in some way, either through preparation or ‘home base’ support. If combat was the only thing going on in those scenes, it may not have been such an issue, but with the role-playing plots I’m often a part of, it’s typical that large story events happen in these field scenes. If you’re not present for them, your input is greatly reduced.
One of the first ‘field’ scenes I took part in after my character’s paralysis was investigating a cult’s abandoned farm. This was a big part of the plot, where the characters in the field were whisked away to another realm and learned that this wasn’t just a cult… but I wasn’t there. Because my character was watching externally, she wasn’t pulled away and was just left watching an empty farm designed for a scene that had moved on from it.
For over two years, my character was left out of crucial, affecting scenes — even many that I was present for excluded her on some integral level, and there were others I skipped out on knowing I would do nothing in the scene. She was left out of important decisions, and sometimes not even told about important details. At least one major plot ended without her knowing what she had contributed at all.
When I started becoming aware of this and raising concerns in private, the immediate assumption from others was that I was upset about not being able to impact plots. That wasn’t what I was upset about — but even I hadn’t fully realized it yet. It was only a few months later that I realized what had happened: I wasn’t upset about my character not impacting plots, I was upset about plots not impacting my character.
During the years I'd played, my character remained static — too distant from major events to be affected by them, too left-out of decisions to debate them. While other characters were facing great personal challenges, questioning or changing fundamental elements of themselves, mine could never be physically close enough to be influenced by the ripple effect of any of these events. That, eventually, broke me. I couldn't keep doing it.
It took me so long to fully understand just what the problem was, I couldn’t hope to explain things to those DMs or any DM in the future in a way they would fully understand. The one single-most difficult point of contention I noticed when playing a disabled character was the assumption that, because I decided my character was disabled voluntarily, that I should be inherently OK with every single difficulty that comes from that, including the unintended out-of-character stuff.
I decided I couldn’t keep playing an entirely wheelchair-bound character. As a player, I needed what I wasn’t getting. I was, however, determined to keep treating my character’s disability with respect — I wasn’t going to just write it away completely. I eventually landed on the use of an exo-suit to let her be part of action-set pieces and other scenes that aren’t easily wheelchair accessible. Her legs still don’t work outside of it, and she still struggles with many of the same things, but she can be there for scenes now in ways that she could not before.