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The Quack #2: "Extraordinary" Abilities
Superpowers and disability, designing accessible kitchens, and disabled artists to watch.
Minor spoilers for the recent Disney+ series Extraordinary follow in the essay below. If you’d like to skip and come back after you’ve watched the show, scroll down to check out the creative prompt on “the perfect kitchen” and this month’s artist to watch!
“What makes you special?”
This job interview question kicks off the first episode of Extraordinary, a superhero comedy set in a world where (almost) everyone gains a superpower when they turn 18. Our protagonist, Jen, played by Máiréad Tyers, is one of the rare unlucky citizens of this alternate London: she’s never developed a power, for reasons no one can discern, though an exorbitantly expensive clinic is happy to take her money with the vague promise that, failing all else, she will at least “feel” like she has one.
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Without any of the enhanced skills that have become the new normal, Jen can’t secure employment that adequately covers her bills or provides a fulfilling professional path forward. She’s pitied by relatives and acquaintances, ghosted by romantic interests who can simply fly away, and struggling to find her place in a society where, even though everyone’s acquired superpowers vary wildly and are often hyper-specific, her lack of a power indelibly marks her as other.
Jen isn’t a disabled character, but her ongoing struggles with work and finances, her frustration with the arbitrary nature of the privileges those with powers are given, and the prevailing societal attitudes toward her “condition” echo some of my own experiences with disability. There’s nothing wrong with Jen—she’s self-centered (not uncommon for a character in their mid-20s) and prone to disastrous hijinks, sure, but it’s the construction of what it means to be capable in this superpowered-world that causes her feelings of inadequacy and shuts her out from success.
Extraordinary redefines our conception of ability by moving the goalposts. In a world where others can turn back time or hurl huge objects across football fields, what does it mean to be “normal” or “able”? Normative ability can’t be defined when we see background characters walking up walls and shapeshifting, or when dead people are described as “life-challenged” because they can only appear through people, like Jen’s roommate, who have the power to channel them.
The powers in the show are random and often vexingly particular—one man can summon fish, though he can’t control them. Another character becomes magnetic at unpredictable and inconvenient moments. These powers are played for comedy, but they’re also a great illustration of the quirks and foibles we all have. Every character in Extraordinary must learn to navigate the world with their unique set of skills and limitations, and their powers don’t grant them automatic superhero status or cover all their needs. Most characters in the show deal with their powers in exactly the way you’d expect under capitalism: they attempt to use them for economic gain or are exploited and tokenized for them even as they try to distinguish themselves in other ways.
Some of these powers are intertwined, at times, with disabilities. A couple of characters use headphones, their own form of assistive technology, to manage their telepathy or super-sonic hearing. Jen’s sister, a violin prodigy, sees her life fall apart because her super strength robs her of the ability to play the delicate instrument. A stray cat Jen takes in turns out to be a shapeshifting man played by Luke Rollason who’s been in feline form for several years, and essentially functions as a neurodivergent character—he’s become unfamiliar with the workings of the human world and must learn how to function again from scratch. “There’s too much everything,” he tells a helpful pharmacy employee played by disabled comedian Jo Coffey in one scene. “I’m sorry, I’m useless.”
“We all learn at our own pace,” she reassures him, and he later starts using a tape recorder to store reminders for himself about aspects of the society he’s moving through. When Jen expresses annoyance about the device, he says he’ll continue using it regardless, stating simply: “It helps me learn.”
As a comics fan, I was glad Extraordinary largely avoided the ableist tropes and pitfalls that plague the genre, a topic I’ll get into more in a future Quack. All too often we see facial difference, limps, scars, or various other signs of disability function as markers of villainous characters (as this analysis by disabled writer Keah Brown for Inverse demonstrates). So I was immediately on edge when the interviewer in Extraordinary’s opening scene—the one who asks Jen what makes her “special,” and the second character we see—is shown wearing a black eyepatch, sitting in a glass-walled, high-rise conference room that could well serve as an evil mastermind’s lair.
My expectations for the scene, however, were subverted: it’s a run-of-the-mill interview, and the woman’s power—to compel whoever she’s addressing to tell the truth—isn’t some commentary on her disability or a method of correcting it. Her power inadvertently reveals Jen’s ableism, but Jen’s babbling assumptions about the interviewer only reflect her own ignorance. Shaun Mason, an actor with facial scars, later appears playing Randall, a character who’s just as morally ambiguous as pretty much everyone else on the show. He’s not a villain—he’s just a guy who joins a superhero gang and does a little crime on the side, figuring, as he earnestly puts it: “They cancel each other out, don’t they?”
I don’t know whether series creator Emma Moran consciously engaged with disability while constructing the show, but certain details made me suspect someone behind the camera might have. Various sight gags fill the background of scenes—a man who’s (literally) smoking like a chimney, a comic book shop that’s shuttered now that superpowers are real—which speaks to careful consideration about the set-up of the production and the casting of minor roles. Disabled actors make a few appearances throughout the series, which shouldn’t register as anything significant, but certainly does, to me, when so few of the disabled characters we see are played by disabled actors. Seeing visibly disabled actors on screen, particularly in roles that focus on something other than their disability, is rare enough that I know it must be a choice whenever it happens. As a former child actor who was told to do my best to conceal my limp from talent agents and directors, I know firsthand how difficult pursuing work as a disabled performer can be.
I don’t read Extraordinary as a precise parallel for disability: Jen’s neither facing the structural inequities that disabled people encounter nor dealing with physical pain and complications. Yet, just like many disabled or neurodivergent people, she’s pressured to pass—her mom lies about Jen having powers so she won’t embarrass the family—and ostracized for her difference. Jen eventually meets another woman whose powers are late to arrive, and they bond instantly about the “pitying look” they receive when people find out about their condition. They share unsolicited advice they’ve received, like “it’ll happen when you least expect it,” reminding me of the many times strangers and acquaintances who were convinced they had a cure for my lifelong disability tried to force treatment options on me. Far too many people expect disabled people to be doing their best to become as much like abled people as possible, and only recognize disabled achievement when it is deemed “extraordinary.” In this ableist worldview, the pinnacle of our success is “overcoming” our disabilities, no matter what it costs us, or what else it is we might want to accomplish.
When that interviewer in Extraordinary’s first scene asks Jen what makes her special, she answers, truthfully, that she doesn’t know. She’s referring to the fact that she still has no idea what her power is, but it could apply to all of us, because the value of our abilities is subjective and changeable. What doesn’t shift is our inherent worth: a lesson that Jen is slowly learning, even in a world where people have powers she might never possess.
Food for thought: I would love to see Extraordinary introduce a central character with a disability and think through the specifics of their life—how adaptive devices and accessibility in cities might shift with powers, the accommodations in workplaces that might become commonplace—with the same care and cleverness Moran has brought to the stories in the first season of the show. How would a disabled person feel about the myriad societal changes that are made for mutations that are seen as “positive” when the inertia of ableism surely persists?
Until the next Quack,
The Perfect Kitchen: An Exercise
There are a few domestic spaces that can be particularly fraught when you have a disability: bathrooms (slippery, filled with hard surfaces and built-in obstacles like inaccessible showers and sinks), bedrooms (where furniture often isn’t designed for disabled bodies), and, of course, kitchens. While the kitchen can be an oasis for many of us, a place to come together for a meal or enjoy some cathartic cooking, it’s rarely designed with the needs of disabled or neurodivergent people in mind. Counters can be too high, fridge drawers can be too low, cabinet doors can be too heavy, timers are set up by default for the seeing and hearing, and appliances can be difficult to work with arthritic fingers and joints like mine.
Last year I saw Emily Barker’s installation Kitchen (2019) at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, which simulates the experience of moving through an inaccessible kitchen in a wheelchair for standing viewers. In an example of the kind of disabled innovation I love to encounter in art, they crafted the piece out of a transparent plastic material based “not on novelty but constraint,” explaining that “the material is very light-weight; I can work with it from my chair. If it were any heavier, I wouldn’t be able to cut the vacuformed pieces out, let alone rivet them together and install them. It’s very important to me to have that creative control and agency. The result is metaphoric, atmospheric, but also practical.”
I love to cook, but I often find it exhausting and overwhelming, especially as someone who has rented my whole adult life and ended up with random kitchen lay-outs. I’m excited to talk about the new book Crip Up the Kitchen: Tools, Tips, and Recipes for the Disabled Cook by Jules Sherred in a future Quack, but for now I want you to use this month’s exercise to envision your ideal kitchen.
Whether you’re disabled or not, take a sketchpad, pull out pictures from a magazine, record a voice memo, make a tactile collage, or screenshot examples online to put together your perfect place for preparing food and hosting a meal. Do you like having certain implements close at hand? What kind of seating and lighting do you require? This isn’t only about needs, but about preferences: what do you like to cook most? When do you prepare food? What kind of gadgets are must-haves? If you don’t cook frequently or at all, what do you desire from a dining space? Go wild—there’s no budget, and no limit to the technology you can invent to make this your ideal kitchen.
Examine your plan once it’s completed. How does this compare to the layout of the kitchen space in your current home? Is there anything you’d alter if you were designing it for your body ten years from now? Twenty? How well does this design work for the various members of your household? Are there features that can be adapted as different aspects of your life shift, or that are flexible depending on who is accessing the space?
We often let our built environments control our thinking, believing them to be immutable, but our basic templates for what these spaces look like are always shaped by factors like our culture and class. Kitchens and dining spaces vary widely across the world, so what would you build if you could dispense with preconceived notions of what yours should be? Who would you invite in and how would you set up the space for them?
Bonus: Some Interstellar Travel
In last month’s creative prompt, I asked you to imagine a planet where the majority or all of the inhabitants share a particular form of disability or neurodivergence. When I ran this exercise in a creative writing workshop, we expanded it outward: visiting each other’s planets, and thinking about how accommodations and culture would vary between worlds. We discovered similarities in the societies we designed, like public stations with free and shareable canes and wheelchairs that several of us put into mobility disability-centric worlds. Designing for access often becomes more intuitive as you practice it, so I encourage you to keep expanding this accessible universe!
Artist to Watch: John Wiswell
I’ve been a fan of John Wiswell’s writing for a long time, even before his many well-deserved nominations and awards in the speculative fiction field. I first wrote about his work in 2019 for Tor.com, and was impressed from first read by the sincere and refreshingly funny way his stories handle the peculiarities of being a person (or a sentient tank).
John is an immensely talented writer who brings humor, warmth, and realistic depictions of the disabled experience into his fiction. I particularly love how he plays with and transforms science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes in his stories, constantly examining them from new and unexpected angles, which to me is one of the hallmarks of disability and creativity.
I highly recommend you check out John’s Nebula and Locus Award-nominated short story “D.I.Y,” available on Tor.com. It’s a tale about disabled characters existing in an oppressive, exploitative system, who decide to do what so many of us do when those in power set up arbitrary barriers to access: reject the rules and figure out how to fix things themselves. Find out more about John’s work on his various platforms here.
I have a new short story about science gone horribly awry coming in Fall 2023 in the anthology Greater Than His Nature from Atomic Carnival. For the open submissions, editor Eirik Gumeny is particularly interested in stories from disabled and chronically ill writers, and you can still submit until Friday, June 30! If you’ve got a tale of monsters, mayhem, and medical trauma, this may be the home for it.
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