Friday, 1 May 2009

Romance is a Special Need

(Blogging Against Disabilism - The main page of which can be found here. I'm not officially submitting, though.)

What a coincidence that the Katawa Shoujo demo just came out!

The game, which iirc was originally devised as something of an art joke on 4chan that some people decided to run with, is a "disabled girl dating sim", which sounds creepier than it actually is. Each girl is 'unusual' in some way - one's blind, one's deaf, one has no legs, one has no arms, etc. The player character is also suffering from a newly-diagnosed disability, a serious heart condition requiring a lot of medication and monitoring.

But other than that, it follows a standard high school romance game formula. The girls fall into the traditional romantic archetypes and - with one exception, which I'll get to - their disabilities really don't make a bit a of difference. Sure, they come up in text, sometimes in unexpected ways, when a character goes about some task in an unusual manner. And the main character wrestles with not wanting to admit his problems (even to himself) and not knowing how to talk to other people about their abilities. But players will generally end up liking and choosing a girl based on her personality, not fetishing the disability. Simply interacting with the characters makes the case for 'differently' abled more clearly than words. (I'm not saying the game is some shining beacon of a tolerant society. It WAS originally designed as a 'silly' fetish, after all, and some people have a big problem with the whole concept of dating games, and it's obviously only scratching the surface of ability/disability. Just that it's more positive than you might think.)

Now, while it's not based on a real story or setting in any way, so there's no such place to criticise - it did start to feel odd after a while to have the idea of a school for the disabled, when they're all so very different and many of them are meeting their needs with the help of other students, not the staff. Sure, a large number of people with extra needs might want to have a nurse on hand and some extra equipment for physical therapy... but really, ANY boarding school should have at least a staff nurse (isn't that legally required in most places). And more specialised medical care would be problematic to provide with, as noted, everyone having such different needs. Mostly, what the school provides is an environment where everyone's aware that their fellow students have varying levels of ability in different ways and might need some extra allowance once in a while.

Stepping outside the world of the video game - Shouldn't ALL schools have that? Is it really so difficult for us to look at each other and agree that we have different strengths and different weaknesses? That one person needs extra time to get to classes because she has trouble with stairs, and that another person can't eat carbs because they make her sleepy? And that your needs do not make you a 'freak'?

The exception - the character whose disability does overwhelm all interactions with her, and who seems problematic within the story - is Shizune, the deaf Student Council President. Apparently, she can't speak or lip-read, and no one in the school except for one other student seems to have bothered to learn sign, and that student follows her around constantly interpreting both directions. Since the game developers cannot animate proper signing, it can be difficult for the player to get a sense of Shizune's communication.

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