Breath & Shadow
Fall 2020 - Vol. 17, Issue 4
"There’s No Special Ed at Hogwarts"
Jennifer Lee Rossman
"It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa," Hermione says in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and that's the precise moment when I knew I would never be a wizard.
(Okay, if you want to get all technical about it, I knew I would never be a wizard when I learned there was no such thing as magic. But Sorcerer's Stone reignited a belief that anything was possible. Maybe not actual magic, but still.)
When I fell in love with the Harry Potter books, I was ten years old, my muscular dystrophy was starting to make it hard to lift my arms, and one of the ways my autism manifested was by making me situationally non-verbal: I didn't talk in front of anyone outside of my immediate family.
If the pronunciation of magic spells is so vital, that means magic is only for people who can talk. My voice worked just fine (if the frequency of my dad telling me to shut up is any indication), but it just... got stuck around strangers.
Oh, sure, there's the odd wizard who can cast spells just by thinking about them, but that's only possible after years of practice and isn't as effective as speaking the words.
Even if I could talk in front of other people, there was the whole bit about the proper movement of the wand. Swish then flick, right? But where did that leave kids like me, who had difficulty moving their arms? Does that mean I was too disabled to be a wizard?
Like all good books, the world of Harry Potter was an escape for me. I could pretend that there was magic in me, that I could do amazing things no matter what anyone thought.
When my father got drunk and emotionally abusive, I could pretend that there was a group of people out there who understood me, and that they would come and take me away. My fake Hogwarts life became something of an ongoing daydream running alongside my real life. I always knew it wasn't real, but it hurt less than the real one.
Except I couldn't be me, even in a fantasy world where people flew on broomsticks and could turn into animals, because deep down, Hogwarts was just like the real world: not made for people like me.
Look at how you gain entry to the common rooms of the four houses. Gryffindors have to tell the password to a painting. She might not technically be a person, but I don't think ten-year-old me would have been able to talk to the Fat Lady. Slytherins have a password, too... but their door is down in the dungeon and I don't think there's an elevator (indeed, the closest thing the castle has is the moving staircases, which, I'd like to point out, are still staircases and you're still expected to walk up and down them). Hufflepuffs need to tap on a barrel. Maybe I could do that, but only on a good muscle day.
Which just leaves Ravenclaw, which requires students to solve a riddle to gain entry. Other than being potentially prohibitive to people with intellectual disabilities, the books don't specify exactly how this particular common room is inaccessible, but I think it's safe to assume there's a lot of tight hallways, heavy doors, and a ban on plastic straws.
But did I change the fictional Hogwarts that existed in my imagination? Did I give myself a service dragon and reinvent a new kind of magic where you don't need to speak to cast spells?
Nope. Just like in real life, I tried to make myself as non-disabled as possible to fit in a world that didn't want me.
I pretended not to have situational muteness. I pretended not to need as much help lifting my arms. Like if I could just be the kind of person they wanted, everything would be okay. But that didn't work in real life, when I desperately tried to be less autistic so my father wouldn't yell at me, so why should it work at Hogwarts?
Granted, there were no alcoholic fathers screaming at me if I didn't play Quidditch exactly the way he wanted me to, but I still wasn't happy because I wasn't letting myself be me.
It wasn't until I got older that I really acknowledged the lack of disability in Harry Potter -- and in fantasy in general. Why isn't there a special ed at Hogwarts, teaching kids different strategies for casting spells? Why isn't there a levitating wheelchair Quidditch league?
Do disabled magic users never get their owls? Or maybe there's something more sinister going on. Maybe wizards have figured out magical "cures" for disability.
Madame Pomfrey fixed Harry's broken arm pretty fast. What's to say a baby born like me wouldn't have their muscular dystrophy and autism just magicked away? Anti-vaxers in the real world often put their children at risk of life-threatening illnesses for fear of them "getting" autism, and parents-to-be regularly screen for spinal muscular atrophy, often aborting affected fetuses with the intention of trying again for a "healthy" baby.
If people like me are seen as disposable in the real world, as being literally worse than death, is it any wonder that carries over into fiction?
Yes, there are some disabled people who long for the day a cure is invented that makes them fully able, and yes, there are parts of my life that are made worse for being disabled. But most of us are proud of our disabilities. It makes us who we are.
The real world has a problem with disabled people, but the solution can't be magically making us disappear. It has to be accepting us for who we are, recognizing our strengths and limitations, and doing everything possible to make things accessible for everyone.
In the real world, that's sometimes easier said than done. But isn't anything possible in fiction? Isn't it possible to create a system of magic that works just as effectively with verbal words as it does with a communication board and a laser pointer, or to design a fantastical castle fully equipped with elevators and automatic doors?
With a little bit of magic and a few disabled characters that are allowed to be disabled and save the day, maybe we can even change the way we're seen in the real world.
I'm thirty now. Still disabled, still autistic (but no longer nonverbal), still illogically waiting for my owl. But even if I did get my letter, I wouldn't go, because I'm done pretending to be the person Hogwarts wants me to be.
Jennifer Lee Rossman is a disabled author from Binghamton, New York, who has been described as a gay tornado made of sharks. Her work has appeared in over 30 anthologies, and someday she will have the energy to read them all. She tweets @JenLRossman