Being disabled means a life defined by assumptions. Assumptions from strangers about your ability, intelligence, or most brutally, your quality of life. Assumptions from medical professionals about your level of illness, health, or disability. If you've got a chronic illness, invisible disability, or are an ambulatory wheelchair user, then you can add constant assumptions about your able bodied-ness or whether you're actually disabled at all. These assumptions not only inform our day-to-day lives, but also the way that we view other people. While we're all doing our best to break the cycles of internalized ableism, we can still feel like we know the experiences of others based on little more than those assumptions, especially when it comes to those representing disabled people's experience in fiction.
Which brings me to Kaz Brekker, the anti-hero of Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows duology, and one of the lead characters in Netflix's upcoming Shadow and Bone series, on which Bardugo serves as an executive producer.
I discovered Kaz during quarantine and fell wholly in love. The quick witted, bitter, angry, vengeful, talented, complex, teenage cane user presented a kind of representation of disability I'd rarely seen. His swagger and confidence were supported by the cane, not present in spite of it, and his ability to use everyone else's underestimation of him to his advantage was inspirational. But his story is nothing like the usual inspiration porn that we get in representations of disability in media. Those stories — in both real life and fiction — are often centered around people "overcoming disability" or about disabled people who can remind able bodied people their lives aren't so bad and could be much worse. Instead, Kaz was the rare character who embraced his disability and pain as a part of himself, rather than something to be fixed via the magical means in the series’ fantasy setting.
Kaz Brekker was born in a since-shelved short story. Originally named Dirty Hands, the now beloved character began his life as a nameless merchant of sorts, a character Bardugo created to explore and subvert another cultural archetype. "The idea was somebody who would travel from village to village doing the work that nobody else wanted to, which is somewhat rooted in the history of Jews — of which I am one — and the idea that we will dirty our hands with with trade and whatever else you don't want to handle,” Bardugo told Refinery29 ahead of Shadow & Bone’s Netflix premiere.
It wasn't until later, as she began to write Six of Crows, that he became another facet of her own identity. She saw Kaz as a perfect fit for the crime heist, a sort of anti-heroic Sherlock Holmes for the grimy crime-ridden streets of Ketterdam. But the swagger and power of Kaz and his cane, Bardugo later realized, was something that she'd been seeking out for herself. Her degenerative bone disease meant she was now a cane user, but it wasn't until she finished reading her story that she realized that Kaz was a self-insert. "'Oh god, I've written a cane wielding anti-hero," Bardugo said with a laugh. "I guess I was writing myself into this book. I will candidly say a lot of Kaz's swagger has helped me on the days when I'm feeling self conscious or when, quite honestly, my own internalized ableism gets the better of me."
The concept of a young and brilliant cane-using criminal mastermind is one that spoke to many readers. But it also had some stumped: Bardugo has had fans tell her they'd envisioned Kaz as an old man but didn't know why. "I know why!" she said. "It's because you've never seen anyone in media with a mobility aid that isn't an ancient crone. I'm keenly aware of this because that was part of my hang up. And I didn't really recognise it until I was in it."
That idea of not recognizing our own internalized ableism or complicity in it is key to where the conversation goes next. Kaz Brekker is a key part of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone series, and the internet has been alight with conversations about the actor who plays him, Freddy Carter. If you make your way through all the thirst posts and fancams, you'll find a subset of fans who are disappointed and critical of the fact that the actor is apparently able bodied. Personally, as a disabled sometimes cane user, I was impressed with Carter's performance. It’s not only cool, collected, and complex, but it feels authentic to the experience of living with chronic pain. There are subtleties to the exhaustion Kaz clearly feels, as well as his struggles with trauma, and the way that he uses his cane.
So I was slightly surprised that in a show that has made such steps to build an inclusive cast and create a story that pays those characters respect and deals with their lives authentically, to read that Carter was apparently able bodied. While it's not something that's been explicitly stated, in a recent interview with Notion the actor talked about practicing his limp, implying that he at least doesn't have a limp or use a cane. It is important to note, however, that isn't the only disability or neurodivergence that Kaz lives with in the Six of Crows series.
When I brought up Carter's casting to Bardugo — who, according to an interview with The Daily Express was given final approval on some characters — she was eager to talk about those assumptions that often plague or shape our experience of disability. First, though, she wanted to make one thing clear. "If one of my readers is hurting, I don't want to dismiss that," she said. "But I would point out that we don't actually know. In the same way that we don't know if somebody is queer unless they're out. We don't know if somebody is suffering from chronic pain or if someone is dealing with a different kind of disability. And I don't think it's appropriate to put that on the table for discussion. I think that's unfair and intrusive."
As somebody who has been asked to put her disability on display, to put her trauma on display for the sake of somehow being granted a pass on writing ... it's important to me to be respectful of the actors and writers involved in this.
Six of Crows Author Leigh Bardugo
It's a point that rings painfully true for most disabled people. Often, if we look obviously disabled, we're othered and excluded, but if we don't have a visible physical disability or a diagnosis of chronic pain, we're constantly questioned and accused of faking our own experiences. We're regularly asked to perform our disability in order to be believed, or to prove we have a right to claim the label, or worse, to educate able bodied people. It's something that is close to Bardugo's own experience, as she was once quizzed on the likelihood of her ending up in a wheelchair by an over-intrusive journalist.
"As somebody who has been asked to put her disability on display, to put her trauma on display for the sake of somehow being granted a pass on writing, whether it's writing trauma in Ninth House or disability in Six of Crows, it's important to me to be respectful of the actors and writers involved in this," she explained. "All I can offer is that we did take this seriously and we do not have a roomful of straight, white, able bodied people writing these characters."
While Bardugo is clearly passionate about the route that Shadow & Bone showrunner Eric Heisserer took with the series, she's also understanding of the conversation around it. "This is all coming from a place of genuine care and love for the characters, and also for wanting to see yourself represented on screen. We get so little of this. Of course it's fraught and emotional." The writer was also very involved with preparing Carter for the role. "We did a lot of talking about the physicality of this part and how it related, not just in terms of the cane, the limp, and the chronic pain, but also in terms of touch aversion and PTSD, and addressing trauma."
While it is understandably frustrating to some fans to see an actor without a limp taking on Kaz, Bardugo raises a vital point that assuming able bodiedness is a perilous path to go down. It's also completely and utterly normalised to do so. In fact, it's encouraged by society. But seeing able bodied people as the default comes from an inherently ableist place, and it's clear that the author — while correctly unwilling to overshare other people's lived experiences or force them to perform publicly for their right to hold a role — obviously feels that Carter has a deep connection to the character that made him an authentic choice for Kaz.
Bardugo was keen to encourage what she called "a worthwhile discussion around disability, and the way it's represented in media" and said that she "would never want to put a damper on that." But she also has her own vision for how representations of disability can, and should, evolve.
"My hope is that what we'll really see is a lot more visibly disabled characters in media, so we get to have all kinds of people playing them, and hopefully playing them with authenticity and respect."
Shadow and Bone hits Netflix on April 23.