Disability and Immigration

Disability and ImmigrationA review of “Crew 255” by Claire Humphrey in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction, edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Crew 255”, Claire Humphrey uses steampunk to comment on the interrelationship between immigration, disability, and ethnicity. After an explosion of an airship in Toronto, people are brought into the city from other countries to clear the rubble and begin the rebuilding process. Emiliana is brought in along with immigrating populations from an Azorean village. The villagers are all men and Emiliana feels as though she is an outsider amongst the men not only because of her gendered difference but also because she is the only one among them with a disability. Emiliana has had prosthetic arms called “graspers” for over a decade before coming to Toronto. The graspers are made of brass, and they provide extra strength for lifting, allowing her to be a strong worker, but she needs to deal with the process of being ‘Othered’ by the able-bodied, male crew. 

Like many people with disabilities, Emiliana is faced with the challenge of staring, being constantly looked at for her physical difference. Staring is more than a passive act of looking, but is, instead, an act of treating someone as an outsider and treating their body as something that can be viewed and treated as a specimen. The act of staring tries to render the disabled body as something that is passively looked at. At times, Emiliana finds herself gazing at others who use prostheses, but when they react as though they are being stared at, she shows her own prostheses to convey the idea that she is looking at them to create a sense of community rather than staring at them. 

Unlike some narratives of steampunk prostheses, “Crew 255” is not about the prosthetic creating a superhuman. Rather, Claire Humphrey illustrates the extra time and effort Emiliana has to go through to maintain her prosthetic arms – having to regularly clean the rubble out of them, polish them, prevent them from freezing by using mittens, and keeping the joints nimble. Despite their fictional nature, her graspers convey some of the complexity of prosthetic use.

By exploring the role of Emiliana as a worker who is female and disabled, Humphrey brings attention to the current issues facing people with disabilities seeking to immigrate to Canada. Many people with disabilities have historically – and continue to be – considered to be undesirable immigrants to Canada. Tied up in this un-preferential treatment of people with disabilities are assumptions that the disabled are unable to contribute meaningfully to the Canadian economy. Governmental bodies assume that the disabled represent a potential economic drain rather than economic assets and a large part of this assumption is related to the belief that people with disabilities can’t work at the same levels as the able-bodied and therefore can’t contribute to the economy of the country. “Crew 255” resists this portrayal by instead presenting a person with disabilities working hard and organizing the labour of her colleagues. Emiliana is portrayed as a person who not only contributes to her new country, but also works in the jobs that other Canadians consider undesirable. In doing so, Humphrey points out that when people immigrate to Canada (especially when they are people with disabilities), they are often underemployed and only given jobs that are un-preferred. Emiliana and the rest of Crew 255 are working to rebuild Canada and reconstruct it, re-shaping a decimated Toronto to create a space where they can live alongside other Canadians. 

To discover more about the work of Claire Humphrey, visit her website at http://www.clairehumphrey.ca
To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit Exile’s website at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html

And Dominik Parisien’s website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology

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