I was twenty-four in May of 2019 when Jeremy Scott’s The Ables was released. Back then, I was a big fan of his YouTube channel CinamaSins, and once I heard the book’s plot, I became even more excited. The story follows a group of kids with various disabilities who have superpowers and are going to school to learn how to harness them. “A book about kids with disabilities and superpowers,” I thought, “and the plot (at least according to the book jacket isn’t about them “overcoming” their disabilities. This is going to be awesome!” This is the book that made me decide to start using Audible because I got credit for a free book. Little did I know I would be very happy that I used that credit because The Ables would be the most disappointing book I’ve ever read, all due to the seeming lack of one thing; sensitivity readers.

For those who are unaware, a sensitivity reader is to quote Alberta Edmonton from “Writing, Editing, and Publishing Indigenous Stories,” “someone who reads for offensive content, misrepresentation, stereotypes, bias, lack of understanding, etc. They create a report for an author and/or publisher outlining the problems they find in a piece of work and offer solutions on how to fix them. By doing this, the literary quality of work is substantially improved.” I learned from an article titled, “Empowered: Spotlight on Jeremy Scott,” from Publisher’s Weekly that “Scott channeled his own experiences with hearing loss, anxiety, and depression to write about how certain characteristics that are considered deficits can belie hidden strengths. “‘I definitely connect to the characters and their frustrations with how the world reacts to disabilities, and, like my characters, I have learned that I can be ‘able’ just the way I am.’” Although I love his sentiment, being that it doesn’t seem he consulted any blind people for the book, I don’t think it came across in the way he intended.

Let’s start with the main character Philip. He was born completely blind in the 21st century, but we’re never given a name for his condition. It is very rare nowadays for someone to be born COMPLETELY blind (usually, at the very least, having light perception if not more functional vision), let alone not to have a name for their condition. However, no such condition is ever named for Philip’s blindness. He’s TWELVE. He has to have a name for his condition by now. He could have just been born prematurely, like me, and have Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). It doesn’t seem Scott put any thought into how Philip’s blindness works. This is very important, not just to add realism to the story, but because some conditions can cause life-long issues, such as eye pressure or sensitivity to light. Now, these aren’t anything that would necessarily change Philip’s vision, but they would have made him much more relatable and realistic. Another thing that isn’t realistic is how Philip talks about his blindness.

For all disabled people, our disability isn’t all we are. It varies from person to person, but our disability is always only part of who we are, not our entire identity. Also, depending on how long we’ve had our disability and how much it applies to the current situation, we talk less or more about it. We also don’t think about it much, especially when it’s obvious whether our disability applies to the situation. It’s not like it’s a part of our inner monologue. Kids are smart. They’d be able to figure out why this or that wasn’t mentioned or why Philip (or the other blind character James) did something one way instead of another. At the very least, it would be more realistic if they had to explain that kind of stuff to others. For example, I don’t talk to myself about why I use VoiceOver or braille. I just use them. I only discuss it with either sighted people, explaining the gist of what it is, or with other blind people, where we go into detail about how we configure our phones and other things that might be different between how we each use tech or whatever. It doesn’t make sense for the monologue to keep bringing things like this up. What’s even more insulting, however, is how other characters and the story treat all the main characters.

Why are all the main characters in a Special Ed classroom!? This isn’t the 1950s! This book came out and took place in the 2010s. Phillip says he was in a mainstream classroom back in New York, so why do they shove all of the disabled kids in one room like its before the ADA was signed? This was the first thing that got me angry when I first read the book. Yes, I was separated from the mainstream for most of my grade school career, not the entire time, but this was that at least a decade before The Ables took place, and I know for a fact this wasn’t the case for many disabled people. Along with this, some inner thoughts from Phillip are also quite ableist, in my opinion. For example:

“Delilah Darlington sat directly in front of me. She had super hearing, but she was also deaf. I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever heard” (pg. 33). There are similar comments made about a girl who is allergic to sunlight, and Donnie, a boy with Downs Syndrome. Phillip thinks he’s scary because of how big he is. The difference between Donny and the girls is that, although he doesn’t have much personality or participation in the plot until the very end, he does interact, and spend a good amount of time with, the main cast. This means that Phillip’s initial thoughts of him are proven wrong. This is not the case for the girls, who seem to exist to say, “oh, see, there are girls in this class,” but since they’re not real characters, the “Saddest thing I’d ever heard” opinion is never disproven, and thus presumed fact by the book’s logic to the reader. I have no problem with characters saying or thinking things like this, as long as the book disproves them at the end, but, at least when it comes to Delilah and Penelope, this doesn’t happen. The main group, which is all boys, never asks them how they feel about their disabilities, so they are characters that we never learn about as people. We’re only given Phillip’s opinion on their lives. This is the exact issue I presume Jeremy was trying to stop, but he ended up perpetuating it instead, even in a small way, at least in this instance.

The next issue the book portrays is, at least, the analogy I use, disabled kids participating in sports. But, of course, this isn’t any regular sport. It’s called the SuperSim, a city-wide competition to help kids learn how to use their powers and become heroes because, of course, disabled kids aren’t competent enough to use their powers properly. The excuse given as to why the group can’t participate originally is that it’s “for your own safety and protection” (pg 62), but they go to court, invoking the ADA, and obviously, they are permitted into the SuperSim, or else they’re wouldn’t be any more story.

While I don’t like how predictable it is that they get into the Super Sim, I do like how blatantly it demonstrates how able-bodied people think disabled people are incapable of thinking things through and doing them safely, just like anybody else. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me something obvious about how to do, say, laundry in my own house like I don’t clean my own clothes every week. Yes, the kids may have to be more cautious about doing things, which, considering all the kids are learning how to use their powers, they all should be, but that doesn’t mean that disabled kids should be excluded, especially when, according to the rules of the game, they have to be in a team anyway, meaning they can all naturally compensate for each other. They actually mention this right after they learn about the Super Sim. Although Phillip is all excited about it, and his new friends are a bit skeptical, he explains that, with the mix of all their powers, they can be a good team. However, in the end, how Jeremy Scott goes about this falls into one of the worst tropes when it comes to disability in media; magical cures.

Now, I will admit the way Scott goes about doing this is interesting. See, Philip’s classmate Henry can read minds, and another member of the group, Bentley’s, superpower is enhanced intelligence. So he comes up with the idea that Henry can use his mind-reading power the opposite way, transferring what he senses into other peoples’ minds. This is a very interesting concept that doesn’t happen (at least in my experience) much in books, not unless there are more telepaths in the workings. Normally, this would be a great idea. However, it doesn’t make sense because of who they chose to do it with.

Before we go further, there’s something I need to explain. Something very important sighted readers need to understand is that when you are born completely blind or go blind very early in life, you have no perception of anything. You don’t see darkness; you see nothing. It’s like trying to see through the back of your head; there’s nothing to be visualized. For most people, their brains forget everything about vision because it’s a waste of energy and brain space. Though have sight in my left eye, this is how my right eye is. I have nothing in that eye. I have no concept of what depth perception is other than the definition because I’ve never had a vision in that eye, so my brain turned it off. It’s the same as trying to see through the back of my f nothing there. This is very different from people who go blind later in life. To varying degrees, they’ll still be able to see something, depending on their condition, how late in life they went blind, and, depending on how long it’s been since they lost/started losing their sight, they’ll have varying amounts of sight memories. The latter is the case for James, the other blind character aside from Phillip, who, although it’s not specified when he went blind, is stated to have some memory of sight. This is not the case for Phillip.

On page 105, Bentley says to Phillip, “‘Your brain’s still capable of processing images, but you just don’t have any receivers. Your eyes don’t work. You can’t take in the signal of an image. See, the eyes just send what they capture to the brain for processing, and that’s where the image is made. So even though you’re without vision, if Henry’s powers can serve as the signal carrier to your mind, you should be able to ‘see’ what he sees, so to speak.’” I’m afraid that’s not right.

As stated above, we’re not given a name of Phillip’s condition, so I can’t tell you what he went blind from, but we know he went blind early enough that he has no memory of sight. He sees nothing at all (not even darkness) and nothing visual through his mind’s eye. This means the way Scott chose to do this makes no sense. It would’ve made sense with James but not Phillip. It’s not that his mind just isn’t getting visual information like James’ mind presumably can; Phillip’s mind literally isn’t built to process visual information, like a computer with a monitor or graphics card. I suppose it’s not impossible for him to learn how to, but even if that’s true, he definitely couldn’t do it in the short amount of time he does in the book. James could at least relearn to process visual stimuli, but Phillip cannot.

All of this adds to my annoyance at this book because I was very excited to see a blind kid with superpowers fight, which is not something you see very often. What makes it worse, though, is that, for some reason, I expected this to happen without any magical cures. Phillip would just be a kid, who was blind like me, who learned how to use his telekinesis to fight in his way, just like how blind people in real life have to adapt in their own way. It may not be what sighted people do. Yeah we may not be able to do things as quickly as others, and we may need help every once in a while, but this doesn’t mean we can’t do things. Everyone has something they can’t do. It’s just ours may be more obvious, like not being able to drive. There is also the fact that, in many ways, our disability makes us a lot better at adapting and thinking outside the box than sighted people. Here are some examples of how I think Phillip and his friends could use his powers as fully as possible without magically curing his blindness:

  1. On page 36, when describing how James needs to be familiar with where he wants to teleport or have a very good description of it from someone else, Phillip says it’s “not dissimilar from the way that I needed some familiarity with an object before I could move it with my brain.” With this in mind, here’s my idea; have Phillip carry around small objects to throw at people with his mind. Then, he could practice with the group how far and how hard to throw said objects and when needed, use their eyes for judgment during fights.
  2. As an addition to number 1, have Bentley use his chemistry set to make balls for Phillip to throw and immobilize people.
  3. It may not make sense for Henry to send visual information to Phillip, but what about the other five senses? Many sighted people don’t pay as much attention to their other senses and don’t know how to get as much information when they do. So, if Phillip isn’t with Henry, he could still help him get information that Henry might not notice. They could do espionage! That would be awesome!

On pages 32 and 33, the student’s teacher tells Phillip in front of the class, “You see, Mr. Sallinger, everyone in this room has a unique combination of ability and disability.”… “some might say that this creates special challenges for you … hurdles for you to overcome. And that’s probably true. Others–myself included–would suggest that maybe it also offers you special opportunities that most students within these walls will never have.`” What bothers me the most about the, for lack of a better term, magical cure for Phillip’s blindness is not only that it doesn’t make sense but that it contradicts what the book is trying to express. There aren’t cures for many blind people in real life, and even if someone can get more sight, there are those, like myself, who don’t want a cure. So seeing characters that are like us not have to work through problems like we do in real life hurts. It doesn’t allow us to see ourselves as well in media when we’re not represented properly and, whether intentionally or not, teaches readers, both blind and sighted, that blind people aren’t capable of doing X, Y, and Z unless they can see, which, considering my previous sentence, that is most likely impossible and/or unwanted. In real life, we run into barriers due to a combination of our blindness and, more so, society’s lack of accessibility. However, through life experiences, ones that I’m sure both Phillip and James have had, we learn how to be creative and adapt to situations. Many times, this allows us to come up with ideas sighted people wouldn’t because they don’t have to. This is what, to me, the teacher means when she says that the student’s unique combo of disability and superpower gives them “special opportunities.” Sadly, due to faults in the writing process, it doesn’t live up to its potential.

All the examples of what could have been done other than having Phillip be able to see only came from me, one blind person. If there had been blind sensitivity readers involved in the process of writing this book, they could have added even more to it. I’m just one blind person, and although I have more experience with blindness than Scott, I don’t represent all blind people. Even I would want more blind people to critique my book if there were blind characters in it. I know Jeremy has experience with disability, being hard of hearing and having mental issues, but this doesn’t mean he understands other disabilities, even ones similar, or even identical, to his own. Everyone is different; they have different disabilities, which could have different causes, they have different life experiences, which affect how they view their disability and, as with everyone, are completely different people, so the larger and more diverse the pool of sensitivity readers, the better the work will be.

I love the message of The Ables. “You’re capable. Despite what society may say, you can do whatever you want.” I love this message, and I’m glad the book exists for those who needed to hear it and were not hurt by the issues within the work. However, this is not the case for me, and I know from reviews online that I’m not alone. Having Phillip be mostly cured of his blindness period, let alone right before the most interesting part of the story (the part that made me read it in the first place), bothers me too much to call this book good. Unfortunately, it is more of a lesson on what not to do than anything else, at least when it comes to blind representation. It also doesn’t do female representation well, as discussed earlier, and falls into many tired tropes not related to disability. Along with this, smaller issues come up as well, things that a sighted person, or at least one with no connection to blindness, would not pick up on, such as Phillip reading braille comics. There are no braille comic books. Also, again with the time period in which the story takes place, doesn’t he have a braille display to read books on his phone? If he’s like me, he’d certainly have one by his age. It’s these small details that are how I can tell there were either no, or not enough, blind sensitivity readers for this book, and this is what caused all of my issues! I really wanted to like it, but no proper research was done, and considering the main character is blind, that’s kind of important to do. If Phillip and James only showed up for a bit or were secondary characters, I wouldn’t be so mad about this, but he’s the main character, so I don’t feel the right amount of effort was put into the blindness representation.

At the very least, I hope anyone who has read the book and/or who will read this learns something about writing minority characters and the necessity of sensitivity readers. Even if you think you know something, even if you are a member of the community your character is a member of, you need more people in that community to give you feedback to make sure you are writing the characters as well as you can. As I said earlier, the more sensitivity readers, the more feedback you have, the better your book will be, and that will benefit everyone.