The machine has been finished for a month. Her hull is still shiny, the locks are still engaged and haven’t been opened since I finished building her.
We still haven’t gone anywhere together. She’s been waiting for me, gathering dust in the corner of the workshop.
My multitude of canes and wheelchairs – time-period appropriate – have been carefully collected. None of them bears a scratch of use.
My costumes are prepared for wherever I wish to go.
My computer is ready to do the calculations that I have studied and practiced over years.
I am ready to travel through time.
Yet one thing must be done before I can fly through the years, a list must be compiled, information must be collected from other time travelers in order to make the choices that will keep me alive and able to return to my own time. The choices that will let me remain a useful researcher rather than a corpse, like so many others who have chosen to blaze a path through time.
I must write a list for myself.
A list of the times to which I cannot go. It’s not an educated guess of where I might not make it, but knowledge of the past and the future, brought back with the corpses of disabled historians who thought they could cheat on the lessons of the past.
I cannot go back to 2035 in the United Kingdom, because if a mob spots me in my wheelchair, they will tear me apart, limb from limb, for sucking their economy dry.
I cannot go back to 1941 in America, because women will spit at me for not being drafted, while their sons and husbands are off fighting for their country. Marked with their contempt, worse things might follow.
I cannot go back to the Dark Ages, because despite present technology, my body may succumb to the Plague.
I cannot go back to the 1980s in the Western World because the AIDS virus will mark me as a carrier: the bodies of the dying laden with the virus look frail, weak, and skeletal. My body will make me an outcast, no matter what the signs of my condition actually mean.
I cannot go back to the Roman Era because they will leave me to die.
I could spend time in the Victorian Era of London, but I would have to do so as a beggar on the street. No research could be done besides that which results in ones face in the mud.
I cannot go forward to 2085, because my rights as a disabled citizen of the world will have been stripped away. The cold institutions where disabled people are kept are known to us, and many a disabled time historian has been snatched and locked away, “for their own good.”
I cannot go forward to 3015 because by then, disability will be outlawed. They will take me away, rip my body apart, and put it back together to their own liking. I will be made of metal, and electronic boards, my limbs reprogrammed to suit what is considered “normal.” Today, they don’t have the means to fix me, but in 3015? The tools of bodily reconstruction are at the disposal of those in power.
There are whole continents some of us cannot visit. Australia, especially pre-human Australia, is not a place a blind person wants to be — avoiding micro-spiders and snakes is not an easy thing. Wildlife in general can limit us depending on the disability in question: Whether it be the wolves of European forests stalking us as we hunt down the truth of Hansel and Gretel in the 1640s, or a tiger hunting someone studying pre-colonial India, or a plague-ridden rat in Spain.
As I mark my timeline with black dots, showing me where my body is not welcome, I discover that my machine and I may have few places to go. Few places to research, to experience time.
Unless I submit myself to inhumane treatments to further the history of medicine, unless I neglect my humanity and allow myself to experience the past’s prisons for my people – my contributions to the historical future will be few and far between.
I speak to others with machines.
The blind woman whose one eye is clouded with the colors of a tidepool tells me she cannot go earlier than 1900, for fear that she will be marked a witch or a sorceress.
She does not want to meet her end with the flames.
The Deaf woman I work with who only signs to communicate? She drops herself only into Deaf communities, her ability to experience other histories marred by the threat of being beaten for not speaking. She’s considered working as a servant during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but knows not responding to an employer could mean terrible things.
As I mark off where I am not welcome – where I am not allowed – I am reminded that not so long ago, our presence in this world was considered less than ideal.
Where does my body fit? In the present?
No. Even here, I am not safe from those who would cure me. They do not yet have the tools to “fix” me, but no one wants the “burden” of the disabled. Throughout history, we are a nuisance best left to poverty or medical intervention. At least now, at this moment, those in power have no legal right to my physical destruction.
In the past they want me to die, in past eras the world wishes to be rid of the inconvenience of my care.
In the future the world knows how to make it all better – even without our consent.
There is no place for us. We must carve it out of time.
That’s what we’ve always done, really. Created spaces when the world around us didn’t want us. Built lives out of worlds that weren’t built for us.
We seek those places in our machines too – finding societies where sign language never developed, wheeling our way into protests, crawling our way up the Capitol steps along with the rest of the protestors without working legs. We join those protestors, documenting their histories. And we give tools to those who don’t have them – changing the timeline for the better. Dangerous, yes, but worth it.
We are able to see some things other time travelers may not. Go into rooms able-bodied travelers wouldn’t be welcome in.
But here I sit in my workroom, placing black dots on my timeline, learning how my cohorts may have died, for until I know I can be safe on my journey, my machine and I will go nowhere together. Until I find safety, my fellows won’t either.
We linger at our fixed point in time – our imperfect home – hoping desperately that we will find a place where we are welcome, and that we do not make one more fatal mistake. We are searching for a place where our bodies are sacred and ours, where our consent matters.
We keep ourselves safe by remaining out of time.
About the Author
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a .5 deaf .5 blind writer from Seattle, Washington. She has a Master’s Degree in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared at Disability in Kidlit, XOJane, Offbeat Bride, The Women’s Media Center blog, and many other places. When not writing, she walks her hound dog on Revolutionary War battlefields with her husband. You can find her in Apex’s Upside Down anthology, at her site Feminist Sonar, or on Twitter @snarkbat.