Katawa Shoujo and a How to Guide for Referring to Individuals with Disabilities

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but during my lifetime, we experienced the transition into a politically correct society, and also the backlash against political correctness.  When we’re overly sensitive, we risk not only alienating people, but also making some stand out because of certain characteristics they possess.

The reason I bring this up now is because last week saw the release of the highly anticipated visual novel, Katawa Shoujo.  It’s available as a free download, and though the adult content has scared me off from trying it out (please feel free to ring its praises, or not, in the comments), I did play some of the demo version and certainly found the idea intriguing – a visual novel in which the characters are young ladies with disabilities.

Lauren Orsini has written extensively about how the game portrays those with disabilities, and other bloggers have given further comments about the games (including a wonderful personal reflection by 2DT).  My addition to these writings will, I hope,  connect the visual novel lover in you with a real life application – how to sensitively refer to individuals with the disabilities given in the game.   Instead of being PC, the suggestions below largely reflect the idea of people-first language, which avoids an emphasis on disabilities:

Katawa Shoujo EmiEmi Ibarazaki – Emi has had both of her legs amputated and uses prosthetic limbs.  This is a tricky landscape when it comes to semantics, as the amputee community still seems to be looking for comfortable terminology.  To follow the idea of emphasizing that Emi is an individual, not a “disabled person,” one could say she is a “person who uses prosthetics or prosthetic legs.”  Similarly, if she used a wheelchair, Emi would be a “person who uses a wheelchair” (note that she’s not “confined” – United Spinal (referenced below) states that a wheelchair is “liberating, not confining”).  When referring to the amputated legs, though it might sound strange, “stump” is often correctly used.  Some who don’t like that term might say “residual limb” instead.

Katawa Shoujo HanakoHanako Ikezawa – Hanako is a shy girl with extensive burns, or disfigurement, on her body.  She is not a burn victim, but instead, as the RTCIL suggests, a “young woman with burns” and a “burn survivor.”  Since Hanako is shy, it’s best to avoid speaking about her burns.  The same goes with any person with a disability; as with anyone, the openness in which personal items are discussed differs from individual to individual, with many preferring to only speak of them when he or she gets to know you.  Hanako and real-life individuals with burns may feel stigmatized; involve them in everyday activities and discussion to avoid perpetuating these feelings.

Katawa Shoujo LillyLilly Satou – Lilly is a young woman who is blind.  It’s perfectly fine to use the word “blind,” but only if that individual cannot see at all, and again in conjunction with the idea of putting the person first.  Otherwise, you can say that Lilly is a “person with a vision impairment.”  You can also express varying degrees of vision impairment with terminology like “low vision.”  If you have questions about assisting a person who is blind, United Spinal suggests identifying yourself, offering assistance, and describing the physical setting as you walk.  And don’t feel embarrassed if you use idioms like “see you later” or “good to see you” – people with vision impairment are likely to use those as well.

Katawa Shoujo RinRin Tezuka – Rin is a character who was born without arms.  Don’t refer to this as a “birth defect.”  “Congenital disability” or “developmental disability” is preferred.  Further, remember to again emphasize that individuals have disabilities instead of saying that they are disabled, which emphasizes the disability, and avoid use of the word handicap.  Also, don’t use euphemisms like “physically challenged” or “differently abled,” which one might be tempting to use to describe Rin, since she is an artist.  And of course, Rin is not “suffering” with a congenital disability; neither should she be called abnormal or a victim.

Katawa Shoujo ShizuneShizune Hakamichi – Shizune is neither able to hear nor speak.  As you may know, such individuals are part of a large, culturally rich community; in fact, there’s such pride in being deaf that the members of the group write the word with a capital “D.”  Because of this, “hearing impaired” may be an offensive term (compare to “vision impairment” with Lilly).  For those who retain some hearing ability, “hard of hearing” is fine.  Shizune is also a person who does not speak.  Avoid the outdated term, “mute,” and the more obviously insulting word, “dumb.”  And avoiding using the phrase “the deaf” (or in Lilly’s case, “the blind”), as this changes the focus from the individual to a generalization about a disability.

Katawa Shoujo ShiinaShiina MikadoWikipedia states that it’s unclear whether or not Shiina, the final major character, is a person with a disability, though ADHD and OCD have both been suggested.  Though I think many anime fans might embrace the idea of being hyperactive, it’s more sensitive to again say that Shiina is a person with ADHD (if that’s the case).  Some unkind posts present ideas that lead me to this conclusion: she may also have a learning disability.  Again, use first person language and avoid words like “slow learner.”   As for Shiina’s role as Shizune’s interpreter, you would speak to Shiina when you are addressing Shiina and to Shizune when you’re addressing Shizune (Shiina is Shiina!), regardless of the interpreting.

The suggestions above may seem a bit overwhelming, but most of the ideas can be summed in one idea: treat the people with disabilities as…people.  Each is an individual with a disability, not a disabled individual.  And I think when we think in terms like this, we understand that we aren’t being oversensitive – we are showing love by being kind.  Perhaps in a most unlikely format, the visual novel, we’ll find a way to better love others.  Emi, Hanako, Lilly, Rin, Shizune, and Shiina are more than what they’ll be used for – they are a gateway to teaching us about kindness.


49 thoughts on “Katawa Shoujo and a How to Guide for Referring to Individuals with Disabilities

  1. Charles, I’ve got good news for you! Not only does the demo not contain any sexual content, but the finished product allows you to turn off H scenes if you prefer. I haven’t decided whether I will leave them on or not– thanks to the Internet I’ve seen everything, and I don’t know whether it’ll affect the plot.

    Very informative post. I don’t think I put any thought into which terms I used for each girl’s disability when writing about the game. I should go back and see if I said anything offensive!

    1. I’m glad that the post was informative! I learned a lot while writing it.

      And thanks for the information, Lauren! I may go and download it, then. I have to say, though, that besides those certain scenes, I definitely feel strange playing a visual novel, where the goal is to establish relationships with girls. I might be wrong, but I imagine that if I really got into Katawa Shoujo, there’s a blurriness in the line between the main character’s personality and my own, as I would start to project myself into that role. As a married man, I’d feel dirty doing so – that’s probably not how most people feel, but it’s how I do.

      1. From what I hear, for each girl there’s a Love End, a Friend End, and a Bad End.

        So just aim for the Friend End! Ain’t nothing wrong with a nice guy like yourself making friends. Play with a pure conscience. 😉

          1. No as far I can tell. Which is why such thing doesn’t exist as a rule in Katawa Shoujo.

            2DT is mistaken. Most of the girls have 2 ends, a Good one and a Bad one, both romantically related.I believe only 2 girls have a 3rd end. And of these, I think only one have what it can be called “Friend End”, and I believe even this one is just a friendly break up from a non successful relationship (though I am not sure).

            Anyway, not every girl has a ‘Friend End”, this I know for sure.

      2. Is that really so different than projecting yourself onto the protagonist of a romantic novel or film? Or do you perhaps abstain from that as well?

        I don’t think that’s anything so dire, but I suppose we all approach these things rather differently.

        1. No, you have a good point. I certainly thought about that, but I feel there’s something more personal about a visual novel experience, and I do believe it’s purposely meant to be this way. Romantic novels are probably very similar, and I think have come under the same kind of criticism over the years (think of the stereotype of the housewife escaping through trashy romance novels).

          You’re right – we all approach these things differently. I know me, and I know how I would take such a work. I think I would connect to such a visual novel too closely and wouldn’t really care to take it any other way.

      3. I wanted to clarify a feel things, easier your worries about the game.

        First, although it is traditional to have bland main character so the player can ‘put themselves into the role’, this isn’t quite the case in Katawa Shoujo. Frankly, Hisao (the main character) is the weakest character in the story, however he has enough personality so you can see him as a character on his own. Furthermore, you do not guide him through all his decisions (just a few key ones), so he will end up doing things you wouldn’t ever do yourself, thus clearly separating him from you.

        Furthermore, it is not quite correct to say the “goal” is to “establish relationships with girls”. An the name of the genre imply, a Visual Novel is more of a “novel” then of a “game”. Think of it as reading a book, except there is many outcomes for the story, instead of a single one. This is why the “game” is not really considered complete unless you have seem all the possible outcomes, even the bad ones. A Bad End still tells a story on its own, even if a depressing one. You shouldn’t feel dirty about reading it any more then you would feel reading a romance novel (specially if you disable the adult content, which is very few, anyway).

        Finally, I think you will be pleased to know that a main theme of the story is Hisao realizing he shouldn’t think differently of people with disabilities, that he should just treat them naturally as the people they are, without neither ignoring nor making a big deal of their differences. This goes for himself too, and his new found Arrhythmia.

        All in all, I also found your post informative, thanks for that. I hope you can play and enjoy the game.

        1. Thanks for all the information. I certainly have very little experience with visual novels, so your comments gave me a broader idea about the medium in addition to providing specifics for Katawa Shoujo. I appreciate it! 🙂

  2. Wow, it seems like there’s so much to know! Sometimes I wish we could just make up new, easy words that had no negative connotations what so ever.

    1. Haha, yes. It’s difficult, in part, because we’re often simply ignorant of the connotation of these words. A person with a disability, of course, deals with these terms and ideas every day. And also, every person is unique and is different in how they feel about these semantics.

    2. Actually, it’s a little weirder than that. People with intellectual disabilities were originally called “idiots” or “insane,” then “developmentally retarded” to try and lessen the stigma of having such a disability. Except then even that was turned into an insulting word, and we had to change it again.

      Moral of this Story? People are Such Dicks. v___v

      1. They are, they are. And it’s insane both how so many still look upon those with disabilities with an incredulous and unfair eye, and even worse, as demonstrated through my wife’s experiences working with children that have special needs, the unfair and unjust preconceptions parents inbue in their children, and those that perhaps kids are even born with.

  3. This is a great article!

    You are spot-on with the part about deaf people. The reason why we usually hate the term “hearing impaired” is because it makes it sound like we can be “fixed” to become hearing. It implies that we need to be cured, and that’s certainly not the case since we can still function well enough even without hearing. ^_^

    1. I’m so glad! Sometimes when you’re researching about a topic of which you know little, it’s hard to differentiate the noise from what’s substantial.

      *looking forward to reading your thoughts on Katawa Shoujo*

  4. Thank you for posting this!

    I think the suggestions you make here are all great, and I can also agree from my own personal experience as a person with some hearing difficulties.

    I wasn’t going to try this VN out, but now I think I’m going to do so because I’m interested in seeing how the it handles the subject. Also, I hope you are right about this being a gateway to learn more about kindness, because that would be a great thing.

    1. You’re welcome! And I’d definitely be eager to hear what you think about Katawa Shoujo in light of your personal experiences.

  5. I love visual novels, and I’m definitely going to try this one out after reading your excellent article!

  6. Katawa Shoujo- so popular the server broke ><" Totally will be checking it out soon, though. Glad I was able to hear about it from here! It looks absolutely fascinating.

  7. If only you would have written this a day before I wrote mine… which would have meant that you’d have it up the same day that it came out, but still. I had a hell of a time referring to these characters in as delicate a way as possible, something that I didn’t quite succeed at as well as I would have hoped.

    Oh well, I haven’t received any angry emails or disapproving comments, so I must not have done anything terribly wrong.

    1. Thanks for the comment. It’s obvious that you tried to be delicate; in fact, I think you did a better job than I would have, at least prior to researching for this post.

  8. I haven’t read Katawa Shoujo yet myself (it’s on my list) but you really should take a look at the genre as a whole. Most of the time, the H-content is only added to attract a greater audience in Japan. There are so many excellent Visual Novels that you would miss if you skip all the ones with H-content. Ef, FSN, G-Senjou No Maou, etc, etc.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation – I definitely understand that the visual novel is a creative and often well-done form. I’ve found myself drawn to them in the past, though I’ve played very little (time, too, is a factor). Mostly, the reason I avoid title with such content, though, is two-fold: I’m married and I don’t think it’s being a very good husband to watch such content (not that I’m always a good husband…) and I take my faith seriously. And it’s no sacrifice for me to avoid these visual novels, no matter how good, because of how importance these two facets are to my life.

      1. There’s always the option of just completely skipping the scenes themselves with the skip button. Of course, if you really don’t want to get close to the adult-content then it’s perfectly understandable. Though I’d still recommend non-H visual novels like Clannad and Umineko No Naku Koro Ni which are both amazing.

        1. I’m definitely thinking about that option.

          Thanks for the recs…I do like the Clannad anime and I’ve heard that the visual novel is engrossing (and worth going through, even if one has already seen the series). I looked into Umineko No Naku Koro Ni a bit, and it sounds really interesting.

  9. Just think of visual novels as an anime that you’re directing the main character of. For instance, Clannad is almost unchanged in terms of actual story content and the main difference is that you’re privy to a lot more of the main character’s internal thoughts.

    Of course, not all visual novels are like this. One that I’m here to suggest you play is narcissu (and narcissu Side 2nd), which has a similar premise but goes in a completely different direction. I wrote about it last year and I think you’ll have lots of interesting things to say about what it tries to say. It’s linear, so there are no choices, it’s relatively short, and it’s free.

    1. Thanks for the comments – between yours and others, I think I’ve been persuaded, particularly in light of approaching visual novels in the point of view you mentioned.

      Narcissu sounds really, really interesting. Thanks for the recommendation – I think this may be the first I try.

  10. I’m having a blast playing it. I’m totally in love with Lilly, the blind girl. She’s a lot of fun to watch/read. Have you ever tried getting into a VN like this before? Maybe you should give it a real try first, see how you feel about it. If it makes you uncomfortable, just stop playing. 🙂

    1. I did play the demo long ago, and I remember thinking it was interesting. What I do think I might do is try an entirely different VN – Narcissu was recommended to me by blkmage (above) and it sounds like it might be up my alley.

  11. Excellent post. It’s important to be aware of the terms different groups prefer. Treating people like human beings is the most important thing to keep in mind. My roommate/best friend has a hearing loss. She gets by without hearing aids, but she can’t hear low frequency noises like the hum of a computer. She also can’t hear you if you try to get her attention from behind her. I actually get really mad when I see that people are annoyed with her because she can’t hear them. She prefers texting over phone calls because it’s easier for her to communicate and she actually thinks wearing hearing aids only make things worse for her. Because she didn’t grow up hearing a lot of the sounds that most other people do, she experiences many more purely silent moments, but if she wears hearing aids, all of those sounds are overpowering.

    I also work with someone at school who I believe has spine problems. I don’t actually know since it doesn’t really come up in conversation. She uses crutches with arm braces, but none of that bothers her at all. In fact, she often makes it a point to make jokes about people with disabilities in order to make everyone else feel awkward (she actually said that) and she has some interesting insights on how disabilities are portrayed in the media. All of this supports what you said about how each person has different levels of comfort.

    1. Thanks for the examples, Taylor – I’m glad to hear some feedback that’s personal. What I wrote above doesn’t have a face to it, largely because I don’t have any close friends with disabilities.

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