Recently I’ve been noticing a lot of characters in literature, tv, and movies who have disabilities. It’s not a new phenomenon, but I’m more aware of it than ever before. This post is my exploration of the representation of people with disabilities in fiction and how it relates to the relatively new field of disability theory.
Disabilities are often broken up into three categories: physical, intellectual, and psychological.
Here’s a list of a few fictional characters with physical disabilities:
1. Tyrion from Game of Thrones
2. Professor X from X-Men
3. Nemo (with his “lucky fin”) from Finding Nemo
4. Walter White Jr. from Breaking Bad
5. Timmy from South Park
6. Jake Sully from Avatar
7. John Locke from Lost
8. Gregory House from House
9. Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon
10. Joey Lucas from The West Wing
Fictional characters with intellectual disabilities seem rarer, but a few readily come to mind:
1. Benjy Compson from The Sound and the Fury
2. Lennie from Of Mice and Men
3. Charlie Gordon from Flowers for Algernon
4. Abed from Community (though it might be more appropriate to classify his disability as psychological not intellectual)
And finally, there are fictional characters with psychological disabilities. These are people who suffer from conditions such as anorexia, gambling, PTSD, hypochondria, and alcoholism. A list of fictional characters with those kinds of disabilities would go on forever. Fiction loves a good psychologically challenged character, so this category is well represented.
The Theory Behind Disability Studies
Many of the works of art showcasing these disabled characters do one or more of the following three things:
1. Raise awareness about various disabilities and the way they complicate people’s lives;
2. Attempt to de-stigmatize disability; and
3. Show ways in which society can be more helpful and inclusive toward people with disabilities.
Unsurprisingly, these three things are foundational to what has developed into Disability Studies and Disability Theory over the last twenty-five years. Similar to Feminist Theory and Queer Theory, Disability Theory is an exploration of how a minority population can gain power and make sense of its relation to society as a whole.
Disability theorists look at how people with disabilities have been treated throughout history and see the oppressive trends that have entrenched in our minds the basic fallacy that disabled people’s lives are worth less than non-disabled people’s lives.
For instance, in ancient times children with deformities were exposed to the elements and left to die; in the Judeo Christian era people with deformities were considered marked by sin; and in more recent times the eugenics movement took it upon itself to sterilize people with disabilities to prevent them from “weakening” the human race.
There has never been a time in which society accepted people with disabilities as equals to those without disabilities.
The goal of Disability Studies is to come up with a way in which disabled people can become the beneficiaries of equality and full personhood, and NOT by way of the tokenism, pity, charity, “tolerance” or paternalistic behavior modern society often falls back on as acceptable ways of handling disabled people. These well-intentioned methods of treating people with disabilities only help to make the gap wider between non-disabled people and disabled people.
But finding a better solution is challenging. The solution is not to ignore that disabled people are different, but to figure out how society can accept their differences and special needs while not relegating them to second class citizens or treating them like children.
Why It Matters in Fiction
Though in real life creating a new social model in which persons with disabilities are treated equally seems a long way off, speculative fiction opens up a space in which writers can explore the issue in various ways.
Consider the X-Men. One of the recurring themes is how the mutants should function among the rest of society. This can easily be seen as a metaphor for the same struggles the disabled community faces. Its members are stigmatized, ostracized, and often demonized. Throughout the comics and movies we see various potential solutions and failed solutions for how this minority community can be accepted. And X-Men isn’t the only fictional work the offers solutions. Here are some less obvious ones:
The Avatar Solution
James Cameron’s Avatar film hypothesizes that a future society might be able to transfer the consciousness of a person with a physical disability into an able-bodied avatar, thereby giving that person a level of autonomy he’d never be capable of otherwise. This presents us with one particular solution — a scientific solution — of how to promote equality between non-disabled and disabled people.
The How to Train Your Dragon Solution
How to Train Your Dragon presents a different model. When the protagonist, Hiccup, finds a dragon with a damaged tail he constructs a prosthetic tail to help him fly. (ALERT! SPOILER AHEAD)
When Hiccup himself loses part of his leg, he makes a similar prosthetic device for his own benefit. Though the prosthetic foot makes his life a little easier, what really helps is the support he gets from his comparably disabled dragon. So overall what the film proposes as a viable social solution is a blend of mechanical/prosthetic innovations along with the solidarity and support of a disabled community.
The Community Solution
Departing from the focus on physical disabilities we see in Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon‘s, the TV show Community focuses on social solutions to mental disability. A major theme throughout the show is how Abed — a character the show strongly hints as having Asperger’s Syndrome — is able to remain on equal footing to the non-disabled people who make up his social circle. Abed’s friends are aware of Abed’s particular mental differences, and sometimes his behavior and mannerisms delight them while other times they annoy them. Yet overall the group treats his as an equal.
How do they manage this? By speaking honestly and frankly to Abed about his behaviors when they become cause for concern. When they speak to him this way, the issues are usually resolved. Conversely, when they try to shield him from their annoyances because they’re afraid they will hurt him, things usually go less smoothly. This policy of openness seems an appropriate adaptation for interacting with a person with Asperger’s Syndrome since oftentimes people with that disability cannot sense what we would classify as tact.
The Bottom Line for Writers…
As soon as you introduce a character with a disability in your narrative you are entering a political area. No matter how you portray your character and how she coexists with the non-disabled people around her you are offering readers an implicit commentary on the plight of disabled people and their struggle to be treated as complete human beings. So be sure your narrative says what you want it to say! Consider thinking outside the box, and give your readers some food for thought about what solutions you imagine might improve the interrelations between disabled and non-disabled people.
What other fictional characters have disabilities? How do the narratives they exist in portray disability? Do they offer better or worse social models than we see in real life for handling disability?