Though the political climate of the past few decades has been tense (to say the least), one thing that has improved is vocalization and normalization of minority groups in all forms of media. Through tireless activism and conversation, representation has pushed its way to the forefront of many factors to consider when creating new stories. That being said, one group is often forgotten—disability.
According to the CDC, 1 in 4 adults in the United States live with a disability. So, why is this group so quickly forgotten?
When writing or consuming any form of media (tv, book, movie, etc.) that contains characters with disabilities, it’s important to consider how the individual is being portrayed. Is their personality centered on their disabled status only? Are they pressured into moving past their disability?
Many of the modern forms of disability representation are actually harmful to how society views disabled individual. Using a report from the British Council of Organizations of Disabled People, this list will highlight five of the most important things to look out for to see if the disability representation you are consuming is actually harmful to the community.
1. Disabled Individuals as the Villain
This is one of the most common tropes of poor disability representation, and yet the amount of times a disability or physical impairment has been used to make an antagonist more evil is endless. One of the most recent examples of this comes from the 2020 movie The Witches. Anne Hathaway, who stars as the main witch and the villain, has hands in which the fingers are disfigured. The backlash from the disabled community harbored a New York Times article that further publicized the issue. Hathaway apologized, saying she hadn’t even connected the limb disfigurement to the character.
Though most cases of this harmful trope are written off quickly for ignorance, if this continues to be the case, there will be no end for relating the physically disabled as evil. While it may not seem as outrightly discriminating, these representations open up an easy path for viewers to connect physical disability and villainy.
2. Disabled Individuals as Incapable
One of the hardest things for someone diagnosed with a disability to overcome is that they still have the ability to harness all the beautiful parts of life. The word, disability, inherently lends itself to thinking that disabled individuals are unable to participate in life—which is all around untrue. This has lead to many of said individuals as using the term “differently abled” instead; though it’s not in the common vocabulary yet, it doesn’t undermine that while an individuals may be disabled, they can still lead a good life and be an essential part of their community.
A wonderful example of this type of portrayal done well is Ella Malikova in The Illuminae Files. Though she has a physical disability in that she cannot use her legs and her lungs are compromised, she is an essential part of the team in her hacking abilities. She’s witty, personable, and intelligent, and the novel doesn’t focus on her disability as the core of her personality (another common issue). Ella is perfectly capable of all the team relies on her to do.
3. Disabled Individuals as Having to Overcome Disability— “The Supercrip”
Though it’s important to recognize things that disabled individuals have overcome, it’s equally if not more essential to make it feel as if they are gaining praise for their achievements, and not gaining praise for their achievements in spite of their disability. This can go further and turn into the trope of the “supercrip,” or someone who overcomes their disability to become more normal in a heroic way. This focuses on people with disabilities who overcome them, which diminishes others who have to live with their disabilities in every day life. This stereotype also makes it feel like disabled characters must have some superhuman ability to be helpful to society or the story.
Beyond this, it perpetuates that disabled individuals cannot be heroes without first overcoming their disabilities. Take Ella, who we just mentioned— she is a hero in many ways for her work in the series (purposefully vague so as not to spoil!), but she does so all while living with her disability.
4. Disabled Individuals as the Victim
Another common stereotype, and one you’re probably familiar with in stories like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is the disabled individual as a victim simply because of their disability. In stories like this, the character is only given empathy because of their disability and not because of who they are as a character. Are you sensing a theme? Most of these issues center on focusing on the disability rather than who these characters are as people—they have personalities, too!
Since I just mentioned it, take Hunchback as an example; Quasimodo isn’t necessarily a victim because of his malformation of facial structure, he is a victim because of the abuse and maltreatment from Frodo! When writing people with disabilities, make sure they are not being victimized because of their condition. We are not victims!
5. Disabled People as Pitiable
For our last main stereotype, it’s important to remember that disabled individuals aren’t to be used in stories just to be a point of charity. This is something most disabled individuals will deal with, so to show it happening is not necessarily harmful stereotypes. However, to center your disabled individuals as needing help and pity because of their condition is perpetuating the stereotype.
Take a book like The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel often gets frustrated because she’s sick of hearing sob stories from people who are disabled. Imagine how you’d feel if something you’ve learned to live with is constantly seen as the “inspirational” or “sob story” of the week. If you’re writing a disabled character, know that it can be quite harmful to disabled individuals if the characters are only used for a sense of pity in the story.
Did any of these surprise you? Let us know, and keep an eye out for harmful disability discrimination in your own work!