234 – Harmful Disability Tropes

The Mythcreant Podcast

More than one in ten Americans is disabled, making it one of the largest marginalized groups in the country. Even so, storytellers often have a really difficult time portraying disabled characters. We want to change that, so this episode is all about the most problematic tropes that surround disabled characters and what storytellers can do instead. Listen as we discuss magic as an assertive device, disabled characters with physical abilities, and issues that intersect with disability.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:


Toph Beifong

Geordi La Forge

Professor Xavier

General Amaya

Ensign Kim


My Gimpy Life

The Bright Sessions 

The Far Meridian


Love and Luck


Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction 

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Generously transcribed by Crimson Square. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

[Intro Music]

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…

Oren: … Oren…

Chris: … and special returning guest Fay.

Fay: Hi.

Chris: So, this time we’re going to talk about harmful tropes in regards to disability, and Fay is a disability consultant for Mythcreants. So ze is going to help us break it down.

Fay: Absolutely, there’s so many! So many tropes… so little time. [Laughter]

Oren: Yeah, we’re not really going to discuss this time. We’re just going to list them for half an hour because we probably still don’t have enough time. [Laughter]

Chris: What place ,that might be a nice place to start since it can be a little overwhelming, is things that are Speculative Fiction related, in regards to how magic combines with harmful tropes sometimes, usually it’s magic – is not harmful in itself but it can be used to enable some really harmful tropes in stories.

And one of the things that I’ve definitely seen is a lot of using magic to basically erase representation for disabled people and a lot of times it is combined with stories that put a lot of emphasis on how tragic it is to be disabled. Which you know, it’s hard. It’s weird that people even object – you know, when I when I talk about this Trope because I feel like it should be intuitive that it would be hurtful if you watched a movie that talked about how tragic it would be to be you. [Laughter]

Right, and all the characters are motivated by not wanting to be like you and – but for some reason when it comes to disability people just won’t get that this is not an okay thing to be doing.

Fay – I know this is a complex issue because disabilities come in a huge range. Right, and I think you have said that some, you can consider limitations and some you can consider neutral. Do you want to elaborate on that side of things?

Fay: Yeah. So one of the things that a lot of people don’t understand about disability, is that there’s different ways to experience disability. And the main way disability is usually represented is that it’s a limitation, that it’s a limitation on someone’s life.

So, for an example, I have a chronic back condition and that is something that I do experience kind of like a limitation on my life. So, like, you know, I go to the grocery store and I have a lot of bags and I put smaller numbers of things in the bags and so it’s limiting how much I lift.

It’s changing my behaviors and how I live my life, but there’s another way to experience disability, which is also a common experience of disability, which is that it’s a neutral difference? And so – there’s a lot of different communities that particularly embrace this experience of disability, like the Deaf Community for example, and also there’s a lot of folks in the Autistic Community, who also have particularly been proponents of developing discourse around this.

And this is basically the idea of it’s a difference but it’s not better or worse than being able-bodied or neurotypical which is basically someone who doesn’t have a divergent brain or a brain that is different than what society expects, and so –

For myself, this is actually how I experience my own brain. So, I have anxiety but it’s actually part of a larger way that my brain works, which is that my brain is extremely good at noticing details and processing information and thinking through a lot of different possibilities.

There’s a lot of strengths I get out of that. There’s a lot of great skills, I use it all the time when I’m writing. I’m trying to keep track of different things at once. It’s a great skill set, but – it also leads to my anxiety in that if I’m thinking about something that’s a bit frightening and my brain is thinking through, like, a hundred bad outcomes, it can produce a lot of anxiety.

And so, the same part of my brain that gives me these great skills also produces anxiety that can be very hard to live with sometimes, and so this is where – it’s that sort of neutral difference. And, because I get a great strength and some challenges, and they both go together and –

I wouldn’t just change myself to have a quote “normal brain”, because that would be changing who I am. Would I like to have additional tools to help me manage the challenges that anxiety presents me?

Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that if I could change it, I would and that’s something that a lot of folks don’t understand that, there’s a lot of disabled people who would not – change.

They’re happy the way they are and that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t take a magical cure for my back? Although you should not do that in stories because they don’t exist in the real world. So, when you do it in a story, the character – and you magically cure a disabled character or give them some sort of thing that means that the storyteller can treat them as if they are able-bodied and basically just ignores their disability almost all the time except for, like, one episode or whatever, that’s not actually representation of the experience of being disabled?

Oren: Yeah, and I would encourage all of our abled listeners to remember that you don’t really want to think about this in context of “Is this something that you would cure?” or – I mean, cure is even the wrong word – “Is this something that you would change if you had it?” Like – it’s not really about whether you personally would make that choice, right?

Because this is something that comes up a lot when we talk about why you shouldn’t just have a cleric come in and cast “Remove Disability” on somebody – and people just don’t understand. They’re, like, “But don’t you want that taken away? Like I know I would want that changed if I have that disability?” And it’s like, okay.

Well, first of all, you don’t know, you don’t have it but – assuming you are correct, right, let us assume that you acquired that disability somehow, so maybe it is a disability one can acquire, and that you still felt the same way. That’s not really what’s at stake here? Right, it’s not really about your personal preference. It’s really more about letting people see themselves and versions of themselves that are healthy, right, and not just covered in toxic tropes.

Fay: Right. And I think in terms of one of the tropes is the magical cure, and one of the other things that goes with the Magical Cure Trope is often that the character is obsessed with a cure.

And – I think one of the big things that’s lacking in disability representation is just – disabled people having meaningful, full lives, that don’t hundred percent revolve around their disability. Like, they have other stuff going on. They have families, and careers or passions and those aren’t a hundred percent wrapped around their disability. Even if someone’s a disability activist, like, you know, I’m a disability activist and a lot of my art and writing involves disability, but it also involves creating cool magic systems and creating awesome fictional worlds, and – it’s not just focused in on my disability.

So I think that’s the sort of aspect of – not reducing characters to their disability and not treating disability as if it’s somehow worse than anything else that could happen to a character, and this is the other thing is – like, oh you’re in a war zone where people you care about are dying every day, but your main concern is this potential possible future disability you personally might have.

Realistically, I hope you care more about your friends who are maybe going to die – like…

Oren: Right, because they were exiled to the Forbidden Forest from last episode. [Laughter]

Fay: You know, so it’s portraying disability as if it’s worse than other things is part of the issue, portraying it as if it’s such a big deal that it’s the entire focus of someone’s life. And that’s where the magical cure is, like, people pursue the cure and they obsess about it, and it’s, like, that’s a problem also in as much as just that obsession and that portrayal of disability, as if it’s this life-ending thing, like worse than death and it’s – not. I mean some disabilities are really hard to live with and some are, you know –

Some disabilities, the main problem that people experience is the ableism in society. Those are the main barriers. So it’s not that a person uses a wheelchair to get around that’s the issue. The issue is the lack of ramps. And buses that aren’t, like, always in good repair so they can always accommodate a wide range of wheelchairs, and, you know, all of these other super narrow doorways.

All of these things. That’s what’s making things hard. Not necessarily the fact that someone’s using a wheelchair to get around.

Oren:  Right, and so, again, because this is something that’s often difficult for able-bodied people to understand, is that when you have a disability that infrastructure is just not set up to support you, right?

It is set up assuming that you have a different body type and there’s sort of a feeling among a lot of abled people, that, like “Oh, well, then obviously the solution is to remove the disability and then that person can fit with the infrastructure”, right? But to try to give a metaphor that I think might help some able-bodied people understand why that is a bad idea:

Let’s imagine that you have a society in which we have the capability to surgically graft wings onto your back. Let’s just imagine that’s a thing that could happen. And whether or not you – you might not want to have surgery to have wings grafted onto your back, but if enough people did it and suddenly the infrastructure was there but was assuming that everyone could fly, because a lot of people had wings grafted onto their back, that wouldn’t be a problem with you, who chose not to have the surgery because you didn’t want that, right?

That would be a problem with the infrastructure and it should be fixed there. The solution is not to force you to have this surgery, right? So, I don’t know, maybe that example will help a few people understand.

Chris: And I think with the other thing about magical cures is again to remember, anytime you have a character with a marginalized trait in your story that character is representation and people really, you know, that has emotional power for marginalized people, and so teasing that you might give them representation and then taking it away is just kind of a cruel thing to do and whether you’re just taking a character and holding the threat of “maybe this character might become disabled” over their head, or you’ve got a disabled person who is magically cured. It’s just, it’s not a nice thing to do to your audience.

Fay: Right… and one of the big things is – there’s not a lot of Happily Ever Afters for disabled characters and so stealing that Happily Ever After and turning it into “Oh, they’re cured.” Now there’s one less Happily Ever after. We have a disabled character with a bright future and – we get to have that as something.

Queer folks also have this with queer characters. There’s, there’s not enough queer characters with bright futures. It’s – or trans characters with bright futures. It’s – having the story end with someone having that bright future is really meaningful, and ending by taking away the trait you identify with robs people of having that bright, satisfying future.

Oren: One area that I know a lot of storytellers run into trouble. I am not at all sure what the right way to handle this is, is when it comes to either technology or magical powers used as assistive devices effectively? Because I know that it can be very easy to effectively erase the disability that way, but – I’m not really sure where the line is.

There may not be a firm line. It may be different, but like, you know, just – most people I’ve talked to on this issue agree that the Netflix Daredevil is effectively erasing his disability, but that the character of Toph from Avatar The Last Airbender isn’t. And – assuming you agree with that which you might not and if you don’t, that’s fine. But if you agree with that, I’m just curious if you can maybe talk a little bit about why that – why those two characters are different.

Fay: Right? And we’ll we have this kind of extremes on both ends of a situation where a character has magic or abilities or tech that – it’s so exactly replacing or make, often it’s thought of as making up for, which is a not a great model, but it’s that idea of making up for and it’s doing that so completely that the character is treated as able-bodied by the writers and they don’t run into any challenges or any aspects of disability that affect their daily lives.

Whereas the other extreme is the character that is in a situation where they’re not fully participating in whatever the adventure or the main aspect of the story is. And when a character is in a situation where their disability is preventing them from fully participating?

That’s a situation where we’ve gone too far. They don’t have the accommodations they need, they don’t – You know in the real world, we don’t – we’re not supposed to just shrug our shoulders and be like, oh, well, that’s the way it is. Because that’s not right and that’s not okay. The correct response is to be like – okay, you are not able to fully participate. What can we do to get you to fully participate?

And, so then – that comes into your accommodations devices and all of that stuff. Now, finding the balance is tricky because you want to find that space where the disability is part of the character’s life and it does affect them, but it’s not overwhelming their ability to participate because if that’s happening, they’re lacking in accommodations, and the main tool that I have for figuring out how to do this is really think about what your actual devices and accommodations are – because a lot of folks just be like, are just like, “oh it’s just like – the thing.”

So like in Star Wars – Luke has a prosthetic hand and outside of one moment where he gets a bullet hit at it and it’s “Oh, it’s metal. So he’s okay.”, there is no indication that the hand is any different from having a flesh-and-blood hand, and the writers just treat him as the same. But if you think about the reality of that, what would it actually mean to have that – like, how is that actually – does it need to be charged?

Does he ever have a situation where it’s low on batteries and it loses its coordination? Does it hurt? Does he have to take it off when he sleeps? If someone surprises him while he’s sleeping does he have – like, have to just “you know, oh, I don’t have time to put my prosthetic on”? You’re like, thinking about what it actually means.

What are the costs? What are the side effects? What are the limitations? Does it ever break down? What if the bullet had damaged it and – he doesn’t experience physical pain. You know, but it had actually damage its circuitry? So there’s just – so much there. If you think about what disability? Real experiences of disability are like, okay, you have a medication but it’s got side effects.

You could do a different medication with different side effects, but they all have side effects. And you think about wheelchairs and you have manual wheelchairs, and you have powered wheelchairs, and some folks – like, there’s one or the other that’s going to work significantly better for them. But some folks are in a fortunate position where they have both and they’ll have a choice of “Which one am I going to use today?”

And there’s actually different things to decide like a lot of power chairs are larger. They’re not necessarily going to fit through a super narrow doorway. Not all buses can necessarily accommodate them. They’re going to have a certain length of battery life. But a manual chair is going to have a bigger physical toll on someone, although it’s going to be smaller.

So the real experiences of disability involve these – trade-offs. And so one of the big things is to actually think through what the actual trade-offs are, and then that becomes part of your story.

Chris: So it sounds, like it’s fine that, for instance, we have, you know, magic or tech being used as an assistive device, but that it needs to – doesn’t necessarily have to be a real world assistive device with exactly the same details, but that it should be – so for instance, we have Geordi, right? Maybe Geordi’s, you know, assistive device just acts too much like he has sight, regular sight, you know, standard sight, all the time. You know, there are a few places where the visor does matter but it’s – not very common?

Fay: Yeah, I think with Geordi he’s one of those borderline characters, where some folks really like his representation, although they recognize there are certain areas of problems and other folks who are just like, “I don’t even consider him a disabled character” because of the way the visor is treated in the story and –

Some of the things that were effective are times when he has side effects from his visor – like pain? It does weird things to – I think there was one time where he got like an infection in his receptors?

Oren: There are a few times like that.

Fay: And it would be interesting if they explored more about his different vision that didn’t just make it only seem like a superpower? It also would have been really great if they didn’t have him spend a lot of time obsessing about having quote “normal vision”. That was – just get rid of it, please. All of those – if you just get rid of that, that would be so much better.

Oren: One of the things that I always felt was a huge missed opportunity with Geordi is that supposedly, he sees everything differently. They even occasionally, like, show us the camera filter that goes over what he sees, but he seems to have the exact same aesthetic sense as a sighted person?

Fay: Yeah!

Oren: And it’s like – why is that? Why is – Why aren’t his quarters super weird looking to a sighted person?

Fay: Everything’s beige, but he sees all these different colors that no one else sees.

Oren: Right, or like and there’s like – he has lights that emit light in frequencies regular humans can’t see and it’s like – what is that for?

It’s like, trust me. It’s really pretty. I like to watch it when I fall asleep, or something like that. Right? Just, just feels like a missed opportunity there.

Fay: Yeah. To go back to the examples that you previously mentioned, like, with Daredevil. If you – I believe he has sonars into it?

Oren: He has a lot of different things.

Fay: Well, to use sonar as an example. One of the things you could do with that – it’s not going to go through windows and it’s not going to go long distances. There’s just – if you actually think about what sonar is, it’s – it is different, you know, seeing in different wavelengths or in the case with sonar, which is a different way of perceiving your bouncing sound waves.

It’s not the same if you actually explore, like, the uniqueness of it. Of, like, oh, well other folks – that’s a painting but, because it’s a – say it’s a print of a painting. It’s a print of a painting, it’s pretty flat. I mean, he really going to be able to perceive, like, the subtle differences in a print? But then like maybe a sign – fine. And so if you actually explore what the actual thing is – and actually think about it, then you can get a thing where it’s actually going to capture something.

One of the things about Daredevil and Toph gets into kind of a related Trope which is –

Don’t give characters superpowers just to quote “make up” for their disabilities. This is a big thing where it’s – again, it’s centralizing disability as if it’s a uniquely disastrous thing in someone’s life, you know, a lot of things are in people’s lives. It’s not – more disastrous than other things. It’s a normal part of many people’s lives.

In fact, one in four adults in the US has a disability. It’s a normal part of life. For some people, it is a lot more – You have a bigger presence in some people’s lives than others, but it’s –

But the trick is to not treat it as if it’s somehow more life-changing than other life-changing things. If you have a situation where a character becomes disabled in a story, that it’s not more life-changing than losing someone you love or something like that.

And the whole idea of giving someone a power just to “make up for a disability”, again in quotes. I’m doing air quotes none of you can see. It sends this message that disability is more significant somehow.

Give them a power that makes sense for who the character is. So like Toph being an earthbender, that’s – her personality is all about Earth.

There’s a lot of earthiness in her personality – it really fits for her, and then she uses it for creating a type of perception that works for her. But, there’s areas where that doesn’t work. When she’s walking on Sand, – the sand doesn’t carry vibrations in the same way that a solid ground does. Toph does not – can’t use her vibration sense to perceive what’s going on in the sky.

All she’s got is being able to hear what’s going on. So, because it’s not this “perfectly designed to make up for” thing, it’s a thing where it’s like “This is the power that made sense for her.” How is she going to use it to meet her accessibility needs? Great. Okay, what are those areas where it’s not going to cover that? How does she deal with that?

So, basically, that is kind of one of those ways of doing that, is just to have the power that’s not the perfect whatever for the disability.

Another related pattern to this is the idea that any time a character gets a physical disability, they have to have a mental superpower.

So it’s not inherently wrong for Professor X to have mental powers. He’s so privileged, he doesn’t run into most of the everyday obstacles folks with wheelchairs run into?

Oren: Right, because he’s really rich.

Fay: Yeah, which does take away something from the disability representation, but – it’s not inherently wrong.

It’s just when the pattern is “Every time characters get a physical disability they’re only given mental powers”, as if the, you know, as if the fact of having some sort of physical disability means that someone could no longer be athletic or accomplish physical things? And that’s an issue. Obviously, disabilities will vary and certain physical disabilities –

It will make more sense to have folks with mental powers, but also keep in mind mental powers do not have to be, like, psychic and telekinetic, you can have folks that have social based powers, right? Like, that’s the other thing, is – we’re not we’re not seeing folks as – there’s not a perception of a wide range of options?

You know, you give someone a teleportation power, right? You don’t necessarily need to be super physically active to use a teleportation power, you know? And – but it’s like all physical powers. No, they must be mental powers only. You know, you can’t give someone Super Charisma – and it’s like, there’s plenty of charismatic disabled folks, give someone Super Charisma, like, give them that social power. Don’t limit it.

But also don’t be afraid to give a character who’s got a physical disability a physical power, give them super strength, right? I want to see those awesome wheelchair flips! Or, or whatever their thing is, maybe they have a chronic illness, and so afterwards they have to deal with the consequences of that – but for a brief period of time they have their super strength. There’s also kind of that pattern.

Oren: I also just want to take a minute to acknowledge that you can have characters who use real life assistive devices or assistive techniques in a spec fic story, right? Like, if you have your character with a disability and it’s a disability that you think they need some kind of assistive technique or device for, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a magic or super tech one. It, you know, like, my favorite example and the show has some other problems, but in Dragon Prince, we have General Amaya, I think is her name?

And she is deaf, and she just has a translator, and she has sign language and reads lips. There’s no magic involved there, she doesn’t have any kind of magic powers.

Fay: And they did the consulting they needed to do, although I get the impression they didn’t pay their consultants? Which, they have the budget, they really should be paying folks.

Oren: That’s really bad. I didn’t know that.

Fay: Well, they just talk all the time about going to the Deaf Community and talking to lots and lots of folks, which is great. But, I’m just, like, I’m really worried if you’re talking to lots and lots of folks and getting – I just, the way you talk about going to the community, I really feel like it doesn’t sound like you’re paying someone.

Oren: Yeah, it seems like, it seems like you should be hiring a consultant rather than going to Deaf Twitter and being like “Deaf Twitter, answer those questions.”

Fay: I think the one person they paid is their translator, which is cool and all – But they really should, like, I feel like they’re using like, the translator plus Deaf Community and it’s like – I could be wrong.

I hope I’m wrong. I really do, but with something a budget like that, you really, like, don’t just hire your translator. Also hire some actual Deaf folks from the Deaf Community, specifically, like activists and folks who are really, like, aware of the nuances of depiction and pay them money.

Oh, I did want to come back to Professor X, as Professor X is a good example of several different tropes.

One is the fact that disability representation tends to be dominated by privileged folks? People who are otherwise privileged, like – white men, straight white men, occasionally the straight white woman and there’s a real lack of intersectional representation. That’s one thing.

Also – and Geordi is an example of this too – of the fact that folks with disabilities aren’t usually seen as sexual or romantic partners?

I think Professor X does have one romance at one point in one continuum, but he’s generally not someone who gets involved in dating or anything. Not from the stuff I’ve seen.

Oren: Not in any version of the X-Men I’m familiar with. There is a lot of X-Men material out there, so I’m not going to like, swear there’s not, but I think that’s certainly not the image of him that comes to mind for most people.

Fay: Right. As an asexual person myself who is also disabled, it really gets into this weird space where we’re treating all – or media is treating all disabled folks as if they’re asexual and aromantic, but not – but they’re not explicitly asexual and aromantic, they’re just being treated as if they have no interest or no sex drives or anything. And that’s a major thing as well?

And I think the other thing I wanted to bring up is a couple examples. Better representation, which is in specifically looking at – Oh, sorry.

I wanted to go back really fast – with Geordi, actually an intersectional character – his disastrous dating life? I did want to also mention. Also due to the fact that he’s a black man, and there’s a lot of trouble representing black men with, in romances in media, as well. I wanted to be sure to mention that.

So, for him – he has kind of like the intersectional nature of it, I think, made it particularly hard for them, too, for some reason, to get past their internalized assumptions to actually write a good romance for  – probably the most dateable character on the ship, honestly.

Oren: Yeah, this is LeVar Burton we’re talking about here.

Fay: I mean, as far as dateability, he’s a lot more sensitive than a lot of the other guys, he’s like super smart, and really caring, and really listens to folks. Like, the way he interacts with Data? He really listens to people, and accept them for who they are?

I mean, he seems extremely dateable. I’m just saying. [Laughter]

Chris: Honestly, it reminds me a little bit of the treatment of Ensign Kim on the Voyager. We’re obviously – Ensign Kim is also a person of color, and they have this ongoing thing about this – about the guy being unlucky in romance? And, it’s particularly weird, because setting up a character who’s unlucky in romance is basically starting an open plot thread, where the viewers are going to want to see that resolved.

They’re going to want to see them happily with a partner by the end of the show, and this doesn’t happen for either of those characters.

Fay: Robbed again.

Oren: It’s okay. Harry Kim gets a romance in the same episode he gets promoted, ba-dum-tss.

Fay: No… [Sigh] [Oren chuckles]

Chris: So, yeah, so yeah, that’s a – it’s a little frustrating. It’s especially weird if you’re going to again, have all, make that big a deal out of that – and that means that yeah, we get, we know that they’re not, you know, aromantic, right? Because they’re interested in dating. But we’re not going to actually let them happily – Again, again, it goes back to that happy ending thing that you were talking about, Fay – why didn’t they get one, in that instance?

Fay: So, the main thing I wanted to close with is some, a few examples of good representation? And one of the things I wanted to mention was that disability, like, there’s a way that disability can be represented when it’s someone who is disabled who is central in creating the representation.

So, two examples of this are Special and a YouTube video series called My Gimpy Life, where if you look at both of those – now, there’s some problematic elements from My Gimpy Life in terms of race, and how it portrays mental illness, but what’s really amazing about it is – having the way that it portrays the daily frustrations of being in a wheelchair in a society that is not  accommodating and accessible for folks who use wheelchairs for mobility, and –

And, also have some good jokes that are just, like, frustrating funny things that happened? So, there’s a difference between humor that is using disability as a joke where it’s like, “Oh this prosthetic is ridiculous looking.” and that’s just awful?

But there’s also humor that – especially when folks who are disabled are writing it, about disabled experiences, that is – instead of other-izing, it’s – it brings people in, it increases empathy. And, so, I wanted to kind of pull those out, because I feel like it’s particularly rare to have – representations of physical disability, created by folks who are physically disabled, and are showing their lived experiences.

There’s a lot more good stuff that’s representation of what you call mental illness or neurodivergence? So, a lot of times you have to go into kind of, some of the more independent media, but we have a good explosion of that going on right now, and there’s a lot of audio fiction that has awesome representation of neurodivergent folks?

So, I mentioned the Bright Sessions in a previous episode, but that has an amazing interplay between characters having different kinds of mental illnesses, and divergent minds interplaying with their superpowers? The Far Meridian is about a woman with agoraphobia. A queer woman who’s also a person of color. [Squee]

It’s – the amount of intersectionality in some of these is just amazing. And, and she’s in a magical lighthouse in this kind of – it’s kind of a surreal realism sort of thing? And it’s traveling around to different locations. So, she has agoraphobia, and she’s struggling with it, but – the lighthouse is taking her to these different places that she’s then experiencing? Just to name a bunch of other ones without describing them, other audio dramas – Caravan, Love and Luck, Centered, all have main characters with various kinds of mental illnesses?

And – if you want to go for writing – “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction” is an anthology you might want to check out.

Oren: That one’s good. I’m into it.

Alright, thank you for that excellent list. I think we’re going to have to – we’re like 10 minutes over our time now, [Fay, high-pitched: oh no!] so we are going to have to cut, call this to a close.

Fay: Oh my goodness.

Oren: But thank you for joining us, Fay, we much appreciate you.

Fay: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Obviously, I have a lot to say on the subject.

Oren: We may have to have you back to, for, like, part two of this episode at some point.

Fay: I know, there’s so many tropes we didn’t get to!

Oren: Those of you at home, if anything we said peaked your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.

But before we go, I just want to thank a few of our patrons – first is Kathy Ferguson, who is a Professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com.

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  1. Dvärghundspossen

    Charles Xavier had a relationship with Gabrielle Haller, and got son David with her. He had this long-standing on-off thing with space empress Lillandra of the Sh’iar. He also dated Moira McTaggert, but I’m a little unsure now if that was only in his youth, before he got into a wheelchair, of if they also dated again later on.

    However, when the X-men was first published, there was this really creepy thing where Charles had a crush on Jean (his sixteen-year-old student!), but thought he could never be with her because of his wheelchair (yeah, clearly THAT’S the big obstacle here!).

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Adding: All this Xavier romance stuff was in the main comic book continuity, not Ultimate Marvel, not some kind of weird elseworlds story or anything. And the Lillandra romance in particular was really this Grand Love Story that went on for years and years and was important to a lot of plots.

      I guess it might still be true, though, that most people think of Xavier as a sort of asexual and aromantic character, since I guess most people don’t read comic books? They just know superhero characters from movie and TV.

  2. LiliesAndRoses

    I also want to ask about “The Land of the Lustrous” by Ichikawa Haruko. The main characters are Gemstones, who are literally humanoid pieces of jewelry animated by microorganisms. There is a lot of time where they get broken, and then repaired. What bothers me is that the main character, Phos, loses their legs and their arms, but both times find a replacement for lost limbs. Is this “the magical cure”? Should writers be careful about fantastic species that do not face the human implications of disability?

    • Bubbles

      Well, I certainly believe that writers should be allowed to write about such species. After all, while there probably aren’t self-repairing gemstones in real life, there are many species that can do things such as regrowing lost limbs. Not allowing such species to be written about would literally be erasing reality. It should be noted, however, that even in species with regenerative abilities, there tend to be limits, and the regrown limbs or organs are often weaker or less functional in some ways than the originals. You might want to think of including something like that when creating a regenerative species.

  3. Paul

    I can understand the desire to avoid eliminating representation in fiction, but what about situations where people in the real world actively oppose the use of things that would reduce or eliminate their disability…in their own children. For instance, there is a movement in the deaf community that actively opposes the use of the cochlear implant as an attack on the disability community. They are choosing to continue their own disability to another generation.

    This is taken a step further because there was a recent article about 5 Russian families signing up to have their children modified using CRISPR to eliminate the deafness gene from them before birth. There were a number of articles attacking this treatment as if it was, itself, an attack on the deaf community. This isn’t about representation in fiction. This is about being upset at someone for wanting to eliminate a limitation. I can’t understand that.

    • Bubbles

      Thanks for bringing this issue up! It has been something that has been bothering me for quite a while. I’m not an expert on disability by any means, so I might accidentally say something inaccurate – feel free to correct me. I’ve heard claims that cochlear implants only increase hearing abilities by a limited extent, hearing sounds with an implant can be an extremely unpleasant experience, and the implantation process destroys part of the ear structure, meaning that even if another device, procedure, or whatever were developed that gives even better hearing ability, someone with an implant might never be able to use it and get better hearing. If these claims are true, it seems to be a good reason why a young child who cannot consent should not get cochlear implants. I don’t know much about the genetic treatment you mentioned, so I would need to know its likely effectiveness and safety before forming an opinion.

      About not wanting to “cure” deafness at all, from what I’ve heard (and again, I’m not an expert and may be wrong), a lot of it does come from wanting to preserve a sense of community. There are unique cultural features of the deaf community, such as sign language but also others, and some people are worried that if people stop being deaf, these unique cultural traits will be lost. I can understand not wanting to lose one’s culture, but the problem I feel is that even people who can hear can still use sign language, so even if no one was deaf anymore, sign language could still exist and be used. (Although come to think about it, I’m not so sure about the other aspects of deaf culture. It would be nice if I heard more about that). There are also problems such as forcing deaf children to use exclusively spoken language and treating deaf people as inferior that have influenced people’s views on this topic.

      So the thing is, I don’t understand how you could be worse off if you had the ability to hear than if you didn’t have the ability. (This probably isn’t true of all disabilities – for instance, it seems that some forms of autism and other neurotypes have benefits that come with the drawbacks and are intrinsically tied to them, but for deafness and other instances of lacking sensory and motor capacities, I’m not sure what benefits are exclusive to lacking such capacities). I think the wings example given in this podcast might actually support this point of view. Of course, it depends on the specific details of the hypothetical situation, but let’s assume that the surgery and wings are mostly risk-free, painless, won’t interfere with your life, and so on. (Yes, this is often not true of things in real life, but we’re obviously talking about speculative fiction here. Also, it seems likely that in the very far future or with very powerful magic, it would be unrealistic for it to not be able to remove disability with few to no side effects).

      So anyways, it seems that you would be entirely better off having wings in that case, and your choice not to have wings would be irrational. Even if you didn’t want to fly for whatever reason, you could always just choose not to most of the time while being able to reap the benefits of flight when necessary (such as getting somewhere high up or escaping from danger). A parallel can be drawn to deafness vs hearing (and yes, hearing has some intrinsic advantages even apart from the structure of society. For instance, you can enjoy music, hear a car or even a dangerous creature coming at you, and so on if you can hear).

      I don’t want to offend people (although I suspect some will be offended anyway), but I think this is really important to think about. I would like it if someone clarified the issues for me – I know I can’t mandate you to do it, but this is just a polite request.

      • Paul

        You brought up a point, Bubbles, that I’d been thinking about. I think part of my issue with the way the topic was presented in this episode is that “Disabilities” is a really broad subject. Because of that, we are treating things that have NO positive side (such as my own disability, 2-3 times a week Migraines from a traumatic brain injury or having a missing leg) the same way we are treating things like Fay’s anxiety, which comes (as mentioned) as a result of the hyper-awareness that is part of how her brain works.

        Really, those should be entirely different things. There’s no positive to my migraines. No positive to missing a limb. So I just don’t see how using escapist fiction to eliminate them is negative representation, rather than the same kind of escapism that you get just with any kind of magical or technological enhancement of a “typical” person. Why is it a bad thing to use magic to eliminate a purely negative disability but not a bad thing to use magic to give someone a new ability? Both are just forms of escapism, and you can be damn sure that if there were a magical or technological means of eliminating either of my disabilities (brain injury and permanent spinal damage), I would take them.

        And that’s why I completely agree with your interpretation of the “Wings” analogy. I understand, and agree with, adapting the world to support people who have unavoidable and incurable disabilities. We don’t live in a world where you can fix missing legs. Not yet anyway (though that is right on the cusp of changing). If we did have an easily available and affordable fix for that, though, then why wouldn’t we prefer that over changing the world? With that so, why wouldn’t we want to show THAT in fiction that does include such options?

        Of course, this only applies to representation in Sci-Fi and Fantasy. In real-world based fiction, disabilities should be more accurately portrayed and many of the issues brought up in this episode apply. I just disagree with their interpretation for forms of fiction that already inherently include ways to improve us that go beyond the norm. It seems disingenuous to exclude people with disabilities from those improvements.

        • Michael Campbell

          There are several dangers to always expressing disability as being always negative.

          One example is the push to oppose the cochlear implant.
          Only about 90% of the causes of deafness can be treated with a cochlear implant meaning the remaining 10% of the deaf community will still be deaf.
          But there will be approximately 90% fewer people learning sign language and fewer inventors; inventing things like doorbells that make the lights flicker.
          I suspect there might be a level of cultural kickback with the two matters I’ve presented along the lines of anything invented anywhere other than the US is automatically bad in the eyes of some people.

          The key really, is to not rest on our collective laurels.
          Treat the treatable. Nurse the un-treatable. Do the research to make group-one an expanding group and group-two a shrinking group.

          Another issue is presentation and lack thereof.
          If the intrepid star-ship captains says to his X.O.; “You know, I was born blind. I was diagnosed at six months. I was given a treatment of nano-surgeons and stem cells and came out of the hospital at eleven months, able to see.
          But sometimes I wonder. Would I have been a better man if I’d stayed blind or would I have developed into a complete S.O.B.? I just can’t know.”
          And suddenly with a little bit of conversation, the audience knows a little bit more about both the character and the universe in which he inhabits.

          If you simply fail to present this kind of history, you imply that magic (or worse eugenics) has cured all disability in the future. You leave it up to the imaginations of the general public and you’ll get some truly perverse interpretations.
          Usually interpretations that “better” societies have no disabled-persons so we ought make ourselves better by hiding the disabled in institutions where they can be neither seen nor heard.

          There are other issues such as what constitutes a disability. The original DSM concluded that homosexuality was a mental disorder.
          Colour-blind people who’s only disability is colour-blindness actually have better tonal vision than people with colour-vision (as the cones that see colour are replaced with rods that see tone) so the enemy sniper who’s created some concealment with a few broken tree branches looks like green leaves amongst green foliage to regularly sighted people but to the colour blind person, looks like a dried out area populated by a suspiciously large number of dead tree branches. So during the second world war, colour blind people were actively sought out as anti-sniper specalists.
          So by framing disability as permanently a bad thing, we actually lay down a path by which mad scientists can attempt to isolate and chemically nullify the “gay gene” and that might actually be a really really bad idea.

          Also there’s the question of how bad is a bad thing.
          If you could get your arm back, but it would require a pact with the devil and a virgin sacrifice, I dare say that you’ld declare that to be just too darn expensive.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just for the record, real life issues like the ones mentioned here are complicated and largely outside Chris and I’s expertise. We’re limiting our discussion to the portrayal of disability in fiction. If you want to know more about this subject, independent research is likely your best bet.

    • Seio

      In addition to what Bubbles mentioned, there are still many limitations and dangers of getting a cochlear implant.

      One is that most hearing people assume it’s the same as “normal” hearing, but it’s actually quite a bit less clear and…I guess exact? which does hurt a child’s language development, which in turn affects their further development.
      Imagine you can’t really hear anything clearly but are expected to act as if you can because “you’re fixed now”.

      Sign language gives them the chance of learning a language suited to their needs which also means they’ll have better chances in life, but many parents (most of them hearing) don’t understand the necessity of teaching a sign language, don’t understand that they are still at a disadvantage in terms of hearing or don’t even really understand that sign languages are languages.

      It also makes it far harder to connect to other Deaf people because they would first have to learn sign language and not only is this a barrier to accessing a community that’s fundamentally theirs, but it’s hard to learn a language as well as a native speaker.

      Or, in other words, cochlear implants are endangering, or at least the oralism that tends to go along with them, their chances of getting an education, reaching their full potential and getting access to their community.

      Another is that they can break, run out of battery, can’t be worn in all situations and so on.
      Now how would they communicate?
      Especially since many of those situations (swimming for example) where you can’t usually wear one are situations where communication can be vital.

      I am not the best educated on this matter, but form what I’ve seen and heard most people aren’t mainly opposed to cochlear implants (though there are some issues regarding bodily autonomy worth thinking about) but to the oralism that goes along with them.

  4. Tifa

    Except that genetic engineering is such a huge can of worms, especially these days, without even getting into the whole ethics and morality debates.

  5. Sam Victors

    My protagonist in my first story is on the autism spectrum (Aspergers to be precise, just like me), and also happens to be a girl and bisexual.

    She’s not defined by her disability, but its one of the reasons her birth parents abandoned her (they were part of the Eugenics movement in the 1920s).

  6. Tony

    He may not be POSITIVE representation, but Darth Vader from Star Wars is another example of phlebotinum that doesn’t quite negate the disability. Vader’s cybernetics are clunky and painful, and hamper his Force use — which Palpatine apparently wanted, so that Vader wouldn’t get TOO powerful.

    Speaking of not negating the disability, Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter MIGHT count as a more heroic example. His glass eye has superpowers, but it’s visibly prosthetic: it can swivel in all directions, and it’s unnaturally big and blue while his other eye is smaller and darker. (The movie even added a device that he strapped to his head to hold the eye in place.) Plus he uses a wooden leg that doesn’t seem to have any superpowers.

    Harry Potter also presented a character who’s useful to illustrate disability’s societal aspects, similar to the example of artificial wings in the podcast. That character is Argus Filch, who was born without his family’s magical abilities. He’d be perfectly normal in Muggle society, but he’s disabled relative to the standards of a wizarding society that wouldn’t accommodate him if Dumbledore wasn’t generous enough to hire him.

  7. Riccardo Leone

    I’m not a disabled person, but I daresay that the trope of “magical power that compensates the disability” is much better treated in Toff from The Last Airbender than in Daredevil because it’s not made up. The sonar sense of Daredevil is an exclusive power apt to surrogate the sight, while Toff is “just” very competent in a form of magic, the earthbending, that is widespread in that world. She became a master in that ability to compensate her blindness, but she’s not the only one with that specific gift.

    • Cay Reet

      Eh, there are real-life blind people who use ‘clicking’ (making a sound with their tongue) to navigate the world. Hearing becomes much sharper when you lose sight (sight is our strongest sense as humans, all other are muted in comparison until sight is removed). Compared to ‘using your magic to navigate,’ a more heightened sense of hearing (compared to what is physically possible) is more realistic. No, humans don’t have sonar, but a person who is clicking actually already comes close to that.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just as a point of order so we’re all on the same page factually: real life humans can absolutely learn to echo-locate using tongue clicks. However, this ability isn’t dependent on being blind. Blindness doesn’t make hearing sharper, it just changes which senses a person relies on.

      Most sighted people don’t learn to echo-locate because they don’t have a reason to, sight works just fine for them in most situation. Similarly, a lot of blind people who try echo-location have found they just don’t have the knack for it.

      Scishow did a video on it if people want to know more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHkbQyywFRY

      • Cay Reet

        Thanks for the link, Oren. I mostly wanted to point out that echolocation does exist in humans. It’s completely over the top with Daredevil, but for a superhero comic still in a realistic range.

  8. Daniel O'Donovan

    I understand the idea of not erasing the disabled in fiction and:

    ‘ ..it would be hurtful if you watched a movie that talked about how tragic it would be to be you.’

    However at the same time I deal with feelings of hopelessness, depression and anxiety, and seeing a story where that can be more easily dealt with would be nice. I don’t want to be me much of the time so a film saying that depression no longer exists wouldn’t bother me much. The problem is, and I realise I am undermining myself, it would take an enormously skilled writer to bring that off without it looking silly.

    The other thing I feel compelled to point out is, from a certain point of view, magical cures do exist. That is if we go by the ‘any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic’ definition. If Chaucer had written a science fiction story where his protagonist has his sight returned by a beam of light, it would only have been understandable as magic at the time. Today we have laser eye surgery. It is not a cure all but would erase a disability in certain situations.

    So how should a writer get the balance right? The Orville, for example, establishes that limb regeneration is easy – so to have an amputee in that universe might raise questions.

    I hope I have not offended anyone with these words. I am not even sure how to fully articulate myself. I do love the idea of Geordi having art that only works seeing the world through his eyes.

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