Commentary

Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability

Captain Hook from Disney's Peter Pan
Disability is an extremely common human experience. Many people of all ages have disabled bodies, divergent minds, or chronic illnesses. Almost everyone who lives to old age will eventually experience some form of disability. This is why disability is an important experience to include in stories. However, many depictions of disability perpetuate harmful messages. I’ll identify five of the most harmful depictions of disability and offer suggestions for how to avoid them.

1. Villainous Disability

Darth Vader on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back.

A disproportionate number of disabled characters are villains, including prominent examples like Darth Vader and Captain Hook. The disabilities of these villains are used to make them more sinister and intimidating. Usually this is done by emphasizing the character’s disability in a way that marks them as other, drawing on the idea that disabled bodies are broken, deformed, or less human. This is exemplified by Obi Wan Kenobi’s description of Darth Vader as “more machine now than man, twisted and evil.”

Because of the way that disability is used to make villains more sinister, it is common for villains to have disabilities that involve highly visible or audible technology. The comparison of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is a classic example of this. Darth Vader has multiple medical devices built into his suit, strongly marking both his appearance and voice. In contrast, Luke Skywalker has a prosthetic hand that looks exactly like a flesh-and-blood hand. Using disability for dramatic emphasis in this way stigmatizes medical and adaptive technology as something that makes its users inherently less human.

Another version of villainous disability is the “mentally ill” villain used so often in comics, horror, and thrillers. Batman’s famous nemesis the Joker is a classic example of the way that violence and stereotypical mental illness can become intertwined in these depictions. Here mental illness becomes a tool that makes the villain seem more unpredictable and threatening, which promotes the myth that people with divergent brains are inherently dangerous.

Interestingly, a significant number of these “mentally ill” villains don’t display the symptoms of real conditions. Instead, these characters are categorized as mentally ill based on the myth that unpredictable, strange, and violent behavior is inherently connected with having a divergent brain. Because these villains don’t have real symptoms, their depictions center on the generic and stigmatizing concept of “insanity.”

What to Do Instead

If you want to create a villain with a disability, it is important to recognize that people with disabilities are overrepresented as villains. This overrepresentation is especially harmful if the villain is the only disabled character in the work. Make sure that there are non-villainous disabled characters present. The significance of these characters also matters; characters who play a bigger role and who contribute meaningfully to the plot will have a bigger impact.

Also, think carefully about why the villain has a disability and what role that disability plays in the story. The disability, whether physical or mental, should in no way be used to represent the villain’s evil nature or to otherwise make them appear more sinister and intimidating. Instead, I recommend making the disability a simple fact of life that the villain lives with. Their disability should affect them, but it should be neither the cause of their evil nor a symbol of it.

The comparison between the villain’s disability and those of other characters also matters. Be sure to think carefully about which disabilities are the most noticeable. Which characters use prosthetics, mobility devices, or medical technology? In general, avoid giving villains the most noticeable disabilities or the greatest amount of assistive technology.

When creating a mentally divergent villain, choose a specific diagnosis for them and back that up with research. This makes it is easier to separate their condition from their villainy. Keep in mind that people with typical brains can engage in violent, bizarre, and unpredictable behavior. Don’t give a character a divergent mind just to explain unusual decision-making. Also, for characters with typical brains, be aware that an absence of information will lead some readers to assume they have mental conditions that aren’t there. Make it explicitly clear when an unpredictable character has a typical brain. For example, a psychologist who is assessing an erratic villain’s motivations could report that the villain does not appear to have a mental illness as they begin their explanation of the villain’s unusual behavior.

2. Cosmetic Disability

Luke's artificial hand being attached in Empire Strikes Back.

All too often, a disabled character gains magic or technology that gives them the same abilities as an able-bodied person. A classic example of this is Luke Skywalker’s bio-mechanical hand in Star Wars. Like Luke, once this character gains their magic or technology, their disability no longer has a significant impact on their life. At its extreme, this pattern can result in disability being treated as a cosmetic choice that has no impact on the story, in which a character is given magical or mechanical body parts just to make them look more hard-core.

These characters fail to represent the lived experiences of actual people with disabilities. In the real world, disability impacts a person’s daily life in large and small ways. People with disabilities encounter accessibility barriers, such as buildings that are inaccessible to wheelchairs. We have to make trade-offs, such as choosing whether or not to use medications with side effects like nausea or drowsiness that create new problems. And many of us have to carefully manage our physical and mental resources; for example, someone with limited energy may choose not to run errands so that they are able to prepare their dinner.

Designing a character’s magic or technology so it “makes up for” their disability also places a limitation on the abilities of disabled characters that able-bodied characters don’t have. It sends the message that disabled people are incapable of accomplishing things without fictional powers, that disability is a terrible thing that defines the entire life of a character, and that becoming able-bodied is an essential goal in every disabled person’s life.

What to Do Instead

The challenge here is finding a balance where disability affects the life of the character without overshadowing everything else. If magic or technology is available to the character, it makes sense for them to use it to address their access needs. There is nothing wrong with a character having a prosthetic or assistive device. The way to make these feel real, rather than just be a way to turn a disabled character into an able-bodied character, is to figure out the basics of how the device works so that its benefits and limitations are clear.

For example, giving a blind character a generic device that “lets them see” is erasing that character’s disability. However, giving a blind character a specific sonar device with limits and benefits associated with sonar is a more realistic and balanced way to portray disability. A device of this type could have a half-mile distance limit inside cities, be blocked by windows, and be unable to read text on flat surfaces, while being able to detect objects in low visibility conditions such as darkness, fog, and falling snow.

Specifics like these also make it easier to be consistent with what the character can do when they encounter new situations. Good questions to ask might include:

  • How does this device work?
  • What are its benefits and limitations?
  • Does it have any side effects?
  • How about hidden costs? Does it require maintenance or charging?
  • Can the character use it constantly, or do they need to remove it at times?

Don’t make disability the focus of the character’s powers and abilities. In a story where most characters don’t have extraordinary abilities, don’t give a character a superpower just to make up for the fact that they are disabled. Disabled characters don’t need special powers to accomplish their goals or to give them value. In stories that are about characters having extraordinary abilities, don’t choose an ability for your character that is designed to perfectly make up for their disability. Instead, give them an interesting ability that fits the story or their personality.

Once the character has their special ability, then it is time to figure out how the character addresses their access needs. Just as with devices, think through what the character can and can’t do with their abilities. Maybe they can use their power in a clever way to assist themselves, or maybe they get what they need through ordinary abilities and training. For example, with training, real blind people can use sonar to perceive the world, and athletic paraplegic people can use their strength to go up and down stairs in a manual wheelchair. Research what real people can do, and don’t assume that every obstacle a disabled person encounters needs be addressed in a fictional way through special powers.

Also, keep in mind that it is okay for characters to encounter obstacles that can’t be directly overcome. This is a real thing that disabled people experience. Not every building is wheelchair accessible. It is okay for disabled characters to have limits—all characters have limits. What matters is portraying those limits realistically without making the character helpless.

3. Helplessness

Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit from the Muppet Christmas Carol.

The repeated association of disability with charity portrays disabled people as pitiable, vulnerable, and pathetic. The character of Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol is a classic example of this. Unfortunately, this stereotype makes it all too easy to portray disabled characters as helpless victims. Indeed, disabled characters on television are more likely to die than their able-bodied counterparts.

In the real world, disabled people are more likely to experience violence than able-bodied people. In fact, there is a long history of violence against people with disabilities in many Western cultures. However, portraying disabled characters as passive victims with no agency of their own is not an accurate representation of this reality. It perpetuates the myth that disabled people are helpless (another version of the idea that disabled people are incapable of accomplishing things).

Helpless disability can even happen to otherwise powerful characters if their disability is treated as a vulnerability that is more extreme than a similar vulnerability of an able-bodied character. For example, it is standard for an able-bodied action hero to continue fighting after receiving major injuries that make them unable to walk. If a paraplegic action hero without their wheelchair is portrayed as more helpless than that grievously wounded able-bodied person, then the impact of their disability is being exaggerated in order to make them seem helpless. This manufactured helplessness may also be used to make a disabled character into a plot challenge for able-bodied characters, who are then tasked with transporting and protecting them. When this happens, the disabled character becomes an object or burden for the other characters.

What to Do Instead

Knowing that violence happens to disabled characters more often, think carefully about how much violence is directed at the disabled characters in your story and whether or not those characters die. Because disabled characters do die more often than their able-bodied counterparts, err on the side of not killing disabled characters. Because there aren’t many awesome disabled characters for people to identify with, having living disabled characters with meaningful futures in front of them is all the more important.

The kind of violence that happens to characters with disabilities also matters. Depictions of completed suicides or mercy killings are especially bad. They send the message that it’s worse to be disabled than dead. This is especially chilling when viewed in light of historical violence that has been perpetrated against people with disabilities. It doesn’t matter if there is a plot excuse for it. Change the plot. Don’t do this.

That said, most stories are about adversity, which naturally includes having bad things happen to the characters. This gives the main characters obstacles to overcome. So I’m not saying that bad things should never happen to characters with disabilities, but disabled characters shouldn’t be made into helpless victims for other characters to rescue or avenge. In my mind, the key to this is portraying disabled characters as people who are capable of actively responding when bad things happen to them. Not every action they take needs to be successful, but they should always be doing something to deal with the situation. Finally, at least some of their actions need to have an effect on the story. That’s what gives their actions power and prevents them from being helpless.

4. Inspiration Disability

Forrest Gump on a bench with his box of chocolates.

The internet is full of inspiring quotes and videos about disability. While they may seem uplifting at first, underneath them are many harmful messages. This damaging kind of inspiration frequently turns up in characters who are intended to be a positive representation of disability. Movies like Forest Gump, for example, create a heart-warming story by portraying unrealistic ideas of disability. They spread the harmful message that disabled people create the obstacles in their own lives, that people with intellectual disabilities are eternally innocent, and that a positive attitude is the only thing that disabled people need in order to overcome barriers.

Inspirational stories of disability also take away from the humanity of the disabled characters. For example, despite being the main character, Forest Gump is not fully characterized. Instead, he is a caricature of eternal innocence who reacts to the people around him rather than having his own interests and desires. Forest Gump is not intended to be a character the audience identifies with. He exists as a character to teach lessons to the people around him. This is a common pattern with inspirational disability; disabled characters are created not to tell their own stories, but to expand the minds of the people around them.

Within inspirational disability, there are two common patterns to watch out for. The first is portraying disabled people as brave or inspirational for getting through their daily lives. With this often comes an objectifying fixation on the ways that disabled people use their bodies that are different from an average able-bodied person. Underneath this is the idea that the lives of disabled people are so terrible that just going through an ordinary day requires courage and perseverance. It also demonstrates low expectations for the capacity of disabled people to achieve anything. It is important not to erase the struggles and pain that many disabled people experience; however, doing something that is normally considered an everyday task shouldn’t be treated as exceptional.

The second common pattern is treating the accomplishments of disabled people as if they are supposed to mean something about the ability of able-bodied people to accomplish things. For example, the fact that a person who uses a wheelchair can train to be an impressive athlete doesn’t mean that an average able-bodied person has no excuse for failing to maintain a regular exercise routine. This kind of comparison sends the message that disability is a terrible obstacle that disabled people must overcome to accomplish anything. This also reinforces the idea that disabled people are less capable of achievement than able-bodied people.

What to Do Instead

Start by doing some research, and portray disability in a realistic manner. Disability will present real challenges in the lives of the characters, but it should be clear that many of these challenges come from society (such as a lack of sign language interpreters at events). A positive attitude will not solve these problems. As Stella Young so eloquently put it, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.” At the same time, disability should not be presented as a life-destroying thing that prevents characters from achieving anything.

Disabled characters should have accomplishments, and those accomplishments should be respected in the same way as an able-bodied person’s. They should not be defined by their disabilities or used as a comparison to others’ achievements. To do this, reflect on how the character’s achievement is being presented:

  • Is their achievement being appreciated on its own merits, or is it being used to inspire able-bodied people?
  • Are assumptions being made about this person’s disability and how it affected their ability to reach this goal?
  • Is this person being treated as exceptional in a way that implies that disabled people aren’t usually capable of accomplishing things?
  • Has disability become a defining part of their achievement without which their accomplishment wouldn’t have meaning?
  • Is their disability being treated differently than other challenges in their life that also affected their ability to achieve this goal?

Avoid treating disabled people as if they are inherently inspirational for existing as a disabled person. Don’t fixate on the ways disabled people are different than the average able-bodied person. Don’t assume it takes bravery for a disabled person to get through an ordinary day. In addition, it is generally a good idea to avoid using the words “inspirational” and “brave” when talking about disabled people. While it is true that disabled people are capable of bravery and accomplishing inspirational things, these words have become so tainted by condescending misuse that many disabled people cringe whenever they hear them.

Finally, and most importantly, fully develop disabled characters. They should not just be there to teach lessons to the other characters; they should have their own stories and arcs. Be careful to not make the entirety of their stories about being disabled. Even if disability is an important thread that runs through their lives, they will have other meaningful interests and relationships.

5. One-Dimensional Disability

Patrick Stewart as Professor X

There is a tendency in the culture of the United States to treat privileged identities as the norm. This means that white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender men (to name just a few privileged identities) are treated as the starting point for all characters. Representation of diversity then becomes a process of swapping one (or possibly two) oppressed identities for the privileged identities in this starting point. Stories about teams, even those focused on diversity, usually end up being predominantly white and predominantly male, with few, if any, queer, trans, and disabled characters. Star Trek is a prominent example of this. The casts of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all had multiple white men, multiple white women, and multiple men of color, with maybe one woman of color and one disabled character.

This leads to disability representation that is overwhelmingly focused on white, straight, cisgender men and a smaller number of white, straight, cisgender women. Depictions of disabled people of color and disabled queer folks are few and far between. Just look at any top-ten list of disabled characters. How many women, people of color, trans folks, and queer characters are there? Most lists have more straight white men than everyone else combined (not to mention a complete absence of queer and trans characters). In addition, there is a distinct deficiency of characters with complexly layered experiences of oppression, such as queer, disabled women of color.

This lack of representation has serious consequences. As activist Vilissa Thompson, the creator of #DisabilityTooWhite, so eloquently said, “I think the lack of representation hinders our abilities to feel like we belong, to feel like our lives and our stories are important. We feel isolated and outcast when you don’t see people who look like you, not just racially but disability-wise.” I also believe that this lack of representation is connected to the disparities in diagnosis that people of color experience, where they are diagnosed later and less often than white people.

What to Do Instead

As long as privilege is treated as the norm, characters with intersecting oppressed identities will be rare. The best way to challenge this is to change who is positioned as the most normal. You can choose to center other experiences, like the experience of having multiple oppressed identities. To be honest, when you take into account all of the privileged identities in United States culture (including class, religion, age, and body type), there are actually very few people who are privileged in all ways. A large number of people have two or more oppressed identities.

This means examining your entire cast of characters. How many characters have two or more oppressed identities? Compare this to the number of characters with a single oppressed identity and those who are totally privileged. Also, how is the overall balance of the cast? Is it predominantly male? Is it predominantly white? Examine this both for the entire cast and for just the main characters.

If either the main cast or the entire cast is skewed toward one or more privileged identities, think about why that is. Was it unconscious, or is it the result of some aspect of the story or setting? For example, there are some settings, like the United States Congress, that naturally skew toward privileged people. However, this setting is itself a choice and therefore needs to be examined. Does the presence of many privileged characters serve the story? Could the story be told in a more diverse setting? How large a role do the characters with oppressed identities that are present in this setting play within the story? Do they accomplish their own goals, or only assist more privileged people? Don’t forget to check any assumptions you are making about the setting. Many historical settings, like medieval Europe and Viking-era Scandinavia, are regularly depicted as less diverse than they actually were.

Finally, think specifically about the representation of disabled characters. How many disabled characters are there, and how many of them have additional oppressed identities? Because there is so little representation that goes beyond straight, white, cisgender people with disabilities, it is important to prioritize the representation of disabled people of color, queer and trans people with disabilities, and characters with complex, layered experiences of oppression. Many people in the world are living out these intersecting experiences of oppression and disability, and all of us deserve to have our experiences represented.


Stereotypes about disability are prevalent in the depiction of both fictional and real disabled people. This makes it easy for even the best-intentioned writer to fall into some of these patterns. Becoming aware of them is the first step toward creating disabled characters with the full complexity of real-world disabled people. That’s something we all can benefit from.

Fay Onyx is an artist and writer who loves magic and fantasy but is profoundly frustrated with the ways in which oppression is recreated and enshrined within magical and fantastical worlds. Ze produces the podcast Writing Alchemy, storytelling that centers intersectional characters, including a fairy tale series that combines humor and magic with serious topics, and a tabletop role-playing series about the adventures of disabled and mentally divergent heroes.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    A rough summary:

    1) Research, research, research

    2) People w/ disabilities are people

    Good points. Well made

    • Cay Reet

      Unfortunately, a lot of people forget those two points when they’re writing a story.

      Good article.

  2. Shamanka

    A very good article.
    My current work has a couple of characters who I’m worried may be skirting around the ‘cosmetic disability’ item on the list. I’d like to submit them here for some kind of… peer-review?
    The first of these is a woman with a prosthetic leg. She uses her powers (telekinetic control of wood) to enable it to bend at the knee and ankle like the leg she was born with. Unlike Luke Skywalker’s magic hand, the leg is obviously prosthetic, being made of a mahogany-like wood and modelled after plate armour. Also, as per real-life prosthetic users, if she does too much with it, or just has a bad day, she suffers pain in her stump.
    The second is a man who gets blinded during the course of the story. His powers (not really necromancy, but let’s go with that) let him sense the locations of all living and dead humans/bits of human in a certain radius (which may change over the story). Inanimate objects are invisible to him unless they’re coated in blood, or made of bones, meaning he’s reliant on a cane and/or the warnings of his friends when it comes to those, and he can only read things that were written in blood. Also, he already could use these senses prior to being blinded, he just relied on them less.
    I should also point out that both character use their powers in ways that have nothing to do with their disabilities, her primarily to enhance her archery, him to provide medical treatment.
    What are people’s opinions?

    • Fay Onyx

      In cases like this, one of the main things is being clear about what the power can and can’t do.

      Based on your description, the blind character seems like a good example of a character using their special power to assist themselves without out it erasing their disability.

      For the woman with the prosthetic leg, it really depends on how it is portrayed in the work. For those situations in the story where it would naturally come up (for example, her overdoing it), if the costs and side effects are never addressed, then her disability is being treated cosmetically. However, if she does experience the side effects during those situations, then her disability is being portrayed in a more realistic, and respectful manner.

    • Deana

      Two other things to keep in mind for the woman with the prosthetic. 1) Certain disabilities require constant physical therapy. 2) Over-compensation can cause damage in the unaltered limb.

      I was born with severe bilateral club-feet. One was worse than the other, but both required extensive bracing to correct. The stronger leg actually has more problems now. The joints grind and pop because I still tend to put more weight on it, and the cartilage in the knee and ankle are degraded due to this However, the weaker leg can lock up at the ankle if I forget or get too busy to do certain stretches for several days.

      You will need to research this with amputees, but they are questions that people usually forget to ask about: What physical exercises/mental exercises do you have to do to keep a full range of motion? Is there any risks to the intact leg from using the prosthetic? What about chafing and heat rashes from the cup (or other attachment)? Are there any risks of contact hematomas (commonly called bedsores) where the prosthetic and the leg meet? Speaking of which be sure you know where the limb was amputated and be sure to talk to amputees who have similar injuries. (It sounds like mid-thigh and at the hip are both options based on your description.) Range of motion will vary based on the type of prosthetic used and how it contacts the person’s body. You may also want to reach out to a prosthetic manufacturer and see if they can give you examples of different kinds of prosthetic limbs and attachment points.

      Just a bit of flavor you might use: Our trips to the braces manufacturer were always scary when I was a kid. It was dark except for these bright pools of light around the work benches. The techs were always kind, but there were these limbs and gears and the like hanging all over the place. It smelled of oil, and rancid sweat.

      The adjustments to the braces hurt, and when they had to make new braces, the belt and knee and ankle restraints were heavy, inflexible and uncomfortable for the better part of a month.

      They were usually good about scheduling it so only one patient was there at any time, but we’d occasionally run into someone else in the reception area and so I got to listen to someone else crying while I was trying not to cry at the fear and pain that was about happen.

      These were an every 2-months event for the better part of two years and I still wake up from nightmares, forty years on.

  3. Bubbles

    (This article contains links, so I guess it will go through moderation. However, I believe all links are relevant and appropriate. Also, this is obviously a controversial topic, but I do not mean any offense whatsoever to anybody).

    Overall, this article was quite good. It did have some overlap with the previous article that was linked about ableism, but I think many of the points are important enough that they should be repeated, as it seems many writers don’t understand them. I do have some questions about points 2 and 3, however.

    For point 2, about “Cosmetic Disability,” how would that apply in a setting with extremely advanced technology or strong healing magic? You argue that it is fine for fiction to have disabled characters use assistance, but it should not erase everything about their disability. However, it seems entirely possible to me that there could be something with no or even fewer drawbacks than anything we have today. For example, your example of a blind person with a device that “lets them see” seems a very plausible piece of future technology to me, as artificial vision is being worked on even today and will probably improve in the future. Not everyone will want something like that, but I believe some people will. See this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_prosthesis for a summary of multiple research avenues involved. In fact, it’s entirely possible that even some non-blind people would want augmented vision. (This shades into transhumanist ideas, which I believe were praised in another article). I think the problem may be that while in reality, such high-quality assistance does not always exist, it could in science fiction or fantasy, so in such a work, it would break internal consistency not to have such devices used. I don’t think such a depiction would cause harmful real-life effects if the difference between fiction and reality was made very clear.

    For point 3, while I agree that disabled people should not be portrayed as totally helpless, it does seem that in certain harsh situations (war, apocalypse, etc.) it is realistic and expected for people with certain kinds of disabilities to be more vulnerable and therefore to die more often. This time, it’s the difference between what will happen and what should happen that should be emphasized. It should not be because of authorial bigotry that more disabled people die in a work of fiction, but purely if it makes in-story sense for that to happen.

    I think there are several related points here. One, disabilities, by definition, give disadvantages.

    It should be noted that to some extent, I do agree with the idea that part of the problem is society’s lack of accomodation. Also, things often called “disabilities” can have benefits as well. Some colorblind people can actually tell apart certain shades better than those without colorblindness, which has been helpful in fields such as hunting and spotting enemy planes. See here for an example: https://www.nature.com/news/2005/051205/full/news051205-1.html
    People deaf from birth can have more processing power devoted to their other senses. Autistic people, even those who aren’t “savants” per se, have styles of thinking that can be useful in some fields.

    However, negatives exist (as they do for everybody, even those without a disability). People generally want to get rid of drawbacks and keep advantages, but sometimes, they are closely linked and cannot be separated. Other times, disadvantages outweigh advantages, and this can lead to serious harm. This leads into my second point, that there are times when some people do want a cure and there are sometimes ways to achieve this cure, so it is not always harmful to depict it in fiction. There are some really fascinating arguments on all sides of the debate in this link (which I have posted before in another article’s comments, but I am reposting for ease of reference). https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/yzMbHLNdzzmsS8EB4/disability-culture-meets-the-transhumanist-condition

    This is an interesting way of looking at it. Would you want to be able to see every wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum? To sense magnetic fields like some other animals can? Even to fly? Not everyone would, but some would. That sort of reasoning would explain why some blind people want to see, some deaf people want to hear, some paralyzed people want to move on their own. (I’ve heard that the only deaf people who want to remain deaf are those who were deaf from birth; is this true?) Here’s the “reversal test,” which uses this sort of idea to counter status quo bias: https://ethicslab.georgetown.edu/phil553/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Ord-and-Bostrom-Eliminating-Status-Quo-Bias-in-Applied-Ethics-.pdf

    The third point is that while social justice is obviously important, the story making internal sense is also important. Fortunately, neither ever has to be sacrificed for the other. If social justice can exist in real life, it can exist in fiction as well. It is just that the context of the fictional world as opposed to our reality must be taken into account.

    • Fay Onyx

      In regards to Cosmetic Disability and settings with high levels of Magic and Technology, you are right that it wouldn’t make sense for people not to use that magic or tech to address disability. Because of enhanced healing abilities in these kinds of settings there is often a shift in what is a disability and what is a temporary injury or condition. That doesn’t mean that disability goes away entirely. Also, there are still likely to be costs, side effects, and limitations in many cases.

      Harry Potter is great example of this from the magic standpoint. While magic cures chronic illnesses and conditions that muggle medicine can’t, there are new magical chronic illnesses and conditions, like being a werewolf, that magic can’t completely cure. However, there is a specific potion that helps address the worst symptoms.

      With technology in particular, costs, side effects, and limitations are extremely likely because biology and technology function so differently. Geordi La Forge from Star Trek is a pretty good (if not perfectly implemented) example of this. He has a much broader range of vision than other characters and can see in conditions they can’t see in. He also experiences side effects, like headaches. Also, if I recall correctly, the optical implants are more prone to infection which can have unpleasant side effects as well.

      • Bubbles

        Those are good points. However, I was wondering how limited technology could actually be in certain situations (although the author usually has more freedom in defining magic). What I mean is that in very far-future situations, technology may have advanced to the point where there aren’t many relevant limitations. As just one example, there is already some work being done on bioprinting organs. It is entirely possible that eventually, organs (such as eyes) that are pretty much exactly like “natural” ones can be created and used. In that case, a blind person would be able to see pretty much exactly like anyone else, without any special drawbacks (or advantages. Of course, there is the possibility that everyone may be augmenting their sight by then.) All of this is pretty speculative, but if there is already some kinds of highly advanced technology present in the story, it may be difficult to believe that all technology that helps disabled people has certain limitations. For the Star Trek example, while I don’t know much about the show, I know it has replicators (which were mentioned in another article on this site). Is there a limitation that prevents them from say, producing organs? (Incidentally, because organs and so on can be grown from the recipient’s own cells, rejection should not be a problem).

        • Fay Onyx

          What is and isn’t a disability has a major social component to it and that will be affected by what medical treatments are available. This is what I mean when I say that what is a disability shifts under these circumstances. For example, also in Star Trek, Captain Picard has an artificial heart. Outside of one episode where it needs to be replaced, he experiences no side effects of it. I don’t consider him a disabled character.

          However, I think it is important to keep in mind that as technology improves it isn’t just a steady upward growth. The development of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistant bacteria, so antibiotics are getting harsher as time goes on. Use of technology can inherently have consequences. An example where something got worse is what happened audio quality when people switched from land lines to cell phones. We can hope that new development will improve these things, but the point is that things are more complicated that steady improvement.

          However, regardless of your perspective on technology, not all of disability is a medical condition that needs to be fixed or cured. Certain types of disability are a part of human diversity that should always be with humanity. This is particularly evident when it comes to the diversity of human minds. Even in a setting with perfect medical tech or magic that can do anything at all with no side effects, there should still be autistic people, people with ADHD, anxious people, and other types of mental diversity. Perhaps this utopian setting has better accommodations and treatments for some of the challenges that comes with mental diversity, but mental diversity will still be present.

          • Bubbles

            I actually do agree with your point that mental diversity should always be present. However, in that case, I wouldn’t necessarily call those conditions “disability.” It is a fact that currently, at least, “disability” is a word that sometimes can have negative connotations and focuses on what a person cannot do. If those conditions have positive sides along with their negative sides, then they are just a trait of some people. However, if you think the negative outweighs the positive for a certain condition, even a mental one, then why would you think that it would never be cured?

            Just one more question: I’ve heard claims that, for instance, although there are Deaf people who would not want a “cure,” the only people who think that way are those who have been deaf from birth. The implication of that statement is that if you become deaf later, you know what you are missing, unlike if you were deaf from birth. (This is extremely contentious, but please be aware that I am merely talking about the opinions of others, NOT stating my own opinion!) Have you found out about anyone who, say, became deaf and did not want a “cure,” or a similar situation for another condition? If not, what do you think that means? I’m just really curious.

          • Fay Onyx

            Using the term disability for mental diversity is complicated and it is socially constructed. In an utopian society, it is likely that no one with a divergent brain will be considered disabled, because society as a whole would be accessible. However, the actual real world we live in right now stigmatizes people with divergent brains and fails to accommodate them, which is why they fall under the broad umbrella of disability. Representation is something that maters for the real people of our world, and is therefore judged based on how well it represents the experiences of people who experience ableism in our current society. Therefore a story about mental diversity in an utopian society would be a meaningful form of representation.

            I don’t have a strong connection to the deaf community, but I do know there absolutely are deaf people who don’t want cures. The idea that this is because “they don’t know what they are missing” is super insulting. My best understanding is that this is about culture and language. If everyone in the USA knew ASL from birth, the experience of being deaf in the USA would be very different.

          • Bubbles

            I know this is not in the right place in the thread, but I had to respond to your last point about Deaf people who didn’t want a “cure” so I wasn’t misunderstood. I know there are people like that. However, my question was: Are all of the people who don’t want a “cure” deaf from birth? Or are any of them people who became deaf later in life and would like to remain that way?

          • Fay Onyx

            As I said, I don’t have a strong connection to the deaf community, so I can’t answer your question except to say there are about a million deaf people in the USA alone. The idea that all of the deaf people who don’t want a cure are deaf from birth seems pretty unlikely given the diversity of humans and the number of people we are talking about.

            To be honest, I know neurodivergent people who are not deaf or hard of hearing, but who find ASL easier to use than verbal languages, especially when they are upset or stressed. There are definitely reasons why a person would not want a cure even if they were born as a hearing person.

          • Fay Onyx

            If you want to learn more about the presence of disabled people and characters in science fiction and fantasy, I suggest checking out Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction.

            If you scroll back to the first posts on their kickstarter there is a whole heap of personal essays by disabled authors: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lynnemthomas/disabled-people-destroy-science-fiction-uncanny-ma/updates

  4. Dave L

    Ferrett Steinmetz discusses having characters w/ disabilities in a world where EVERYBODY is better off dead

    http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/09/07/ferrett-steinmetz-five-things-i-learned-writing-the-uploaded/

  5. Bunny

    Any tips on writing an albino character respectfully?

    Also, unrelated, but since I’ve been wondering for a while: how do you change the little moon next to your name to a picture?

    • Fay Onyx

      It is always tricky doing research on a disability when you don’t have a lot of personal experience with it. All of the medical information out there can be hard to connect with everyday life. One of the best resources I have found for finding out more about people’s everyday lives is youtube. There is an amazing community of disabled people on there who share a lot about their thoughts and experiences.

      For those people who can afford it, paying a disability consultant to help work out ideas, can also be a great option (I know of several people with albinism who do consulting work).

    • Chris Winkle

      As for your avatar (moon by default), to change it you need to sign up for a free account at gravatar.com and set a picture for the email address you use when you comment. Just be warned that the same picture may show up on other sites besides ours, the service allows any site to send them an email address and get a picture.

  6. C

    My mind went immediately to Davros from Doctor Who as I read this. While I love the show, I was really bothered by a scene in season 9 when the Doctor steals Davros’ “wheelchair” mobility device and it’s played up as funny badassery. That was kinda bad writing and I don’t think anyone involved in that scene realized the implications or how not funny it is to run off with somebody’s wheelchair, crutches, cane, etc. While it is an in-character thing for the Doctor to do, that scene felt unnecessary. He could’ve forced Davros to drive himself out there at gunpoint instead.

    Then there’s Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy telling Quill to bring him somebody’s prosthetic leg as a joke and asks “What did he look like hopping around?” Again, just bad writing for the same reason as above. Rocket does that again in Infinity War when he says he wants Bucky’s metal arm. Once more, those kinds of things are in-character for Rocket to do, but I don’t think those things were necessary in the movies.

    What’s really annoying is if I bring up those two issues, I get accused of being a killjoy SJW who doesn’t like fun.

    • Fay Onyx

      I hear you! Over the last decade disability activists have done a lot to raise awareness about ableism and shifts are starting to happen in many communities, but there are still large groups of people who don’t know even basic things about ableism. Trying to talk about ableism in those spaces is rough.

    • Bubbles

      I definitely wouldn’t call you a “killjoy SJW,” and you certainly have good intentions. With that said, maybe people are complaining about your views because, as you said, the actions you are discussing make sense in-character. The real problem is how the narrative itself treats those actions. I would argue that what the characters do can stay, but it should be treated as serious and not funny. Of course, if the alternate courses of action you mention would also make in-character sense, it’s fine to use them instead.

    • Cody

      With regards to Rocket I think they were trying to demonstrate that the character is an a**hole and were going for more of a kick the dog moment than anything else. While that exact thing may not be necessary, I do think that it was necessary to establish the character was a jerk. It probably could have been done better, but I do think something needed to be done to show that side of his character as how badly he treats others is largely a part of his character arc over the movies. I think they explain it pretty well in this scene from the second guardians movie. https://youtu.be/dXlw-CC1xo8

  7. Sam Beringer

    I’d also throw in “Tragic/Suicidal” Disability; where the disabled character expresses depression/suicidal thoughts regarding their disability. One big example is Jerome from Gattaca, who expresses bitterness over his paralysis and kills himself at the end of the movie.

    This makes it seem like disability is a fate worse than death and ties in to how people perceive disabled folks as pitiable. It also has some awful consequences; people with mental disorders like Autism have a history of being killed by caretakers.

    • Fay Onyx

      Absolutely! I have so much intense frustration with the handling of disability in Gattaca. That is one of the depictions that pretty much hits rock bottom for depicting disability badly.

      I’ve kinda shied away from making Tragic/Suicidal Disability its own category because it is so intense for me to write about (a lot of prominent disabled activists get told that they’d be better off dead and it is really awful). Instead I’ve touched on it in a bunch of other categories, like Helplessness, but also Bitter Disability and Disability as a Metaphor, which are other tropes I’ve written about on my website (http://writingalchemy.net/podcast-2/unfamiliar-heroes/trope-of-the-week-series/). Eventually, I’d like to get all of these expanded, updated, and polished up into a “Five More Common Harmful Representations of Disability” article on this site.

    • Dave L

      Like when Worf was paralyzed and wanted to commit suicide, but luckily they found a miracle cure so he didn’t have to?

      As I said in an earlier comment, I have seen people who’ve suddenly gained a disability become depressed, even suicidal. I have, however, seen some of them work through the depression, usually w/ proper medication and therapy

      But saying to someone who’s just been dealt a tough break, “Your life sucks. You really are better off dead,” is, shall we say, less than noble. We look to stories to inspire us, to guide us. Or sometimes just to provide an hour or so of mind-candy. We don’t need to be told to just kill ourselves, for whatever reason. Especially if we are, at that moment, in a particularly vulnerable state

      If you, because of a sudden disability or any other reason, think you may harm yourself, you don’t have to face this alone. Reach out to resources available. Some are found here: https://www.google.com/search?q=suicide+prevention

  8. Laura Ess

    BAD EXAMPLES
    Yes, Trek was particularly bad when dealing with disability. There’s an episode where Worf has his back broken and wants to end his life because he no longer thins that he be the warrior he needs to be. Despite Troi and Alexander supporting him, it takes an untested experimental surgery to restore his ability to walk before the next episode. And never again do we have that referenced. This didn’t start with TNG though. In the original series Uhura has her mind wiped for information by some alien and the next episode she can talk and do stuff normally. Of course that’s the nature of writing episodic stories with no real season arc. How much better if say, we’d seen Worf and Uhura struggle and undergo rehab to restore them in a process that at least takes some time.

    There was at least one exception to this in TNG. A negotiator who was deaf and dumb (but with low level telepathy) was effective because because he had an intuitive connection with his entourage who did the talking and listening for him. When they were killed he was able to turn this around by making learning to communicate with both sides the point of mutual contact.

    The twelfth Doctor wasn’t the only one to screw around with disabled villains. The Eleventh had a run in with one on crutches who’d hijacked a Silurian ship and ejected it’s crew out the airlock. The upshot was that the villain was stuck in a control room of his ship, and had to send stupid robots out to do his bidding. The fourth dealt with a space pirate captain with a missing eye, and one or more missing appendages in a “Key to Time” story. I think they were playing the pirate stereotype for laughs in that one.

    • Michael Campbell

      I wonder how much the “villain with disability affectation” was affected by the fact that Adolph Hitler was injured in a poison gas attack in 1918?
      And in a bomb blast in 1944.

      Also Travis from Blake’s 7.
      So you wanted to have an eye patch because you’re a line officer and depth perception has no use in combat?
      And your hand is the deadliest man-portable weapon in the known galaxy, and yet does all the stuff a hand can do too?

      Mentioning the Key To Time got me thinking.
      https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9632534/Mary-Tamms-widower-died-of-a-broken-heart.html

      • Cay Reet

        Hitler, however, was not considered disabled.

        Goebbels was disabled – he had a misformed foot.
        Goering was a life-long opium addict (after a severe injury received during WWI), which might have influenced his character some.

        Hitler was injured several times in his life, but never in a way which wasn’t healed completely. He had no disabilities and only suffered of some minor sicknesses towards the end of his life (mostly stomach problems and, in a new theory, perhaps early stages of Parkinson disease).

  9. Leon

    I never thought of Vader as disabled, and I found him more mysterious and cool than sinister. It was a surprise to see his face for the first time and realise that he was a frail old man, and it made him seem so much more powerful.

    • Michael Campbell

      I think with Vader, there was an attempt to make the mythological statement that sin yields self-inflicted wounds.
      And to a degree that’s followed up by Luke’s hand…he was reckless…he followed passion…he disobeyed a direct command from Yoda.

      It’s working on the line in The WIzard Of Oz when Glinda says; “Only bad witches are ugly.” But then in American Graffiti, Richard Dreyfuss, is the only one who gets let behind the curtain by Wolfman Jack, so I’ld say that movie influenced Lucas in a big way.

      The injuries of Vader are about the consequences of making a Faustian pact.
      Whether people read it as a statement about people who make a deal with the devil or a statement about the disabled collective; depends on many factors including, the mental development (A.K.A. age) of the viewer, the life experiences of the viewer and the story telling skill of the director.
      Instead of laying on the exposition with a trowel (and outlining that the Dark Side’s contents never match the outside of the tin): the 4th wall was protected. And the explanation was watered down to a throw-away line that people mis-remember years later. “Twisted and sister?”

      • Bubbles

        I suppose that there is something to your point that a violent villian is likely to be injured. However, I believe that a violent hero (as is very common in stories with a violent villian) is also likely to be injured. Even a hero who, say, only fights to defend himself/herself and others from villianous actions can still get hurt while being a good person. As I’ve said before, a villian can be disabled, but their disability shouldn’t be the reason why they are a villian. Also, there should be some disabled heroes as well, especially if they are in those kinds of situations, so that all through fiction, we don’t have disabled villians and few to no disabled heroes and good people.

        • Leon

          I saw the original trilogy when i was 12 (about 25 years ago).
          My point was that I didn’t see anything to sugest that Vader was a ‘bad’ guy (other than the fact that the Empire were “the baddies”). He didn’t want princess Leia to be interrogated and he was obviously upset that her planet was destroyed.

          Americans seem to hate their enemies more than other people do, and decide that they are all, and anybody like them, are bad people. Do you think this has something to do with the US militaries tendancy to commit attrocities, or do you think it has more to do with the “us and them” nature of American politics?
          (Sorry, it that’s strayed off topic but it seems relevant to subject of your example)

          • Michael Campbell

            I’m not sure if you’re asking me or Bubbles.
            I began watching the original trilogy about 40 years ago.
            I was pretty sure Darth Vader was a bad guy from the moment he began strangling information out of Captain Antilles.

            The Americans hate their enemies more than say the Iranians!?!
            What you mean to say, is; that they sometimes fall for the rhetoric that a country that stands up for itself should be labeled an enemy by their political leadership.
            The Pentagon knows that renaming French Fries into Freedom Fries is not about the French being the enemy of the US but rather about the French government being the ally of the French people collectively (which by the way, is exactly as it should be…all governments should serve their people and only merely have a willingness to help other countries when doing so does not interfere with their ability to serve their electors).

            The US ripping up the ANZUS treaty because the Lange government in New Zealand felt that as a sovereign nation it should be informed when the US brought atomic weapons into their harbours (so that they could make informed choices) and the US recognising that if they made allowances for that, the the Soviets would soon learn which US warships were not nuclear armed by watching which US warships visited New Zealand ports and that that would throw their “neither confirm nor deny” policy into a state of uselessness…was not an actual atrocity. Rampant stupidity yes. David Lange’s prime-minister-ship would one day pass and just sending a few cargo aircraft and a few marching bands and a laundry vessel on a good will tour would give the Ruskies nothing they weren’t already pretty sure of.

            I think a bigger influence on US military planing was Teddy Roosevelt’s African safari. When asked if he was a good shot, he replied; “No…but I shoot often.”
            And I think that’s influenced US military planing ever since.

            The real problem is the “Hollywoodization” of violence.
            First you dehumanise the bad guy.
            Then you make death:- the only solution.
            Lucas did a magnificent job of this by putting face covering helmets on his stormtroopers but it’s the easy bite sized chunks that the public will swallow that makes the product salable.
            Is beef easier to eat than cow? Is pork easier to eat than pig? Is lamb easier to eat than baby-sheep?

            The black man with a gun in your backyard has to be a drug crazed murderous necrophiliac here to murder and rape you.
            He couldn’t possible be hiding after pulling an armed robbery at the liqueur store because he needed money to buy drugs so he could self medicate away the trauma of his childhood sexual abuse.

            Hollywood makes product in bite-sized 120 minute chunks and having a nuanced and complicate world takes time. So Hollywood instead paints every bad guy in the darkest shade of evil.
            And then you get cops shooting people because they guy might have had a gun and all Bruce Springsteen can do is a sing a little song about it.

            The key is:- to teach your children that film and television are not the same thing as reality.

          • Leon

            Vader did have to get information out of Captain Antilles, it’s just something that has to be done.
            Whats more evil? breaking bones, drugs, sleep deprivation, water boarding, or scaring the crap out of him with a bit of light foreplay?

        • Michael Campbell

          Well, it’s not just violence that leads to self-inflicted wounds. The precedence; exists within narrative, that evil leads to self-inflicted wounds (John 5:1-14).

          Consider:-
          Victor Von Doom hated Reed Richards because Reed had cause an explosion that scarred Doom’s face.
          But was the injury caused by Reed correcting Doom’s calculations or was it Doom’s fault because opening up a portal to Hades in order to commune with his dead mother is in actuality opening a big can of chaotic karma?

          The thing to be aware of is the “disabled because they chose to make a purely untrustworthy deity into their ally” is a subset of the “disabled as a collective”.
          And thus the two groups are not interchangeable.
          The problem is not the “too evil to stop his evil even when it’s hurting himself” cliche but rather that “because some disabled character are; therefore all must”.

          • Bubbles

            The thing is that in real life, it’s not just bad people who get hurt. It’s understandable for people to dislike when ONLY villians have disabilities, especially because not only does that offend disabled people, it generally makes no sense, unless it’s an actual physical law of a specific fictional universe that “bad people are the only ones who get seriously hurt from injuries.” Not every work of fiction needs to have that kind of thing baked into the setting, again for both social justice reasons and originality reasons.

            You’re right that not all disabled people are villians. It’s fine for a villian to become disabled due to villianous actions, but there are heroic actions that can also lead to disability (such as taking an attack for another). The problem is the imbalance of disabled heroes vs. disabled villians, as well as the use of disability to enhance villiany.

          • Michael Campbell

            Bubbles:
            The key is to teach that one group is a subset of the larger group. Worse than offending the disabled is teaching people (particularly children) to assume there’s an evil cause when they see a disabled person.

            The real problem you’re talking about is not the cliche itself but rather the over-use of the cliche. “The cliché becoming passé?”

          • Bubbles

            That’s actually basically what I’m saying. I think the original article specifically says it’s overrepresentation that’s the problem. My points aren’t really directed at you, they’re for the creators who, even today, still do things such as have a character be a villian due to disability.

  10. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I read a book set after The Empire Strikes Back where Luke experiences phantom pain with his new hand, but that seems like having to read into Leia’s character to give her an arc – you have to read into it all a bit. But there was that scene where Luke cut off Vader’s hand in ROTJ and reflected on his own metal hand. And I don’t really think that stood for a disability – most everyone in the Star Wars universe has lost a limb at one point or another. Particularly the Skywalker family. It’s like a blind character miraculously getting their eyesight back – so old a concept that it can hardly be recognized as problematic nowadays, though it should be, like a guy getting hit in the crotch. But I digress.

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