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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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