I have a group of kids who can transform into monsters. Think Animorphs meets Godzilla.
One of the kids uses a wheelchair. Long-time user, adjusted physically and emotionally. Their monster form is able-bodied. The transformation is temporary and the monster form can’t fit in a typical building or otherwise function in normal society.
Is this a “magic cure” or “super compensation”? Any advice for this area?
– Dave L
Animorphs meets Godzilla is a great premise! However, you are right to be concerned about this specific dynamic. While transforming into an able-bodied monster isn’t exactly the disability compensation or magical cure tropes, it is similar. This is a disability-negating superpower, which is a representation problem that is most common for physically disabled characters in superhero stories. There are many examples, like Freddy Freeman transforming into Captain Marvel Junior and Donald Blake transforming into Thor. For more examples, check out the TV Tropes list.
As a general rule, transformations shouldn’t remove a character’s marginalized traits. Having a physically disabled character transform into an able-bodied superhero sends the message that the character can’t do heroic things while they are disabled. Even though your characters are transforming into monsters, the pattern is the same; the disabled character only becomes super powerful by becoming able-bodied.
While being a giant monster may have some unique challenges and access needs that are worth exploring, these are distinct from the access needs of a wheelchair user. Transformations into other species are a great way to explore diverse access needs, which can represent some important aspects of disabled experience, but this is not the same as being disabled.
In order for a disabled hero to be a positive representation, they need to be disabled while being super powerful and doing heroic things. In addition, the character’s disability should affect them. As Ava Jae says in The Problem with Superpowered Disabled Characters:
“But I also want to see them struggle with their disability. I want to see them get frustrated, and deal with ableism, and have bad days and good days. I want to see them take medication, and if their condition is degenerative I want to see them get worse, and be uncertain about the future, and not have a good answer for what life will be like in five, ten years. I want them to deal with their disability in real, tangible ways. I want it to affect their everyday lives, I want their disability to be visible and invisible, and I want it to matter.”
The solution is clear: have the character continue to be disabled in monster form. Positive disability representation is about having the disability affect the character while they are being heroic and powerful. The character should have moments where ableism or their disability creates challenges, and they should be able to accomplish great things. Both need to happen in monster form, as well as human form. In addition, not all of the challenges the character faces should be about their disability.
Without knowing more about your story, it is hard to give specific advice about what a disabled monster might be like in your setting. My initial thought is to have their wheelchair transform with them, becoming giant-sized and extra sturdy. Of course, that is just one option. If you are having trouble figuring out how to make a disabled monster work, I highly recommend hiring a consultant who has the same disability as your character and who is comfortable with the fantastical elements of speculative fiction.
One final thing to keep in mind is that many depictions of monsters are ableist. I discuss this in detail in Ridding Your Monsters of Ableism:
“People create monsters that reflect the fears of their society, including fears about disability. Because of this, ableism has been incorporated into our depictions of monsters. In some cases, disability is used to make monsters seem dangerous, unsettling, or unpredictable. Other times, it’s used to give monsters weaknesses that heroes can exploit.”
However, there is nothing wrong with having disabled monsters, as long as it is done respectfully and avoids ableist patterns. In fact, having a disabled monster hero that is represented well could be a refreshing change from these negative patterns.
I hope that this helps. Good luck with your storytelling project. It sounds fun!
–Fay Onyx from Writing Alchemy