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This the fourth post of my new Trope of the Week Series.

Tropes are conventions (or repeated patterns) used in storytelling. They can include themes and plot devices. Underdog characters triumphing after dedicated training is an example of a trope, as is goodness being associated with physical beauty, and villains revealing their secret plans to heroes they have just captured.

Some tropes reinforce oppressive messages, and in this series I will be going through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. Because knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do, I will end each post with suggestions for ways to fix things.

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability from my Guidelines for Game Masters page.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left is a black and white photograph of an empty wheelchair on a road as a semi-transparent person walks away down the road. On the right is a life-sized plastic statue of Captain Hook.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left is a black and white photograph of an empty wheelchair on a road as a semi-transparent person walks away down the road. On the right is a life-sized plastic statue of Captain Hook.

 

Helpless Disability

The repeated association of disability with charity portrays disabled people as pitiable, vulnerable, and pathetic. The character of Tiny Tim from The 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.

It is true that 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 and 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 makes them helpless in way that is different from the other vulnerabilities they have. 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, error on the side of not killing disabled characters. The fact that their aren’t many awesome disabled characters for people to identify with makes having living disabled characters with meaningful futures in front of them all the more important.

The kind of violence that happens to characters with disabilities also matters. In particular, depictions of completed suicides or mercy killings are especially bad as they send the message that it 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, I do want to acknowledge that most stories are about adversity, something 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 that 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. Having an effect on the other characters and the story is what gives their actions power and prevents them from being helpless.

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