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This the fifth post of my 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 a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

 

Inspirational 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 that are intended to be a positive representation of disability. Movies like Forest Gump, for example, create a heart-warming story at the expense of reinforcing stereotypes about disability. These stereotypes include viewing people with intellectual disabilities as eternally innocent, the myth that disabled people create the obstacles in their own lives, and the idea that a positive attitude is the only thing disabled people need in order to overcome the barriers in their lives.

Inspirational stories of disability also take away from the humanity of the disabled characters. For example, despite being the main character of the movie, Forest Gump is not fully characterized. Instead he is a caricature of eternal innocence who reacts to the people around him in a way designed to create humor and social commentary. He follows the directions of others and even takes the majority of his interests from the people and situations around him. Forest Gump is not intended to be a character that the audience identifies with. Instead he exists to teach lessons to others. This is a common pattern with inspirational disability; disabled characters are created not to tell their own stories, but to teach lessons and expand the minds of the people around them.

Within inspirational disability there are two other common patterns to watch out for. The first is portraying disabled people as brave or inspirational for getting through their daily lives. This often comes with a dehumanizing fixation on the bodies of disabled people. Underneath this kind of inspiration is the idea that the lives of disabled people are so terrible that just getting through an ordinary day requires extraordinary courage and perseverance. It also demonstrates low expectations for the capacity of disabled people to achieve anything. While it is important not to erase the struggles and pain that many disabled people experience, doing an everyday thing shouldn’t be treated as exceptional.

The other common pattern is treating the accomplishments of disabled people as is they are supposed to mean something about the ability of able-bodied people to accomplish something. For example, this would be treating the fact that a specific wheelchair user trained to be an impressive athlete as if that means that an able-bodied person who doesn’t exercise should stop making excuses. This pattern places disabled people in constant comparison to able-bodied people, preventing their accomplishments from being recognized on their own merits. It also sends the message that disability is a huge terrible obstacle that disabled people must overcome in order to accomplish anything. Finally, this pattern also buys into the idea that disabled people are inherently less capable of achievement.

What to do instead:

Start by doing some research and portraying disability in a realistic manner. Disability is not life destroying, but it will present real challenges in the lives of the characters. It should be clear, however, that many of these challenges come from society and not just from the disability (such as a lack of sign language interpretation or an absence of meal delivery programs). Importantly, a positive attitude should not be the main thing the character needs to address those challenges. As Stella Young so eloquently put it, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.”

Make sure that disabled characters are fully developed in their own right. They should have their own interests and goals, rather than being present just to teach the other characters important life lessons. When designing growth arcs for disabled characters, be cautious about making their arc about their disability. Stories about characters struggling with their disabilities tend to reinforce stereotypes about disability even when the characters do grow from that struggle. These stories also run the risk of reducing their characters to their disabilities and losing their full humanity. Therefore, it is especially important to make sure that disabled characters have other interests, relationships, and goals in their lives.

Avoid treating disabled characters as if they are inherently inspirational for existing. Don’t fixate on the ways disabled people use their bodies, even when they are different than the ways most able-bodied people uses their bodies. Refrain from assuming that 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 brave and inspirational acts, these words have become so tainted by condescending misuse that many disabled people cringe whenever they hear them applied to a disabled person.

Lastly, disabled characters should have their accomplishments respected on their own merits and not defined by either by their disabilities or by comparison to others. To do this, take a moment to reflect on how the character’s achievements are being presented. Are their achievements being used to inspire able-bodied people? Are assumptions being made about this person’s disability and how it affects their ability to achieve things? Has disability become a defining part of their achievement, without which their accomplishment wouldn’t have as much meaning? If an able-bodied character accomplished the same things, would that be handled differently? Finally, is this person being treated as exceptional in a way that implies that disabled people usually aren’t capable of accomplishing things? Remember that history is full of disabled people who accomplished great things (Harriet Tubman, Beethoven, Albert Einstein). Accomplishment should be as normal and expected for disabled characters as it is for able-bodied characters.

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2 Comments on "Trope of the Week #5: Inspirational Disability"

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Eileen Hawkins
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Speaking of disability, it would be nice if this website was made to be accessible. It should at least be made to be read on a mobile phone. The tiny print may be OK on a monitor, but it’s nearly unreadable on my phone. And there is apparently no way to increase font size. This is 2017, get with the program. In other news, I am the bitchy old lady in the wheelchair. You’re right, we are not all cheerful. Not are we brave just to get up in the morning. My problem is I am a little too rich… Read more »
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