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This the sixth 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 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.

 

Magical Cures and Disability as an Obstacle

Many classic fairy tales involve magical cures for illness and disability. For example, at the end of Rapunzel the prince is blinded by thorns and then wanders for years until he finally finds Rupunzel again. Thereupon they embrace and her tears restore his sight so that they return to his kingdom to live happily ever after. In these kinds of stories, disability is treated as a temporary obstacle. Magical cures become a reward for the perseverance of the heroes. This pattern isn’t limited to fairy tales. Magical cures are commonplace in everything from Star Trek (in the episode “Ethics” Lieutenant Wharf undergoes a risky surgery to replace his damaged spine) to stories like Forest Gump which are supposedly set in the real world (here Forest’s childhood leg braces miraculously fall to pieces as he suddenly discovers his exceptional running ability).

When disability is treated as a temporary obstacle to be overcome on a journey toward gaining able-bodied status, it sends a harmful message about what it means to be disabled. In these stories, being able-bodied is treated as an all-important goal that eclipses everything else in the disabled character’s life. This reduces the character to their disability and robs them of the chance to do other meaningful things. It also sends the message that disability is a terrible thing and that being disabled is inferior to being able-bodied.

There is a common myth that disabled, chronically ill, and neurodiverse people just need to do something different in order to improve their conditions. This includes eating differently, getting more exercise, taking certain herbs, and switching medications. Because of this myth, real world disabled people are barraged with well-meaning, but ignorant advice whenever they bring up accessibility needs or challenges they are struggling with. Stories where characters cure their disabilities through perseverance feed this harmful pattern. The idea that that hard work and a positive attitude can overcome disability leads to real disabled people being blamed for their struggles.

Finally, stories about magical cures don’t accurately represent the experiences of disabled people. For most real world people, disability is ongoing, even when it changes. Magical cures that remove a character’s disability create a false image of disability which makes it harder for real disabled people to identify with the characters. How is a person with a long-term condition supposed to feel about a story where a disabled character is magically healed in the end? Magical cures rob audience members of the opportunity to experience a disabled character with a meaningful future in front of them. The magical cure makes the story less about the experiences of a disabled person and more about the fears and desires of able-bodied people.

What to do instead:

Avoid making disability into a temporary obstacle for a character to overcome, and don’t give a character a magical cure as a reward. Instead, think about disability as a long-term part of the character’s life. Their condition may improve with life changes, medication, and physical therapy, but if their condition wouldn’t go away in the real world, be cautious about making it go away in fiction. Do the research needed to make any changes to the character’s condition realistic. Some conditions get better over time, some get worse, and some change in other ways. Please work to portray this full range.

Because there is a harmful pattern of depicting hard work and perseverance curing disabilities, think about carefully about doing anything that follows this pattern. One of the things to remember about an ongoing disability is that the experience of managing the disability is full of trade offs. Medications have side effects and physical therapy exercises take time and energy to do. So, even for disabled characters with few ongoing symptoms, there will be costs to maintaining that state, costs which able-bodied characters don’t need to pay. Showing these costs makes the story less about an idealized “cured” state, and more about each character’s personal choices about how they can have the best quality of life.

Be sure that all disabled characters have full lives and goals that go beyond their disabilities. In particular, avoid having a character’s main goal be “becoming able-bodied” (even if they grow out of it later). There already are far too many stories about characters who become disabled and agonize about how terrible being disabled is. Even when the character later comes to terms with their disability, this process of excessive agonizing can send a lot of damaging messages. Remember that agonizing over it is just one response to becoming disabled. There are many other ways to respond to that situation that are rarely represented. Show some of those other responses. Think about how your character usually solves problems and have them apply that strategy to moving forward with their life. What larger goals do they have that don’t relate to their disability?

Of course, many characters will have some goals that do relate to their disabilities. Instead of the goal of “becoming able-bodied,” goals like “having a good quality of life” are often more realistic and healthy. Not every goal needs to focus inward either. Goals can also be about getting access to needed accommodations or increasing awareness about ableism. And it is important to recognize that not everyone wants to be “cured.” For example, there are people with diverse minds, like me, who assert that there is nothing wrong with our minds. The problems we experience come entirely from being in a society that doesn’t make room for our natural ways of being. We may address those challenges using a wide range of means (including medication), but the cure we seek is for society.

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