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This the seventh 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.

 

Fragile Body, Magic Mind

Of the protagonists who have physical disabilities that significantly impact their lives, nearly all of them are given mind-focused powers to the exclusion of all other kinds of abilities. With the exception of characters whose abilities or technology compensate for their disabilities, there is a notable absence of physical powers being given to physically disabled characters. For example, while there are multiple paraplegic superheroes like Professor X and Oracle who have mental powers, I don’t know of any paraplegic superheroes with physical powers who are frontline fighters (which they totally could be with superpowers).

The justification behind this pattern is the idea that not all physically disabled characters have bodies that are well suited to being frontline fighters. And while there is some truth to that, it doesn’t explain the absence of physically disabled characters with physical roles and abilities. This absence is rooted in the idea that disabled bodies are not powerful or capable of physical accomplishment. In many cases, this harmful idea is further reinforced by plots that turn disabled characters into burdens for the able-bodied characters. Bran Stark from Game of Thrones is a blatant example of this. In one iconic scene his unconscious body was literally dragged to safety while his mind was trapped in visions.

Here I think that it is important to bring up the “supercrip myth” as it often fits into this larger pattern. The supercrip myth is the idea that having a disability in one area of life means that the person will gain a special ability to compensate for it. This myth is the reason that, even in stories where few characters have magic or supernatural abilities, the characters who receive these gifts are frequently disabled. Sometimes these special abilities directly compensate for the disability, like Daredevil’s super senses which compensate for his blindness. In other cases, like Bran Stark, the abilities are mentally focused and intended to give the character a role in the larger plot.

One of the problems with the supercrip pattern is that it implies that disabled characters have nothing to contribute without special powers. Their value becomes centered in and limited to their special abilities. This sends the message that most real world disabled people, who obviously don’t have superpowers, don’t have inherent value or things to contribute. But because disabled people are also viewed as inspirational, those disabled people who do accomplish things are expected to achieve superhuman levels of achievement and perfection in order to prove their worth.

What to do instead:

Give disabled characters the full range of powers and abilities that you would give to able-bodied characters, including physical powers. Having disabled characters with mental powers isn’t a bad thing; the problem is the absence of disabled characters with other kinds of powers (especially physical powers). Because of this pattern, be careful about any situation where the only disabled character (or the most prominent disabled character) has only mental powers. The best thing to do is to have multiple disabled characters, each with different types of abilities.

It also helps to be aware of what each disabled character can do with their bodies (even those who are mentally focused). This helps ensure that disabilities are portrayed realistically and that disabled characters are not being made less physically capable than they should be. Remember that having a physical disability doesn’t inherently make a person more fragile. It is true that there are specific medical conditions that will make a person more prone to certain types of injury, but those specifics shouldn’t be generalized. Of course, disabled characters will run into challenges and barriers relating to their disabilities, but it is important to avoid making them into physically helpless burdens (see Helpless Disability).

Treat disabled characters as inherently valuable as able-bodied characters. This means avoiding giving disabled characters special abilities that are designed compensate for their disabilities (as if their disabilities make them less valuable). This is an issue regardless of whether the special ability is a direct compensation for the disability (like Daredevil’s super senses) or is a mental ability that develops from their disability (like Bran Stark’s visions). While it is not inherently bad for disabled character to have special abilities, be sure disabled characters aren’t disproportionately being given special powers, nor should their special abilities be defined by their disabilities.

Finally, treating disabled character as inherently valuable also means that the accomplishments and worth of disabled characters shouldn’t be limited to their special powers. They need to have more to offer than just their special abilities. At the same time, don’t go too far in the other direction by burdening disabled characters with the expectation that they refute stereotypes by being more perfect and accomplished than would be required of an able-bodied character. In general, having rounded characters with full lives and realistic strengths and flaws is a great place to start when trying to find this balance.

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