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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.

 

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability that I wrote for my Guidelines for Game Masters page. I am not the only one to have written about these harmful patterns, but I take the conversation in a direction that I believe is both needed and rarely done. I spend a lot of time examining how to know if you are following these patterns and what to do differently.

Here is some background on this project. 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 go through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. The first nine articles of this 10 articles series have already been released:

  1. Villanous Disability. “If you want to create a villain with a disability, it is important to recognize that people with disabilities are over represented as villains. This by itself can be harmful, so the first thing to do is make sure that the villain isn’t the only character with a disability in the story.”
  2. Bitter Disability. “If bitterness is an important part of the character, be sure that there is a clear cause for their bitterness that it is not simply the fact that they are disabled. There are a lot of things that a character could be bitter about. For example, they could be bitter about politics, or their messed up family, or even the biased way they that are treated because of stereotypes about their disability (please be sure to make this distinct from being bitter about their disability).”
  3. Disabled in Name Only. “The other big thing is to not make disability into the focus of the character’s powers and abilities. In a story where most characters don’t have extraordinary abilities, don’t give a character a superpower just to make up for the fact that they are disabled. Disabled characters don’t need special powers to accomplish their goals or to give them value. In stories that are about characters having extraordinary abilities, don’t choose an ability for your character that is designed to perfectly make up for their disability. Instead give them an interesting ability that fits the story or their personality.”
  4. Helpless Disability. “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.
  5. Inspirational Disability. “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.”
  6. Magical Cures and Disability as an Obstacle. “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… 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.”
  7. Fragile Body, Magic Mind. “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).”
  8. One-Dimensional Disability. “Because there so little representation that goes beyond straight, white, cisgender people with disabilities, it is important prioritize the representation of disabled people of color, queer and trans people with disabilities, and characters with complex, layered experiences of oppression.”
  9. Metaphorical Disability. “In general, I strongly recommend against using any oppressed group as a metaphor for anything else, whether it is in a big or small way. This is especially true if the person creating the metaphor isn’t a member of the group they are turning into a metaphor.”

 

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.

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