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This the eighth post of my Ableist Trope of the Week Series. It has been polished, updated, and expanded in “Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability” which has been published on the Mythcreants blog.

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.


One-Dimensional Disability

There is a tendency in United States culture to treat privileged identities as the norm. This means that white, straight, ablebodied, cisgender men (to name just a few privileged identities) are treated as the starting point for all characters. Representation of diversity then becomes a process of swapping one (or possibly two) oppressed identities for the privileged identities in this starting point. This is why stories about teams, even those focused on diversity, usually end up being predominantly white and predominantly male, with few, if any, queer, trans, and disabled characters. Star Trek is a prominent example of this. The casts of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all had multiple white men, multiple white women, and multiple men of color, with maybe one woman of color and one disabled character.

This leads to disability representation that is overwhelmingly focused on white, straight, cisgender men and a smaller number of white, straight, cisgender women. Depictions of disabled people of color and disabled queer folks are few and far between. Just look at any top ten list of disabled characters. How many women, people of color, trans folks, and queer characters are there? Most lists have more straight white men than everyone else combined (not to mention a complete absence of queer and trans characters). In addition, there is a distinct deficiency of characters with complexly layered experiences of oppression, such as queer, disabled, women of color.

This lack of representation has serious consequences. As activist Vilissa Thompson, the creator of #DisabilityTooWhite, so eloquently said, “I think the lack of representation hinders our abilities to feel like we belong, to feel like our lives and our stories are important. We feel isolated and outcast when you don’t see people who look like you, not just racially but disability-wise” (Confronting the Whitewashing of Disability). I also believe that this lack of representation is also connected to the disparities in diagnosis that people of color experience, where they are diagnosed later and less often than white people (Children of Color and Autism: Too Little, Too Late, Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Diagnosis and Treatment).

What to do instead:

As long as privilege is treated like the norm, characters with intersecting oppressed identities will be rare. The best way to challenge this is to change who is centered as the most normal. Instead you can choose to center other experiences, like the experience of having multiple oppressed identities. To be honest, when you take into account all of the privileged identities in United States culture (including class, religion, age, and body type), there are actually very few people who are privileged in all ways, and a large number of people who have two or more oppressed identities.

This means examining your entire cast of characters. How many characters have two or more oppressed identities? Compare this to the number of characters with a single oppressed identity and those who are totally privileged. Also, how is the overall balance of the cast? Is it predominantly male? Is it predominantly white? Examine this both for the entire cast and for just the main characters. If either the main cast or the entire cast is skewed toward one or more privileged identities, think about why that is. Was it unconscious or is it the result of some aspect of the story or setting. For example, there are some settings, like the United States Congress, that naturally skew toward privileged people. However, this setting is itself a choice and therefore needs to be examined. Does the presence of many privileged characters serve the story? Could the story be told in a more diverse setting? How large a role do the characters with oppressed identities that are present in this setting play within the story? Do they accomplish their own goals, or only assist more privileged people?

Finally, it is important to think specifically about the representation of the disabled characters. How many disabled characters are there, and how many of them have additional oppressed identities? 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. There are many people in the world living out these intersecting experiences of oppression and disability, and all of us deserve to have our experiences represented.


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