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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.

 

Formerly called the Trope of the Week Series when it was being released weekly, this series is about identifying harmful ways that disability is represented in storytelling, and suggesting alternatives.

If you are looking for more discussions of ableism, check out the Addressing Ableism Series. While it focuses on tabletop role-playing games, many of the topics covered, such as creating a diverse cast of characters and identifying unintentionally disabled characters are useful for all storytellers.

 

The Ableist Tropes

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.”

This article has been polished, updated, and expanded in “Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability” on the Mythcreants blog.

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).”

Cosmetic Disability: “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.”

This article has been polished, updated, and expanded in “Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability” on the Mythcreants blog.

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.”

This article has been polished, updated, and expanded in “Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability” on the Mythcreants blog.

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.”

This article has been polished, updated, and expanded in “Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability” on the Mythcreants blog.

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.”

I discuss many topics from this article in greater detail in Respectfully Depicting a Character Adapting to a Disability on the Mythcreants blog.

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).”

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.”

This article has been polished, updated, and expanded in “Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability” on the Mythcreants blog.

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.”

Ableist Monsters: “People create monsters that reflect the fears of their society, including fears about disability. Because of this, ableism has been incorporated into our depictions of monsters. In some cases, disability is used to make monsters seem dangerous, unsettling, or unpredictable. Other times, it’s used to give monsters weaknesses that heroes can exploit.”

This article is on the Mythcreants blog as Ridding Your Monsters of Ableism. It is a major expansion of my gaming-focused article, Ableist Monsters.

Newly Disabled Characters: “Storytellers often portray characters navigating new disabilities. Usually this is played for drama, casting a new disability as a terrible catastrophe. While it is true that becoming disabled can be hard, these depictions are exaggerated, inaccurate, and stigmatizing.”

This article is on the Mythcreants blog as Respectfully Depicting a Character Adapting to a Disability. It is a major expansion of many of the topics included in Magical Cures and Disability as an Obstacle (above).

 

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.

 

Background

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability that I wrote for my Guidelines for Game Masters page. It was released weekly in 2017, and was originally titled the Trope of the Week Series, which was then changed to the Ableist Trope of the Week Series, before being shortened to Ableist Tropes. Nine of the originally planned ten articles were released. New articles that cover ableist tropes will continue being added to this list as I write them.

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.

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.

 

One Response to “Ableist Tropes in Storytelling”

  1. I appreciate the work you’ve done here. I’m writing a D&D supplement for DMs Guild to help players & DMs create and develop disabled PCs & NPCs and would like to include these tropes to avoid. May I use this list with a link back to the page?

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