Spotlighting Heroes Who Are Disabled
Words By Gina Gruss, Art By Mondschwinge
It was, of all things, in the movie Trainwreck, where I saw the first media representation of multiple sclerosis (MS). I was sixteen. My heart swelled. I immediately started crying. I ducked my head into my arm and wiped my tears away before my mom and sister could see. It was the first time I felt seen as the daughter of someone who has MS, and to this day, the only time I’ve seen MS represented in any story, regardless of medium.
Disabled is a complex and loaded word. It’s an insult, a reclaimed term and an extremely broad category for a person whose life is impacted in some way by a condition, be it mental or physical, visible or invisible. When people think of disability, they likely think of visible ones, such as the use of a wheelchair or cane. My dad needs a device and a cane to walk. Others treat him softly and kindly but regard him as frail, as though he’s made of eggshells. I’m invisibly disabled: a tangle of multiple medical disabilities and mental disorders, some of which I have only been diagnosed with at 22. To me, “disabled” has only until recently been a taboo word, something distant and limited and deeply misunderstood. Multiple struggles intersect, particularly compounding in issues with the medical field (especially as a queer woman of color) and the way that I’ve been brushed off as having “hormonal issues.” Being someone who is disabled is isolating—largely due to the lack of representation and education. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Literature and media portrayals are educational in many ways, showing the nuances of people’s experiences and having people empathize with them. But good portrayal matters, as misrepresentation can infantilize, victimize or villainize people with disabilities in popular thought. Accurate, positive portrayals create role models, reduce the distance between people who are disabled and non-disabled people and remove harmful stereotypes.
This article will touch on disabled portrayals and tropes, the problem with a certain popular disabled genre, “Sick-lit” and finally, where to go from here. Media has begun to shift to include characters who are disabled who aren’t stereotypes or die, but we have a long way to go. For example, 33% of characters who are disabled are still killed in movies compared to 13% of their able-bodied counterparts. Publishers Association reports that 6.6% of the publishing workforce identified having a disability. Only 3.4% of published children’s and YA books in 2018 had a main character who was disabled. According to the CDC, 26% of American adults identify as disabled.
History and Portrayal
There is a lot of discourse surrounding proper disability portrayal. No single narrative will ever stand for everyone’s experiences. For the purposes of this article, I’m simplifying these concepts and encourage for anyone reading to do additional research.
Disability portrayals have historically (and presently) fallen in four tropes: the Villain (a monster), the Victim (always killed), the person who ‘overcomes’ their disability and is successful (a “Supercrip”) and/or the infantilized person (a helpless but extremely pure person).
The Villain is seen in Darth Vader, Captain Hook, the Joker and even Lord Farquaad. Their disabilities are glaringly visible and intrinsically tied to the reason why they are a villain. Even 2019’s Joker reinforced the false and harmful idea that anyone with a mental disorder is inherently dangerous. His laughing outbursts, caused by the neurological condition pseudobulbar affect, causes shock and disgust in the audience. While he is a sympathetic character, in part turned into a ‘villain’ due to the (extremely real) lack of support and care for people who are disabled, he is still a violent killer.
The Supercrip is, according to Joseph P. Shapiro in his book, No Pity: People with Disabilities Foraging a New Civil Rights Movement, “an inspirational disabled person […] glorified […and] lavishly lauded in the press and on television.” Forrest Gump is an example—he sheds his leg braces and runs superhumanly far and fast. He’s a spectacular human who also happens to have disabilities, but they hardly hold him back. Reality shows like America’s Got Talent often play into the Supercrip, showcasing and exploiting the contestant’s disability to garner sympathy, then show “how they’ve pushed past the odds” through their talent to inspire.
The Infantilized is a character who is unbelievably pure and good. They are childlike, naïve, desexualized and sweet, unable to conceptualize inflicting harm on others. These narratives equate disabled people to children but also present them as more inhuman and ‘other’ due to their lack of emotional maturity. Forrest is another example.
The Victim is any character who is disabled and dies or is abused as a plot device to make the audience sad. They’re generally but not always side-characters or lineless extras in disaster movies, there to garner sympathy from the audience. Think Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. These representations reinforce ideas that people who are disabled are helpless.
The Problem with Sick-Lit
I want to briefly touch on a problematic subgenre of disability narratives: “Sick-Lit,” the romance/drama YA subgenre where terminal illness is the primary plot anchor.
“Sick-Lit’s” most popular books include Before I Die, The Fault in Our Stars, Everything, Everything, Me Before You and 13 Reasons Why. While these works show audiences that people who are disabled—generally young, white and straight—are capable and deserving of love. The narrative amplifies tragedy and drama, partly because they are romance novels and partly because death is always around the corner, where the relationship has only a short honeymoon phase in which the duo meets while one is dying. They are also usually inaccurate when it comes to portraying the complexities of the medical field and illness itself.
These books read like wish fulfillment written by able-bodied people for able-bodied people. The characters don’t need to worry about school or panic about the cost of healthcare. Their disabilities only appear when it’s convenient for the story (ex. someone fainting in the middle of a fight, when drama is at its peak, to avoid the fallout of the fight). They garner sympathy for people who are disabled, pigeonholing them as victims who will eventually die. Illnesses are plot devices and suicide is fetishized. A “satisfying” death is seen as liberating—one character’s death convinces the other to live their lives to the fullest. The primary emotional anchor (the death) is shown to have a positive impact by helping other characters realize that life is worth living. We never see other characters fall into depression due to the death of a loved one. It’s only a textually happy ending afterwards.
While these narratives do exist in real life, more nuanced representation that shows people who are disabled that live full lives with their disability and not despite it should also exist.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Better disability representation is appearing more in media. Movies such as Mad Max: Fury Road and How to Train Your Dragon feature good examples of disabilities that aren’t the focus of the narrative. In literature, One for All by Lillie Lainoff, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, and Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert portray characters with disabilities who have rich narrative arcs. Lainoff, Bardugo, and Hibbert also have disabilities.
Even if you are not someone who is disabled, I urge you to read more books written by and/or featuring disabled people. Think critically about your own biases. And, of course, feel free to write characters that are disabled, even if you’re not—with proper care and research.
In literature, only the author’s literacy limits what can be written. There is a place for disabled characters in media without focusing the story solely on their disability. Media shapes the way we see the world and vice-versa in a constant loop just like how life reflects art and art reflects life. Breaking the cycle and including good disability representation, supporting creatives who are disabled and ingesting media focused on characters who are disabled forms a feedback loop of more and improved representation for all people who are disabled. In turn, people will be encouraged to write and pass laws that help the lives of others who have disabilities.
It all begins with a story—will it be yours? If you’re exploring characters with disabilities in your fiction, consider submitting to F(r)iction—we’d love to read it!
A Final Note
This article primarily uses person-first language (“someone who is disabled”) over identity-first language (“disabled person”). While I personally don’t mind using either style for myself, it’s important to learn and respect preferences of the groups and people we’re writing about. Most disabled communities are moving toward person-first language. To learn more, check out these guidelines on writing about people with disabilities by the ADA National Network. Remember: words hold meaning. By incorporating subtle changes in the way we speak, we can reduce ableism in our everyday lives.