I watch a lot of TV and a lot of movies, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. I love shows about alien cultures and fighting demons.
I’m also disabled. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I have myelomeningocele spina bifida. So what does that have to do with my love of science fiction and fantasy?
Well, kind of everything. I’ve started to notice some startling things about how disabled characters are portrayed in pretty much every form of media, from books and movies to TV shows and comic books. Science fiction makes use of magical prostheses that require no physical rehabilitation or any personal life adjustments, and fantasy stories will often use magic or alternate timelines to wipe disability from the character slate.
It wasn’t so glaring until I rewatched old seasons of Supernatural on Netflix. At one point in the show, a character named Bobby’s spine is broken, leaving him paralyzed in a wheelchair. He’d spent his whole life as a blue-collar, manual-labor kind of guy, and his was a struggle I could really identify with. Though I’m not paralyzed, it’s very difficult for me to maintain leg muscle because the nerves in my legs aren’t all there. I can’t do things I used to be able to do. I saw the same frustration on Bobby’s face when he was forced to confront that same reality.
And then the season drew to a close, and the writers thought Bobby deserved a “happy ending.” So he sells his soul, and that somehow cures his paralysis. Bobby never had to come to terms with his disability. He lived with his for less than a year before being “restored” to his former glory.
That is something I couldn’t relate to, something I am probably never going to experience. I’m starting to see the perks in my disability, but I didn’t get to go through it or see my experience mirrored with Bobby. When I first watched this storyline unfold on Supernatural, back when it originally aired on TV, it was a vague fantasy that I might one day be cured. Rewatching it years later, I knew that I wouldn’t get the use of my legs back. I knew I wouldn’t be cured. And I was okay with that, because living with it taught me that I am not what my body can do.
This wasn’t the first time a miracle cure would be used to tie a story up neatly at the end and “resolve” a disability onscreen, nor would it be the last. In Disability Planet’s critical analysis of media representation of disabled people, they point out: “[T]he disability itself is often used as a hook by writers and film-makers to draw audiences into the story. These one-dimensional stereotypes are often distanced from the audience — where characters are only viewed through their impairment, and not valued as people.”
Bobby’s storyline on Supernatural was just one incident in a larger pattern, and the pattern doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon. GLAAD’s 2015 study, “Where We Are on TV,” notes that there has been a drop this year in regular characters living with disabilities. Only 0.9% of characters are depicted as living with a disability, while the American population living with a disability (who aren’t institutionalized) is at 12%. Of those that are depicted, it doesn’t say how many are played by actors living with a disability.
Since disability representation isn’t being met by the actors that are being cast for the roles, I decided to ask three other people with very different disabilities and experiences how they felt about they were represented onscreen. I had three questions for them:
- Had they noticed this trope before?
- How did it make them feel?
- What would they rather see in terms of representation?
The responses I got back were very similar. First I heard from Christine*, a woman with a form of autoimmune arthritis. When I asked her if she could think of any examples of the trope I described, she paused to think and shook her head. “I think that has more to do with the lack of disabled characters I see, [rather] than whether it’s a common trope or not.”
That was why I felt so angry watching Bobby stand and walk around, so relieved to not be in a wheelchair any longer. For a moment, I’d had a character I thought could relate to the constant aches I had, the struggle between learning to ask for help and being independent. And then suddenly I didn’t.
This frustration was echoed when I spoke with RC, who identifies as developmentally disabled, chronically ill, and mentally ill. “The trope just denies us representation point blank. It takes disability and turns it into an affliction like the common cold or something similar that just can get passed by eventually. So we don’t get heroes, we get people who are sort of like us but then decide to go ‘beyond’ us.” Then RC went on to say something so important: “You’re both about us and without us, so you’re not really for us.”
That’s where the real problem lies. This isn’t just an issue of lazy writing; it has real-world consequences. We start to see these disabled characters and think the writers are thinking of us, but it soon becomes clear that these characters aren’t for us. They’re used to quell the anxiety able-bodied people have regarding those with disabilities.
What are some of those real-world consequences? Look at the movie Me Before You — “basically a disability snuff film,” says Tim Rose, a disability-positive consultant born with cerebral palsy. When the options for disabled characters’ endings are to either be cured by some miracle or magic, or to have their life ended instead of suffering through their non-terminal permanent disability, what does that tell us about how disabled people are viewed and valued?
“It discounts disability as an identity. Some people like their disabilities,” Rose told me. “It’s an assumption that all disabilities are inherently negative. The media needs to realize more and more that disability can be a positive and powerful thing.”
There is so much to be explored in the lives of characters with disabilities if the media just tried for better representation. People with disabilities are tired of being lumped together as less than able-bodied folk, and being told they’ll only be the “real” versions of themselves when they’ve been cured. When I asked my three disabled participants what they wanted out of the media instead, I heard the same thing from all of them: they wanted real, full characters who have good days and bad days. They wanted characters who loved their disability, who wouldn’t give it up if they even had the option.
Christine described how she just wanted a scene showing how someone with a disability planned for their day, or small exchanges revealing all the small decisions we have to make in our daily lives. For me, it’s often as simple as deciding if I want to use my cane when I go for a walk. Am I feeling well enough to go without it? Will I need to use both my hands at any point? Or would it be better to take public transportation so I can spend more time on my feet while I’m out?
There is definitely more to being disabled than just experiencing it as a nonstop burden. Rose pointed to comic book examples, Daredevil and Barbara Gordon, both characters who gained a skillset with their disability. Christine pointed me to a show called Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, a show about a deaf FBI agent, who’s recognized for her ability to read lips during surveillance.
People with disabilities don’t necessarily want to be cured. But we do want to be the stars of our own stories. We want to be the heroes, the villains, the ones with complex relationships. We want to be more than our disabilities. We want everyone else to see and love our disabilities, the way many of us have come to love them.
* Some participants have chosen to remain anonymous or go by an alias.
Lead image: flickr/Ze’ev Barkan