Last time I discussed how often characters with disabilities are cured of their disability. Today I will discuss a similar problem: the lack of characters born with disabilities. I first noticed this problem when watching Season 3A of Teen Wolf. Deucalion became one of my favorite characters when he first showed up as a badass blind villain. I loved him. But then I saw the flashback episode of Teen Wolf, “Visionary”. I was shocked to discover that Deucalion was only blind because Gerard had stabbed his eyes out. I was disappointed because I had been imagining Deucalion as being blind from birth, and while I have many other problems with how Deucalion’s character was handled, you’d think not being born blind wouldn’t be such a big deal. But this minor point nagged at me, and I started thinking about characters with disabilities. I realized that almost all of them have some traumatic event happen to them that leads to them being disabled.
Professor X, Oracle, Bobby Singer, Daredevil, Hiccup, Bran Stark, Jaime Lannister, and many more characters all become disabled after some tragic event and/or an occasionally heroic event. And while having characters who become disabled is important representation, especially for people who have become disabled themselves, having so few characters who are born with disabilities is a major problem. It also says something about how our society views people with disabilities.
When a disability is nothing more than the tragic backstory of a formerly abled character, we have a problem. Well, two big problems, depending on the path the character takes.
First, we have the villainous character like Deucalion, who was seen as a visionary and champion of peace—only to lose his eyes when he tried to achieve peace between werewolves and hunters. Deucalion is then challenged by one of his betas, who sees him as weak now that he’s blind. Deucalion kills his beta and after doing so gains his powers, which drives him to become a power hungry villain. Deucalion’s past is tragic, but his disability in a lot of ways is used to explain his now evil nature. He tried to be a good person, only to lose his eyes, so now he is just going to be evil! Huzzah! To make matters worse Deucalion becomes a good guy once again after regaining his eyesight, making it very clear that his disability was a key factor in his becoming evil.
Then we have the characters who become disabled and become heroes. This is great representation, right? No, not necessarily. Once again we have the problem of the character’s disability becoming a part of their tragic backstory. The character is seen as an “inspiration” because they have “overcome” their disability to become a hero. It’s not that they are already a badass hero who now just happens to be disabled but still badass. No, it’s almost always portrayed as the character overcoming their disability. Sometimes this is portrayed with the characters gaining some special power that makes their disability almost nonexistent. Other times this is shown through the sole source of the character’s angst stemming from their disability. Daredevil is a prime example of this. Matt Murdock is blinded by radioactive waste that falls from a truck. This not only leads to much of his angst as a character but also heightens all of his senses, essentially allowing him to see using radar. Though he is still considered disabled, he is portrayed as using his other heightened senses to “overcome” his blindness allowing him to be a hero. But these hyperrealistic powers may make it harder, not easier, for people with disabilities to relate to a character who supposedly has a disability. Daredevil’s heightened abilities are shown as the reason he is a hero “despite” his disabilities, as if without his powers Daredevil would be unable to be an effective hero.
Of course some of the disabled characters I listed at the beginning of this post do not have these problems. Game of Thrones, notably, does really well with their characters with disabilities whether they became disabled or are born disabled. The main problem with disabled characters is that a disability should not be a plot point for a character’s tragic backstory. By having so many more characters who become disabled rather than being born disabled, what we see is not really representation but rather able-bodied peoples’ fear of becoming disabled. These characters aren’t written for people with disabilities but for able-bodied people asking the question, “Would you become a hero and overcome your disability, or would you cave to the trauma of your disability and become evil?” The message is that being disabled is bad. It’s the worst thing that can ever happen to an abled-bodied person, but if you work really hard you can “overcome” your disability and be a hero. It’s bullshit.
I’m not saying that writers should never write characters who become disabled, but if writers are going to make a character disabled, then they need to avoid making them into a morality lesson or an inspirational story for able-bodied people. On top of this we need more characters who are born with a disability. In my last post I mentioned Toph from Avatar and Tyrion from Game of Thrones; both are born with a disability and both characters’ disabilities are handled excellently. However, we need more characters like them because it’s getting depressing that I have to hold the same two characters up over and over again as the only good representation for people born with disabilities.