In Brightest Day: Characters Are Never Born With Disabilities

Teen_Wolf_Season_3_Episode_4_Unleashed_Gideon_Emery_Deucalion_Death_Destroyer 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.

93fa75c0-0c93-4ef7-83e5-edc60cc5735e_zps727374e9First, 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 Daredevil_65character’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.

11 thoughts on “In Brightest Day: Characters Are Never Born With Disabilities

  1. Switched at Birth has two Deaf main characters, one of whom was born Deaf (Emmett, a friend/love interest main character) and one who became Deaf at age three due to a disease (Daphne, one of the very main characters, one of the two girls who was switched at birth). Both characters are treated pretty much the same, as if they’ve been Deaf their whole lives. There are also many more minor Deaf characters as well as a character slowly becoming more and more severely hard of hearing due to a degenerative disease. The other Deaf characters seem to all have been born Deaf, but it’s hard to know for sure.

    But Deafness is a different type of disability anyway. Glee has the two Down Syndrome characters who also fit the “born” with this disability type of representation, for obvious reasons. Parenthood had a minor character, Micah, in a wheelchair because of spina bifida, which was fairly well done representation, I think, and obviously a born-as-disabled character rather than one who became disabled later in life. However, he was unfortunately a quite minor character. And the non-disabled actor has now moved on to play a leading role on The Fosters, and his new character is not disabled.

    However, it is very hard to think of many characters who are born with a disability rather than “become” disabled, and that is unfortunate. Auggie on Covert Affairs is a wonderful example of representation of a character with a disability, but his ability to see before becoming blind is an important plot point that is not forgotten. He used to drive. He used to be in the Special Forces. Etc. I think Jason’s plot in Friday Night Lights and Kevin’s in Joan of Arcadia were both fairly well done spinal cord injury stories of characters who use wheelchairs, but again they weren’t born with their disabilities.

    In fact, going back to Switched at Birth, they have recently introduced a character with a different type of disability. And again, although the actor who plays him, RJ Mitte, was born with Cerebral Palsy, and he got to play that when he was Walter Jr./”Flynn” on Breaking Bad, when he moved onto Switched at Birth he has become a “oh I just recently became disabled because of an accident” character, Campbell. That really does seem to be the more common way to do things.

    • I’ve been considering watching Switched At Birth. Didn’t know that any of the characters had disabilities. Sounds like a show I should check out.

      • Like half of the show is about the Deaf community and being Deaf, or about how to interact with Deaf people when you’re Hearing, etc… It’s a great show, in my opinion. 😉 And yeah they do representation really well, compared to some shows, but all of the main characters are straight (although in seasons 2 & 3 they have homosexual side characters) and it’s an ABC Family show so it does have some issues. Still, I’m looking forward to watching the new episode tonight. I’ve written two fanfics and love exploring the challenges being Deaf/communicating with Deaf people when you’re not Deaf brings while having the actual focus of my stories be other things, other plots. 😉 I also run a whole Switched at Birth collab group where we make fanvideo collaborations about the show, and I’m working on adding Closed Captioning to all of them. Our first fanvideo was watched by one of the actors who is actually Deaf and plays a character on the show, and I know a few people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing do appreciate watching fanvideos with the CC.

        • Wow that sounds really cool. I haven’t done fanvideos in a couple of years, but I’ll check yours out. 🙂

    • There’s also the friend/love interest (Sonja Pirovic) in Evil Genius that has Cerebral Palsy and is pretty developed. There is some angst over her condition (she frequently has spasms and can’t control the muscles in her face, so has trouble communica

      • ting), but it’s definitely not the only thing about her. They’re also one of the few couples in YA lit that actually seem well-matched for each other.

  2. “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.”

    This. So much.

  3. It is strange, but come to think of it yes, most disabled characters do acquire their disabilities later in life. (or rather “in their prime of youth” age teen thru 30’s) People who are born with disability (or get it as a child) tend to identify with it more- we are set apart as “other” from a young age. (Gee, do they find that threatening?) I would think that would make material for many interesting storylines and character development! Growing up autistic, I often had to identify with “symbolic/metaphorically” autistic-like characters, such as robots and aliens. A favorite movie of mine is “The Other Sister” which is about a mildly developmentally disabled woman who is determined to break free of her overprotective parents. I really identified with the character. P.S. I haven’t heard about Switched at Birth, but it sounds like an awesome show.

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  6. Some good points raised! It is unhappily rare and does continue the association of disability with pain, loss, and despair.

    Anyway, I came to find this site again because I wanted to point you towards a Monster High short. I know MH is a series for Nightmare-Before-Christmas-y fashion dolls, but when I do catch the shorts I’ve often been pleasantly surprised by their messages. For example, one of MH’s main characters is a zombie and as such she can’t speak, walks a little hunched, and is distinctly odd, but she’s always portrayed as a capable person and a good friend. This said, “Ready, Wheeling and Able” is MH’s short that focuses on disability and I hope that, if you give it a look, it’s as refreshing for you as it was for me. It’s just 2mins 30secs and the official upload’s on YouTube!

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