Discussion: Disability tropes

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For our final discussion post, we asked our contributors the following question:

Which are your least favorite disability tropes?


Kayla Whaley:
My least favorite disability tropes may also be the most common (at least in my experience), which is precisely why they’re my least favorite. These tropes are some of the only representations of disability people see, which is very dangerous. After all, the media we consume greatly impacts how we view the world, so seeing these tropes only reinforces ableism and ignorance.

The first (though these aren’t ranked in any particular order) is that of the disabled saint. The pure, innocent, good little cripple. These characters serve largely as inspiration porn for both the audience and the other characters. Think Tiny Tim. It shows the ablebodied that those of us with disabilities are perfect despite (or perhaps because of) our tragic disability. So if we do anything outside those ideas of “goodness,” it’s quite a shock for the ablebodied around us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed or talked about drinking with friends and have gotten actual gasps and nervous giggling, because if I’m in a wheelchair, I must be a saint, right? I must fit into their tiny, preconceived box of “good.”

The second is the disabled villain. Interesting how the two most common tropes dealing with disability are polar opposites and neither come even close to reality, huh? There are so many examples of the disabled, disfigured, disgusting villain: Darth Vader, Captain Hook, innumerable weekly baddies on shows, etc. The (typically visible) disability serves as a cue to the audience that this character is one deserving of your revulsion and fear. Yeah. That’s definitely a message I want sent to the world.


Marieke Nijkamp:
Apart from the whole disabled character as inspiration (see inspiration porn), one of the tropes I hate most is the magically healed disabled character. The one where, at the end of the quest or story, the crippled character finds himself able to walk again because he’s learned to be nicer, or the blind character finds herself able to see because she was willing to sacrifice herself for her friends. After all in real life, everyone wants to be healed/disability makes you incomplete/if you only try hard enough…?

Because that’s the implication of such story lines. That disability equals something incomplete at best and more often something that’s morally reprehensible. It implies that only if you learn how to overcome that, only if you learn you’re too be generous, you’ll be healed and happy and be able to reach your full potential. (And secretly, that’s what we all must want.) Heavens forbid you’re happy just the way you are.


s.e. smith:
Obviously, magical cures are a big frustration for me—the disability that is magically fixed to further the plot, the disabled person stripped of her identity as a disabled person by a cure (and usually so appreciative of being saved from the eternal suffering and torment that is disability). This narrative positions disability as something tragic and terrible that needs to be fixed, and sometimes as something a character should be ashamed of—only after the disability is cured does the character become whole.

I also really loathe one-note depictions of disabled characters, where the character becomes consumed by the disability and doesn’t have any other qualities or characteristics. This is often compounded by another trope, such as the super crip or bitter cripple, two other depictions of disability that also make me gnash my teeth in frustration. These one-dimensional depictions aren’t authentic to real experiences and they also contribute to ableist attitudes in society.

Disability-as-educational-tool is another trope that should have been taken out back and shot long ago. Disabled people are human beings, not object lessons or props for character advancement. If a disabled character is being used to educate other characters, give them some kind of motivation, or teach a Very Special Lesson to other characters and/or readers, that character is being abused. Every time this kind of depiction of disability comes up, it reinforces the idea that this is the role of disabled people in society, to teach and educate the people around them, rather than to live as just another person navigating a sometimes complex and always diverse environment.


Maggie Tiede:
In my opinion, one of the most damaging disability tropes is the idea that a disability can be “healed” through sheer force of will, without treatment. That instead of the infinitely more difficult task of living with the disability, you can simply eliminate it in one fell swoop by being “tougher” or not buying into the “system.” My experience with this has been mostly in the mental illness arena, which is tricky—some acute mental illnesses really do pass with time. But others, such as certain types of depression, bipolar disorder (my own disability), and schizophrenia, tend to be lifelong battles. You’ll have good days and you’ll have bad days, you’ll have days where you accept it and days where you don’t, but the truth is that it’s never going away and you just have to deal with it—no matter what pop culture tells you.


Corinne Duyvis:
My first pet peeve is the disabled relative—sibling, parent or child—who only exists to further the main character. The disabled character rarely has an actual personality or plot line of their own, and does not get to have a normal, complex familial relationship with the abled character; instead, they exist to provide angst or obstacles, or to make the abled character look sympathetic and heroic for taking care of them. Sometimes both! Remember: disabled people are fully-rounded people, with lives and passions of our own, not merely bit parts in abled people’s lives.

My second pet peeve is the ~magical~ disabled person, who often holds—or is—the clue to saving the day. They’ll be the only person with a magic ability, or, in a world where these are commonplace, their ability will be the most special or powerful. Examples include Dinah Bellman from Stephen King’s The Langoliers or Little Pete from the Gone series. This trope can also be used without any supernatural aspects, in which case the disabled person will have savant-like abilities such as Kazan in the film The Cube or Kevin Blake from the TV series Eureka. This trope bugs me because it’s so Othering; the disabled character is something to be ooh-ed and aah-ed over, feared or worshipped, set apart, instead of just being a regular person dealing with their own crap alongside the rest of the cast.


Kalen O’Donnell:
My least favorite disability trope? Yeah, that’d have to be “character has a deep dark secret—turns out they’re bipolar, or else someone close to them is.”  Sure, usually this one is trotted out with the best of intentions, as our heroes learn or express by the end of the story that its nothing to be ashamed of or they love and accept them in spite of it, etc. etc. But a book is more than just its climax or last three chapters. If a story makes an impression on a reader, its the whole book that’s going to stick with them, not just the shiny red bow that wrapped everything up all nice and neat at the end. And so while the author may have hoped their story would impart the idea that a bipolar disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, to any reader who can actually relate to that, they might actually just be confirming that, “yup, people are ignorant about this sort of thing and there is a reason to keep it a deep, dark secret … at least unless and until you meet that special enlightened person who loves and accepts you anyway.”

So how about we see more bipolar characters who are living with it with grace and dignity, neither hiding it nor flaunting it. Who don’t shy away from discussing it with the romantic interest if and when it ever becomes relevant, and is comfortable enough with it to refuse to be belittled or patronized by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about? That’s a trope I could get behind.


Kody Keplinger:
I’m forever frustrated by the “damaged disabled person” trope—wherein the disabled character is a brooding, broken character, scarred both physically and mentally, etc. etc. I see this way too often, and it makes me so angry. Where are all the happy disabled people, yo?


What about you, dearest readers? Any thoughts on the above tropes, or do you particularly loathe a trope that hasn’t been mentioned?



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15 Comments

  1. GREAT post!
    And I have a trope to add! I don’t think anyone mentioned The Faker. There is nothing more infuriating to me than a character in fiction who fakes a disability. It happens with really upsetting frequency. (it seems to pop up almost as much as “real” disabilities do!) This is SUCH a harmful trope, guys. A lot of people with invisible disabilities, chronic illnesses, or pain/symptoms that may vary in severity from day to day, are constantly harassed about being “fakers.” This especially happens to young people, and often it can make it more difficult for them to get not only respect, but also disability accommodations they need.
    This trope has popped up everywhere from beloved award-winning children’s books like THE WESTING GAME to hit teen TV shows like Glee.

  2. I’m not disabled in any way, but this is all very interesting from a non-disabled point of view. Glad to say I get annoyed by the same tropes at least and I’m not completely oblivious.

    I’d love to see more disabled characters in fiction, but not dressed up in any of the above tropes. What I have the most difficulty with though as a non-disabled person is that I can enjoy reading a book with a disabled person as the main character, no problem (so long as it’s none of the above), but I always wonder how much of what I’ve read is actually realistic. For example, mental illness. This character may be said to have *insert mental illness here*, but is that really representative of *illness*? Am I reading and believing this book, believing this character and that their behaviour etc is completely normal for them and coming to a new understanding or appreciation, when actually what I’m reading is ignorant at best and insulting at worst? I’ve tried researching a little online about some characters I’ve enjoyed reading but I find websites can only tell you so much and they do so clinically – if I want to understand something like a point of view or a disability, it’s much easier to understand through either a real person or a character, I find. So what happens if I can’t trust the character? Just stick to the odd biography I find?

    As for magic cures – seriously, people still write those?!

  3. Excellent post. I always roll my eyes at the Tiny Tim-esque angelic disabled character trope. As if a disabled person only exists to “inspire” other people or make people appreciate what they have.

  4. This is a fantastic post, and really interesting for me to read right now as I’m currently working on a young adult novel in which a couple of people get injured to the point where they become disabled. I’m really looking forward to writing the way they deal with it, in this book and in the sequel.

  5. Disabled characters whose only ambition is to get better, “to walk again some day”. It may be realistic with someone who has, say, cancer, but e.g. wheelchair users tend to have other priorities, like career, relationships, hobbies and such, just like other people.

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  13. The disabled character who if they are frustrated or angry it must be because of their disability, never because of ableism they face, and they aren’t necessarily angelic (because of above anger at their disability) but they are always grateful to be given even just the time of day by able-bodied people. I see this a lot.

    Also just the obsession with “recovery” and “overcoming” arcs for disabled people, where the whole point of their journey as a character is to become as non-disabled as possible by the end. It may not be a magical cure, they may even show a genuine struggle, the point is always that they are no longer disabled by the end of the story. Never that they learn to be disabled proudly.

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