The Trope of Curing Disability

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Growing up, one of my favorite classic children’s book was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. One of my favorites, I think, for two reasons. One, an ancient house on the moors and a secret walled garden? WANT. Two, a bed-ridden, disabled boy.

As a mostly bed-ridden, disabled girl, I—surprisingly—identified with Colin more than with most able-bodied characters in most books (which, up until that point, formed about 99,99% of what I read, because frankly, it was and is surprisingly hard to find disabled characters). Sure, he was angry and unlikeable and pitiable, but at the very least he wasn’t the villain. Progress, right? Besides, I loved the idea of him going out and making friends and creating his only little piece of world.

That feeling of identification lasted right up until the point where he got out of his wheelchair and threw off his disability.

Now in Colin’s case, it might be argued that he was never disabled at all, just weakened and made ill, but to me, it felt like a betrayal. Again. He wasn’t the first character I met who overcame his hardships and was miraculously cured, and he wouldn’t be the last one either. In fact, for disabled characters, being cured is a common trope. What’s more, in most of these narratives, classics as well as recent kidlit, the characters are cured because they’re better than they were at the start of the book: kinder, gentler, braver. And finally, finally, they’re normal and whole.

And quite frankly, that trope needs to GTFO.

First of all, because obviously, we can’t always be cured. We can’t magically regrow limbs, or defy paralysis through sheer willpower. There are no wonder pills to get rid of an extra chromosome, and the magic world isn’t open to us Muggles.

But surely, I hear you say, if a cure were available (let’s pretend I’m talking about a panacea here), everyone wants it? Well, no. This is a very personal issue, and one of much debate within the disability community. We don’t always want to be cured.

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve seen the cure discussion from two sides. When it comes to my physical disability (a combination of several autoimmune disorders), I’m incredibly grateful that there are medicines out there that allow me to function and manage my chronic pain. Days that are completely pain-free are rare, but at least my current meds take the edge off, and with that in I can manage. Sure, some days I think a cure would be nice, but it’s not one of my priorities in life.

When it comes to my Asperger’s, I would categorically deny any form of cure. To put it bluntly: this is the way my brain works, and for all that there are challenges, there are enormous upsides too. This is the world I see and the world I’ve built for myself, and you don’t get to mess with that.

Does that mean no one wants to be cured? Of course it doesn’t. Plenty of people do, and that’s their good right. But I’d still feel confident in saying most of us don’t think about cures on a daily basis (or, in fact, about our disabilities). After all, this is our normal. This is who we are. And we can be perfectly happy just the way we are, thank you very much.

TV Tropes kindly points out that, “if the only happy ending the writers can imagine for the character is to magically lose their disability, this could be a little depressing for disabled people living in the real world.” And sometimes, it is. Not because we can’t be cured. Not because we won’t be cured. But because it means we aren’t recognized as people but only as labels, not as characters but only as characteristics.

And because, really? Is that really the only possible happy ending? How about a happy ending wherein we get the girl (or boy)? How about a happy ending that lets us save the world? How about a happy ending that involves us staying disabled? Is that so hard to imagine?

I don’t have to be cured to be happy. I don’t have to conform to the physical notion of perfection (whatever that is) to be a whole person. I don’t feel physically better when I’m kinder, gentler, braver. Nor am I evil because my legs don’t always work.

Most of the time, at least.

Because fair warning, I might go on a rampage the next time I see a miracle cure in my kidlit.



About Author

Marieke Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. This is Where it Ends, her debut YA, will be released by Sourcebooks Fire. She wants to grow up to be a time traveler.

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26 Comments

  1. I wrote about the miracle cure in The Secret Garden and its connection with having the “correct” attitude in my MFA critical thesis. And as someone with Asperger’s, I find discussion of a “cure” to be offensive because it implies that we’re useless unless we’re just like everybody else.

  2. Yes, yes, yes: one of my top ten book peeves, the magical cure. I think you did a great job expressing that there are conflicting attitudes towards cures within the disability community, and pointing out that, for most of us, it’s not an option, so we don’t really think about it. And when it happens in books or movies or tv shows (and especially when it ALWAYS in whatever form of media we’re consuming), it feels like a betrayal. That person’s happy ending only matters because they ‘got better’, and that’s never going to happen for me, so … it’s not hard to extrapolate from there. I think this is particularly important when we’re discussing literature for children, because while just being represented is key, the accuracy of that representation is also vital. The portrayal of that character is just as important as the inclusion of the character – if you’re writing a disabled character who falls into these kinds of tropes, you’re corrupting that character and invalidating the real lives of the people you would’ve been connecting with. (Not to mention that it’s important for non-disabled readers to realize that disabled characters are capable and worthwhile, too.)

  3. Thank you for giving a sensitive and eloquently rendered voice to this concept.

    One of my novels includes a character who has lived since childhood with a fractured personality, for lack of a better word, and when she’s made to face the nature of her unusual mental state, at first she thinks the only way to become “healthy” is to “repair” this fracture. Instead, she learns that her atypical worldview is part of who she is and that she isn’t her-kind-of-healthy WITHOUT it, and learns to embrace it instead of trying to fight it. I’m really hoping people who read it don’t think I’m aiming for the “cure = happy ending!” storyline even though the character is pressured to think in that direction for some of the book. I want it to encourage understanding of and acceptance of alternate mental states, not demonize mental illness. I would have considered it a betrayal of the character (and real people similar to her) if I pretended it’s better to erase part of her in the name of “health.” What you’ve said in this piece resonates with the reasons I wrote it the way I did. 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for writing this post! As a wheelchair-bound reader, the lack of disabled characters in YA novels has always depressed me (the closest I’ve ever come to is Susannah in King’s the Dark Tower series and that isn’t remotely YA).
    Being disabled sucks sometimes for sure, but in a way it has helped shape our personality. If I were able to play soccer like all those other kids, I would’ve never spent all those hours in the library. And if a genie gave me three wishes right here and now, a ‘magical cure’ wouldn’t even make the top five 🙂

  5. IIRC, Jean Little’s inability to find any books for her disabled students that didn’t include a miracle cure (they were pretty much stuck with The Secret Garden and Pollyanna) was what inspired her to write her first book, Mine for Keeps. It was published in 1962. I loved The Secret Garden, but I wish Little’s books were as well known as it is.

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  7. *Raises hand* My second book includes a male love interest who becomes disabled throughout the course of the story without any magical cure being applied. The reaction to him was baffling but maybe a bit revealing. There was this idea that I’d somehow copped out by not ‘fixing’ him – or by having him become disabled in the first place (‘Oh, the writer just did that because it made the heroine seem stronger’???). My third novel includes a heroine who is depressed and self-harms, and again I saw a lot of dissatisfaction that I hadn’t ‘resolved’ (read: magically cured) the heroine’s mental health at the end of the story. Readers who are neurotypical or able-bodied all too often see any kind of a disability as a flaw that needs to be fixed by the end of the story, or else what was the point of it even being there? They think you’re lazy/forgetful, that you *messed up* by not providing that magical cure – that disability or mental illness are mere plot devices. It’s privilege talking. I’ve had to grit my teeth so hard sometimes not to respond!

  8. This is a topic that really spoke to me! In my fantasy/sci fi-ish WIP, my main protagonist becomes disabled and i did think about “fixing” him. Perhaps I would have come to the decision to allow him to adjust to becoming disabled much earlier if i had read this! For me, I wouldn’t say it was privilege altering my decision, more like it’s a fantasy world, why not? But reading posts like this makes me realize that protagonists with disabilities can make the world of difference to just ONE young readers mind! I wish more authors took the risk…..

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  12. Well, what if it’s a story where a disabled character dies and wakes up whole in the afterlife? A person who never accepted their disability and saw it as a huge obstacle that they’re now free from? It’s a very bitter, angry antagonist character in a piece of fanfiction I’m writing. He’s deaf, but after he dies he realizes he has hearing in the afterlife. To contrast, there is a surviving blind character who doesn’t want artificial eyes even though they’re available. The blind character is struck by the death of the deaf one and finds the courage in himself to fight against an ableist society bent on killing disabled people. All he wants is equality and the right to LIVE and walk freely among non disabled people without hiding his blindness.

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  14. I’m glad you wrote this. I remember feeling sort-of weird at the end of ‘Odd and the Frost Giants,’ a kids book where the main character (a child of Vikings with a leg that broke and then healed wrong, causing him to be slow and in pain) successfully saved the day! He went on his adventure and rescued three Norse gods who’d been trapped in animal bodies, he outwitted the Frost Giants, and his disability had realistic consequences (he couldn’t outrun the giants, forcing him to have to out-think them) while still not impeding him from being the hero. Which was great!

    And then…at the end, as a reward for being heroic, Freya basically heals Odd *and* makes him taller. And I felt a bit weird about that but couldn’t put my finger on it as to why. It doesn’t exactly undo the positive message that he was a hero even though he had a disability. But then why does he have to get healed at the end? It was just kind of frustrating and unnecessary. I guess I would still recommend the book to a kid, but with a caveat.

    One book that handles disabled characters really well is ‘John Dies At The End,’ although that’s not for kids at all. Also, it’s not a book, but the ‘Avatar’ animated tv series is good in this regard.

    • I found this thread looking for commentary on the ending of “Odd and the Frost Giants”; it’s actually a little more interesting. I’d love to see a full review of it. Freya offers to “fix” Odd’s leg, but then states that she can’t. She does reduce his pain, but he’s left with a limp, and he is also given a magical staff to use in place of his old crutch. I’m telling my kid that the overall message is that Odd’s disability is an inherent part of him, and as he grows up in the course of the story he’s able to move past the discomfort that it initially caused him (whether the author intended this message or not 🙂

  15. I’m doing some work on the social model of disability and followed a link to this thread. Was very struck by all the comments and thought of a book I read as a child – Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliffe. (It’s quite old) The main character has a withered arm but despite this he eventually manages to become a clan warrior (it’s set in the Bronze Age). He doesn’t get ‘cured’ he finds ways around the barriers to becoming a warrior. Be interested to see what you think.

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  19. FYI, Colin Craven was never disabled, he was living up to the negative prognoses he had overheard throughout his life. A close reading of the text will reveal that.

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  21. I am currently analysing the secret garden as a book for my childrens literature assignment in relation to sociology and was delighted to read all your comments. My lecturer advised me to base it on disability and views between the 1900s and now and I have to say I agree Colin Cravens disability is in his mind. It is also so true that in novels or even childrens short stories there is always the thought of curing the character with a disability or the person with the disability is merely an observer instead of a main protaginist. I am going to look up some books by Jean Little to add t my collection. Any reccommendations?☺

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  23. This is the reason I HATE ‘What Katy Did’, and absolutely adore Jacqueline Wilson’s modern reimagining of it, ‘Katy’. And while Jacqueline Wilson’s track record with disabled characters in her other books isn’t perfect (#SaulDeservedBetter), at least she WRITES disabled characters, and NEVER goes for the miracle cure, and I respect her for that. (Though I’ll still never quite forgive Saul.)

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