The trope of a superpower for a blind person to “transcend” their disability with an alternative form of sight is one I have seen (apologies for the pun) one too many times. Whether it’s Scott Westerfeld’s Zeroes where a blind character sees through other people’s eyes, or Daredevil, the well-known comic book hero whose superpower essentially reads as superpowered extrasensory awareness, these forms of blindness effectively erase the experiences of real-life blind people, like me.
While these characters have the outer appearance of blindness, very few of them behave as though as they are blind. It’s one thing to have great orientation and mobility training, to have the ability to navigate the world with your disabilities intact; it’s quite something else to have an adaptive device that’s just there for show, which is the case with Daredevil most certainly. Instead of a needed tool, his white cane is a prop that becomes a useless item in his hand before a fight. On more than one occasion, he simply flings his cane aside.
Conveniently ideal assistive devices also often exist as “cures.” For instance, Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter series, who was injured in the line of duty as an Auror, has a replacement eye that not only lets him see, but that gives him X-Ray vision, making him a better Auror in many ways.
Another example of how the trope can manifest is in Because You’ll Never Meet Me in which a character with blindness has such powerful echolocation that he can do such things as count eyelashes. What’s interesting about that particular “power” is that there are blind people out there who can echolocate, such as Daniel Kish. While it’s a real-world ability, in this case it’s so overpowered that blindness becomes a nonissue—and the character can do things neither a sighted nor blind person could pull off in real life, echolocation or not.
A character whose superpower stands out as actually thoughtfully approached is Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Perhaps it is a little convenient that Toph is born with the ability to bend the earth—making it possible for her to sense her surroundings via the earth’s vibrations—but at least it doesn’t completely erase that she is disabled. Toph still can’t read, sense anything that isn’t connected to the ground, or identify two-dimensional images, and she has a hard time “seeing” in water or sand. In addition, she still experiences disability and the experience of being blind through social cues with her peers. One of the examples which I think is particularly poignant is what Toph says about beauty standards: “One of the good things about being blind is that I don’t have to waste my time worrying about appearances. I don’t care what I look like. I’m not looking for anyone’s approval. … I know who I am.”
What makes Toph a great example of a good use of this trope is that other characters in her world have the same Earthbending power she does. That makes this not a “special blind power,” but one which anyone regardless of disability can have. Toph simply uses it as an adaptive device or skill in some places. If you cannot see the path ahead of you, being able to sense the earth underneath you to get where you’re going seems awfully like an adaptive skill.
(Toph is also blind from birth, which is an important factor, because in most stories about blind characters, the blindness comes from a tragic accident. Daredevil loses his to a chemical spill when he is a young child, and much of the mythology about his upbringing is about readjusting to his sight, whereas Toph has no need for that kind of training.)
The problem with this trope boils down to a single issue: Blindness never gets to simply exist in SFF. It’s always painted as something to overcome and/or to reinvent in order to move forward. When writers give blind characters superpowers to divest them of disability, they aren’t just doing a disservice to their writing but also to the blind people reading or watching their work. This trope is not a “cool” or “inventive” way to look at disability.
What would be truly inventive would be to address blindness as it is: without the bells and whistles of magic or science bringing the character closer to the non-disabled norm.
This doesn’t mean we can’t write about disability in sci-fi or fantasy settings. A witch can be a witch even without sight. Supernatural characters can be blind without having superpowers that negate their disability. Magic or superpowers don’t have to fix everything—and not everyone wishes to be fixed.
In science fiction and fantasy, there’s no reason to make the world devoid of differences or “perfect.” Each place and setting we create as writers should be able to include all kinds of characters. As a writer with a disability, I often try to look at how disability both influences the characters’ experiences and fits into their world.
For instance, in our world, blind people typically aren’t able to drive, making personal transportation tricky. What could that look like in a fantasy world? Would a character still need sight to be able to ride and direct a dragon? Or is the character perhaps lucky enough to live in a world where dragons can navigate independently and function as guide dragons?
As I read Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, I could only think how amazing it would be if Flicker had a superpower which didn’t render her not disabled. I love that she carries a white cane despite her superpower, but it would be lovely if the white cane weren’t an empty gesture for her—or Daredevil—but an actual tool.
These magical or futuristic fixes seem rooted in a discomfort with disability: many writers cannot (or don’t want to) imagine a life without sight and therefore create excuses to give their character equivalent sighted experiences. The author’s discomfort with disability bleeds through the page to foster discomfort with disability in readers. By portraying disability as a minimal quirk, rather than a powerful part of a character’s lived experience, writers aren’t giving readers a chance to familiarize themselves with disability. Readers might not know how to address being around people who are actually disabled full-time, their physical manifestations of disability being so different from their fictional counterparts. If the only experience with a disabled person that a reader has is with a character like Daredevil who never needs their cane, or who can echolocate the number of eyelashes a person has, we can’t expect them to understand how complex blindness really is.
If, instead of erasing characters’ blindness, characters are seen negotiating with disability honestly no matter the setting, we’ll be getting somewhere.