Overcompensating: Magical Erasure of Blindness in SFF

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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.

Cover for BECAUSE YOU'LL NEVER MEET MEAnother 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.”

Toph from Avatar: The Last AirbenderWhat 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?

Cover for ZEROESAs 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.



About Author

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a half-blind, half-deaf, half-Scandinavian horror & SFF writer who lives in New Jersey with her husband. Her fiction appears in many tabletop roleplaying games, including the upcoming Dead Scare, and Green Ronin's Blue Rose. She's also included in the Ghost in the Cogs anthology from Broken Eye Books. She has an MA in Women's History from Sarah Lawrence College, and her non-fiction can be found on Feminist Sonar, and other places on the internet. When she's not scribbling out ideas, she can be found walking her hound dog on revolutionary war battlefields, and advocating for people with disabilities for better access to tabletop gaming.

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7 Comments

  1. I don’t read a lot of SF so I haven’t run into this, but i did read Zeroes and I have to disagree on the character of Flicker. I didn’t see her power as negating her blindness. she still had to rely on sighted people since, *spoiler*, she looked through their eyes. She was still blind when she was alone, and she did use her cane for O & M which I found very accurate. She even complains in her mind at one point when the tip gets stuck in a crack.

    I commented to Scott Westerfeld on Twitter when I read that part, and he said that he and the other two writers consulted with blind teens on the character of flicker.

    In my opinion, they tried to do it right, and I think they succeeded.

  2. Hi. This was a great read. One thing I was wondering about though. You wrote “. 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.”. Being comfortable with who and what you are is important. That being said, isn’t that a common stereotype that blind people don’t care about there appearance? Personally, I care about presenting myself to the world in as nice a way as I can. I’ve had people come up to me and ask who dressed me. As if a blind person couldn’t possibly have any sense of fashion. I was wondering what you found particularly poignant about this passage? thanks.

  3. Kimberley Shaw on

    Hear, hear! All the way through your essay, I was going, “check”, “check”, “yes to that”, “bulls-eye”. I am hard-of-hearing with wonky balance since birth, and get pretty tired of those same tropes! That’s why magic does NOT “fix” my heroine’s disability in “A Handful of Spells”, which features a magical Deaf community in its plotline. And now, I’m going to go search “Ghost in the Cogs” on Goodreads.

  4. If we are looking for a positive message from Daredevil there are a couple. It is worth stating from the outset though that this character was a product of the 1970’s – 80’s. Not the most enlightened time for disability. But even then DD was “allowed” to become a lawyer. Yes, you could argue that he did this with the aid of his powers but still there are very few references to his ability to be one, in fact it is kind of taken for granted where one might have expected him to have made quite a splash were it seen as being remarkable. On another note I was incredibly happy to in the final episodes of the second series (minor plot spoiler alert) he is given his Billy-Club. This is an integral part of his make up and is of course based on a long cane. Of course if he were to use his long cane there is a good chance that sooner or later someone would say..”hey, he’s using a long cane”. Ok they would probably say “white stick”.

    So, is DD a negative role model for a blind person? He shouldn’t be. He was one of the first superheroes and as a child of the 70’s he was one of my favourite. I didn’t think of his as blind.. I thought of him as Daredevil… And I’m a sighted 48 year old.

  5. This was a really good read and I really liked the points you brought up here. These are some big things that stand out a lot.

    Though, I will say that when it comes to Toph, I personally still tend to feel slightly more critical of the character than lots of others. She had some really wonderful elements and I really love how far she had come from other sorts of characters, but I feel she is definitely not above scrutiny still. I really liked what you said earlier on in this post about many blind characters being given some alternative way of pretty much literally seeing because the authors can’t imagine a world without sight, but I think even Toph plays into that trope. If you think about it, her ability to navigate so perfectly with her earth bending is doing the same sort of thing, giving her an alternative way to literally see at least her surroundings on the ground, and no other earth bender is ever said to be able to do anything quite like this.I love the idea that an earth vendor who is blind is able to conveniently use their particular bending to their advantage as an assistive tool, but I have always personally felt that they took her portrayal just a little bit too far in that regard and made her perceptions a little too much stronger than other earth benders and in the process accidentally made her into a trope as well. As a blind person myself I absolutely love the concept of using her bending to help her navigate, but I don’t like that her bending is so incredibly strong compared to others or ability to perceive it is so much incredibly stronger than others that she is able to do quite as many things that other earth benders cannot as she can. She goes on to become practically the greatest earth bender that history has ever seen, especially in the sequel series, and this to me has always felt like she was taken too far and is no longer realistic. In short, I feel as though her character idea started out really wonderful, but that they took her ability to compensate a little bit too far and wound up basically giving her a superpower that negates more of her disability then it does not affect.

    I think Toph has several very strong merits, but the extremebto which her powers were taken when no other earth bender has ever been said to be even close to doing the same things–on top of the fact that she as the only blind character just conveniently happened to be an earth bender–is still a problem and that she is still not perfect or a positive enough example.

    Just some personal thoughts. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Daredevil, Graceling, and the "Disability Superpower" Trope - L. E. Carmichael

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