The Transcontinental Disability Choir: A Wizard Did It!

One of the things that drives me just a little bit up the wall about disability in pop culture is when creators want to have a disabled character, but don't want that character to have any of the actual consequences of being disabled. This plays out in one of two ways: Either the disability is just there, without any of the attending difficulties, or the disability has been turned into a Super Power. Sometimes, we get both.

Let me explain: My husband is a full-time wheelchair user. Trying to get around Halifax is occasionally a nightmare. The city's built on a hill, there's a million "just one steps" that prevent him from getting into most of the buildings, the curb cuts are awful, and it's generally just very irritating. The average day of getting around the city is a pain, and I think his difficulties are pretty standard for people with mobility-issues.

I've never seen wheelchair-using Professor X have to actually deal with stairs. He uses his psychic powers to make his wheelchair float.

I'm certain the X-men movies, cartoon, and comic books would become tedious if everywhere Professor X went he had to deal with accessibility issues, but couldn't they even mention it? A throw-away line in the movie? Maybe a short scene in the cartoon? Something that demonstrated that wandering around in a wheelchair isn't quite as easy as "I make it float!"?

Of course, Professor X isn't the only person in pop culture who's got a disability where the adaptive technology is indistinguishable from magic and none of the usual issues with disability apply. Science Fiction/Fantasy seems to be the main culprit in this one, which is partly because "shiny magic/tech will fix everything!" Being a fan of both genres, I may have seen more of it than a pop-culture consumer who sticks with "realistic" shows (as realistic as crime-scene investigation shows ever are).

I should mention: These aren't condemnations of the characters (my love for many of them is strong), but observations of a common trope: "Let's have a disabled character, but with a magic device that means we don't actually have to deal with disability! Ooh, and let's be edgy and give them magic powers!"

The second go-to example is Geordi La Forge of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Geordi's blind, but he has a VISOR that allows him to not only "see" people, but whatever else the writers wanted him to see that week. In general, his disability wasn't a disability, because he wasn't actually disabled by society - except when the plot called for it, and that usually meant his VISOR went missing.

I like Geordi. (I also used to make my hair band into a VISOR and play Star Trek, because I was that kind of girl.) However, the creators of the show got to use disability in order to make a point about the future: "We have conquered even blindness! Now, let's conquer the stars!"

Of course, Star Trek had 'conquered blindness' in an episode of The Original Series, "Is there in Truth no Beauty?". You can read an episode summary at Memory Alpha, but in short: Miranda Jones is a blind telepath who disguises her blindness (she doesn't want pity, so she lies) by wearing a sensor web - a mesh that looks like decorative gold - over her whole body that allows her to "see" everything around her. She responds to people's facial expressions, she can tell details of what people are wearing, etc. It's almost like magic! Ultimately, this trope is slightly subverted in that Miranda is prevented from reaching her goal, but overall: magic! Well, tech. Indistinguishable from magic!

Most examples of this trope are about blindness. Angel: The Series had a blind assassin who could "see" using sound waves - she could even hear people's hearts beat. Daredevil can apparently see by using sound waves as well (although truth be told I only know him from the movie with Ben Affleck). Blind seers are thick on the ground, and a few of them use their future-seeing ability to tell what's going on in the next second so they can get around without need of a cane, assistance animal, or even outstretched arms.

When it comes to being mute (not Deaf - I haven't run into this trope with Deaf people), the character is usually a strong empath of some sort who can both sense other people's emotions and demonstrate their words through overacting facial expressions and body language. Star Trek: The Original Series called their episode about this "The Empath", where mute Gem can even go so far as to take on other people's injuries and heal them, out of the goodness of her pure heart. Memory Alpha's got a write-up. Cassandra Cain, who was Batgirl for 10 years, was raised without verbal language, thus developing the ability to read body language. She, too, was an assassin because of the "special powers" her disability gave her.

I feel this trope ends up being used when writers and creators want a "cool" character and think "Ooh, disability! We'll be unique and slap our most powerful mutant in a wheelchair/make a blind assassin/mute empath! No one's done that before!" They think this will make the character stand out in a world where super-powered characters are a dime a dozen. But they want to do it without taking on anything about disability, really. They just want a wow-cool factor.

You know what I'd really like to see? One of these characters as a disability-rights activist. It doesn't even have to be a huge deal. Sure, one-shot characters (and characters from the far-distant future where humanity has overcome everything through the power of dilithium crystals) probably wouldn't be able to take this on, and Professor X is doing Mutant Rights, so is a bit busy, but this trope isn't going to go away, no matter how many times Disability Rights Activists bring it up. Having our Magical/Technologically-assisted person with a disability mention "Oh, I'm going to an ADAPT rally this weekend in support of the Community Choice Act" or "Oh, I'm meeting up with some folks to lobby for a new wheelchair ramp at the high school", just... something that acknowledges that disability isn't magicked away, even in the magical-technology world of t.v.

Unless, of course, a wizard really did make the whole world a post-accessibility utopia. In which case, build me some sets that reflect that, and I'll be your friend forever.

Bitch Media publishes the award-winning quarterly magazine, Bitch:Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Super Disabilities!

As another disabled sci-fi & fantasy fan I have some favorites that do at least a little to acknowledge the everyday struggle of disability along with the "super" -ness of it. Foremost for me in that catagory are the early Doom Patrol comics of Grant Morrison. Their leader, like Professor X, is in a wheelchair. He's kind of a jerk (complex, non-idealized or villified characterization) has no super power, appears to use the freight elevator to get in and out of their building and often seems to be using a member of the Patrol as kind of a PA... so that's something. The other members variously live with: multiple personality disorder, lacking a sense of touch/taste, being intersexed (and multi-racial which society actively MAKES a disability), and having a "disfigured" face. Two of them meet while in a traditional mental institutional situation and befriend each other over their very different struggles with disability.

These characters are of course over the top and have superpowers to go with their respective disabilities but there are scenes showing traditional super heroes like Superman talking about how the Doom Patrol makes them uncomfortable because they are so different and hard to understand and those touches just delight me in their realism.

Unlike the X-Men or Daredevil their struggle with disability is not "oh no, I am so super and magical and powerful, society will never accept me in my awesome-ness." And unlike Geordi they are not just accepted as superior in their magically altered disability. We see them institutionalized, patronized, mocked behind their backs. We see them make mistakes because their "super" is so closely linked to a severe emotional and physical disability and trauma with which they are actively struggling to cope. We see them try to learn to love the parts of themselves that make it impossible to function easily in "normal society."

So, in spite of some crazy flaws, I vote early Doom Patrol for un-magicked disability that just happens to have some super in there too.

--Mr. Kitka

On Deafness, and Heroes

On Deafness - the original Bionic Woman springs to mind. Rebuilt after a parachute fall, she had Super Hearing as well as her other enhancements.

Heroes has been doing something with deafness in the last season also, though I haven't seen all the episodes yet. From what I've seen so far, the character (Emma) is a Deaf med school dropout - played by an actual Deaf actor (yay) - now working in a filing job. She develops a power which involves seeing sounds as threads of coloured light in the air. The power doesn't seem particularly useful in the episodes I've seen so far, except to provide pretty effects and endless sappy "inspiring" scenes of Poor Deaf Girl Rediscovers The Joy Of Music, Making Her Less Bitter And Her Life Less Empty And Meaningless. I believe later on she harnesses the power to attack with sound waves.

Heroes also turned a young woman with ?cerebral palsy into a superfast runner. Because of course neither the woman with CP nor the Deaf woman could just incidentally have a disability, and get mind control, or telekinesis, or the power to cause earthquakes, or electro hands of destruction; they had to get some sort of power related to their disabilities.

Profesor X powers are not

Profesor X powers are not telekinetic, he can't make his chair float, but he is friends with Reed Richards and other marvel supergeniouses, who can build for him that kind of wheelchair with no effort, also Xavier is super-rich and can actually aford that product coming from said geniouses. One can only guess that a middle class person on the Marvel Universe doesn't have access to that technology.
I think one of the problems in the S.F. and high technological settings, is the .technology itself, when you can teleport people and make robots with GPS to serve as walking dogs the ilogical thing would be not using them in the setting.
But still I also agree with you, writers most of the time doesn't seem to want to deal with realistic consecuences to a disability. You see dissabled people not actually dissabled cause they have powers that "compensate" , for once i would like to see a deaf persons shooting lightning/fire out of their hands as their power.

I just remembered other examples, Barbara Gordon actually has to deal with her disability, Gail Simone run showed how her house was adapted for her to use it and live independently (and elevator for the top flors, many handles for her to move from her bed to her chair, an adapted bathtub). among other stuff.
And on a fantasy universe, there is Toph from Avatar, who is blind and while she is and earth powers user and can actually notice thanks to her powers what thing are actually on the ground and at which distance, she is a disavantage from things not in the ground (air users who can fly and leapt a few moments, unable to notice hand gestures and colors (and mentioned) So I guess the writers didn't completely go completely out of their ways to portray a character dissabled, but not really dissabled.

Last time I checked, X-Men

Last time I checked, X-Men is about mutants, which is in and of itself a disability according to non-mutants, who are persecuted for being mutants. No one wants to watch a sci-fi movie and be bothered with real-life shit, including, well, everything. Robot Chicken makes fun of this by making it real-life and humourous. But really? You're mad that Professor X isn't shown not being able to navigate around like other people in wheelchairs? Maybe in X-Men world, the world is wheelchair-accessable. You're only thinking of it in terms of the world we live in, which isn't the same as X-Men world.

In regards to Geordi, I guess me wearing glasses (I'm legally blind) is magical too. Think of his visor as being glasses. So i guess cornea transplants and lasix is bad, too. Magic? Really?

Regarding blind superheroes who can "see" using soundwaves, there is a blind boy who uses "sonar" to navigate around. He clicks his tongue, like dolphins and whales. He's a pretty amazing kid.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/07/19/earlyshow/main1817689.shtml

So what about him? He doesn't use a cane or a service animal or any other kind of assistance, other than his own ears.

And sometimes having a dulled sense can heighten other senses. I used to babysit for a blind boy who is an incredible musician, he could listen to a piece of music and play it on the piano. I'm legally blind and I have a very heightened sense of smell. And as my eyesight got worse, my sense of smell got better. It's not unusual or abnormal or out of the question to have this idea in a movie or TV show. That's how our senses work.

I guess I think this is a huge stretch. You pick out sci-fi movies and shows where everything is a fantasy, and science FICTION, where just about everything involved with the shows don't exist, and where people have found a way to make life easier.

Pick a movie or show that's not sci-fi, and you have more of an argument.

Riiight

So because it's sci-fi it shouldn't be critiqued? I get that reading X-Men (or any sci-fi, for that matter) requires suspension of disbelief, but that doesn't mean we should critique ableist tropes when they appear. Why can't Proffessor Xavier have super powers and *still* require lifts and ramps? Why can't Geordi be blind, without the visor, and *still* be a kick-arse engineer and helmsman? Why can't Matt Murdock be blind, without the super power, and *still* be a kick-arse fighter and defender of justice?

Thing is, it doesn't happen. I would love a super hero/ine with a disability that wasn't overlooked. But it seems the only way PWD are shown as super hero/ines is by effectively removing their disability.

Also, the Marvelverse being more wheelchair accessible? Are you fucking kidding me?

Because people don't want to

Because people don't want to have to think about real life when watching a movie or a TV show or reading a comic book. it's just how we don't see characters in movies or books doing daily shit like using the restroom (unless it's directly related to the plot).

To be pissed about not ever seeing Professor X using a ramp is a pretty fucking trivial thing to be pissed over, especially since it's sci-fi, where the suspension of disbelief is required. We're just supposed to accept things (usually) when it comes to sci-fi.

"Why can't Geordi be blind, without the visor, and *still* be a kick-arse engineer and helmsman?"

I'm sorry, but if someone found a cure for my illness, I would accept it. There are things you have to accept when it comes to sci-fi. And to critique something so trivial is just pointless because it gets you nowhere. To me, it's bitching just to bitch. If you want a real-life portrayal of disability, don't demand it from sci-fi, because sci-fi in and of itself isn't real life. Like I said above, if you want to critique something in these terms, critique things that aren't sci-fi. Know what I mean?

"But it seems the only way PWD are shown as super hero/ines is by effectively removing their disability."

Last time I checked, Professor X still uses a wheelchair and still can't walk. So how does him not being shown as having to use ramps as his disability disappearing? And last time I checked, Geordi is still blind. Think of it has him using glasses. I can see with mine, and can't see without them. Either way, I'm still technically disabled. So is he.

"Also, the Marvelverse being more wheelchair accessible? Are you fucking kidding me?"

I don't know what you mean by that.

Listen, every single little thing on the planet isn't going to accurately represent every single person on the planet and what they have to go through. Do I get pissed when people with cancer are inaccurately represented, or how people who are legally blind are represented? No. Because it's not worth getting upset over, because nothing will every accurately represent what I go through, only I can do that. The point of science fiction is to escape from reality, not be faced with it every single second. It would be boring otherwise, because no one wants to watch a movie or read a book that's dull. And it's not creative, either.

So if you want a totally awesome superhero with disabilities who's accurately represented and whose disability is still present, then create one yourself. Don't demand that others are created for you.

So True!

Today I was reading Ultimate X-Men (such poor art... *sigh*) and found myself thinking "For a guy in a wheelchair, Professor Xavier sure has a lot of stairs at his school". This is such a good post. It is so very true! Where are all the disabled hero/ines whose super power doesn't effectively remove their disability?

I'd add more, but my brain doesn't seem to be working right now... Anyway, great post. I have tweeted it :D

Actually, there are many

Actually, there are many universes in which Prof. X isn't telekinetic, and I do recall at least one scene, I think in the second cartoon series, where he's shown at the bottom of a very tall set of stairs. I can't remember what he said, but I think it was a bit of a joke about how "not all challenges are as easy to solve as..." the plot point of the day (anti-mutant legislation?). But yeah, it's usually glossed over.

Here is is! It's not a lot,

Here is is! It's not a lot, but it stuck with me even though I haven't seen the cartoon series in a long time. I think it shows how simple it can be to address disability issues even when they're not the focus of the story (and they usually aren't). You don't need to ignore it or pretend that the X-men world is magically accessible to PWD (especially when it visibly ISN'T -- it's essentially the same as the modern-day world, but with mutants and a few other things added in).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiWoQpWuKMg#t=13m26s