You now know what tropes to avoid when your villain has a disability, but what about when your hero is disabled? As with villains, some disability tropes associated with heroes are harmful and don’t sit well with a modern audience. Here are some tropes to avoid:
1. Inspirationally Disadvantaged (a.k.a Inspiration Porn)
This trope treats the disabled character as an inspiration for simply existing. It tugs at readers and audiences’ heartstrings, making them feel good without challenging them to actually do anything about the systems that oppress disabled people in the first place.
This trope often uses the disabled character to teach the (usually white male) lead some sort of special lesson. It’s exploitative of disabled people because it turns them into gimmicks. For example, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim is hopeful in spite of his circumstances; his character only exists for Scrooge to be inspired by and pity him.
A more recent example is J.J. from the Netflix series Speechless, who has cerebral palsy. He starts the school year at a new school, where his class applauds him simply because he is disabled. They also immediately nominate him for class president even though they don’t know him. J.J. is a positive portrayal because the show is making fun of these tropes and pointing towards how ridiculous they are. Unlike Tiny Tim, J.J. has agency and is a three dimensional character who doesn’t exist to inspire someone else.
2. Throwing off the Disability
This trope, in which the character “overcomes” their disability, can occur in a few different ways:
- The character overrides the disability through Heroic Willpower (i.e. you can overcome anything if your will is strong enough).
- The disability is healed through medical treatment.
- The disability is magically cured. Or, the disabled person receives a prosthetic that is so lifelike it’s almost as if the disability doesn’t exist.
- The disability gets retconned or forgotten due to canon discontinuity (such as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl’s paralysis).
This trope sends two messages. The first is that any character who does not search for a way to be healed must want to be disabled. The second is that it’s always preferable to be able-bodied, that disabled people have no quality of life.
For example, Luke Skywalker throws off his disability in Star Wars. In The Empire Strikes Back, he loses his hand, but thanks to a robotic replacement, he doesn’t even have to learn how to live with a disability in Return of the Jedi.
3. Disability Superpower
Some disabled characters have a superpower that helps them overcome their disability, like Toph, who can “see” to an extent with Earthbending. This trope can work if it’s simply a helpful crutch, but should be avoided if the superpower is so powerful that it completely negates the disability altogether.
For example, though Daredevil is blind, his other senses are so powerful that he has acquired radar sense and can even read books by running his fingers over the ink.
As with Throwing off the Disability, when the superpower completely negates the disability, this trope sends the message that disability is something to overcome or reinvent.
What to do Instead
Demonstrate disabled heroes have have other characteristics besides their disability. We want to see them dealing with the setbacks of their disability while, at the same time, contributing to the story narrative.
One of my favourite examples of a disabled hero is Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon. He’s missing his left leg from the knee down and uses a prosthetic (of his own making). He’s brave, inventive, and adventurous, and the series gives him many opportunities to demonstrate those qualities. But, it also doesn’t ignore his disability. In the Race to the Edge TV series, there are several moments in which he loses his prosthetic and has to figure out how to get along without it. He also doesn’t think less of himself because of his missing leg; in How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World, he plays fetch with Toothless using his prosthetic.
Like other minority groups, disabled people have had to see themselves boxed into one-dimensional characters and stereotypes. If we want to include them in our stories (and we should), the least we can do is give them the same in-depth characterization as our other characters.