I am tired of disability stereotypes and tropes

My review for “Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1: The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan became something of a rant about how disabilities are portrayed in fiction. It all goes back to my post “Learning to Pay Attention to the Stereotypes” in which I said, among other things:

I think it’s important to notice what the stereotypes are and realize how they impact others. If show after show after show portrays people of color, women or people with disabilities a certain way I do believe viewers are influenced more than they’d like to admit. Yes we can say that those who allow themselves to be influenced by entertainment are wrong for doing so but that does not excuse the creators of the shows from any wrong doing. I think those in the industry should be held responsible for the stereotypes they may perpetuate – whether they know they are doing it or not. And when they’re called on it they should admit to it and fix it. Not shrug it off and act as though because only a few people were upset it doesn’t matter. It matters.

The thing is I have a disability – hearing loss – so yeah when I see disabilities portrayed in stereotypical ways I AM offended. I’m bothered when I see people with disabilities used plot devices – the inspirational disabled character who inspires other character to do good things, the Super Crip who has super powers that make up for him being disable, the helpless victim who needs to be protected and/or saved because they can’t help themselves, and so on and so forth.

Characters with autism tend to be the savant types who witness the crime and help the heroes solve the case. There’s usually one character among the man cast who knows enough about autism to a) figure out the person has it and b) can identify with the character because they themselves have some traits of the same disorder (which the other characters just HAVE to comment on!) – Grissom on CSI, Charlie on Numb3ers, Goren on Law and Order Criminal Intent, and so on.

Characters who are blind usually have super hearing that allows them to hear everything around them and naturally they help solve the case. I remember vividly the little girl in the NCIS episode who helped the cast members find her mom after she and little girl were kid napped. Of course they did that but having her listen to the video feed of the kidnapper with her mother… way to give the kid nightmares for the rest of her life guys. There was another NCIS episode with a photographer who happened to be blind – all of his other senses were heightened so he could use them to take photos of what was around him. And of course he helps solve the case by hearing who is talking… And no most people who are blind don’t have super senses to compensate. Yes sometimes they can be a bit better as they learn to compensate for being blind but not THAT much better. Of course people tend to think the extreme is true – that people who are blind MUST have super hearing because TV shows tell them so.

Characters who are deaf can read anyone’s lips no matter how fast they’re talking or if they have a beard or a mustache… YES some deaf people have learned to read lips but not everyone and never as well as TV shows tell us they can.

And how about all those movies with disabled characters who end up inspiring able bodied characters to be better people? The whole point of these movies is to teach someone a life lesson and the disabled person is portrayed as “magical” or something similar. Usually these inspirational characters die in the end – Simon Birch, and The Mighty. There’s also The Cure in which the second boy has AIDS rather than a disability – same idea though. Characters with Downs Syndrome are nearly always said to be gifts from God to teach others a lesson about life – and it’s something that happens in real life as well.

Do you know what I’d love to see? More shows and movies and books with character who just happens to be disabled. That their disability NOT be the focus of the episode but rather just happens to be included within the episode. No more super special episodes/movies/books about a super special person – but just an episode/movie/book with an interesting character who just happens to have a disability. One of the main characters on ER, Dr. Kerry Weaver, who was introduced as accomplished doctor – and that’s what the audiences saw the most because her disability was hardly ever mentioned. I’m sure there are other characters like her around – but I don’t know enough about them to counteract all the other characters I know of. The character portrayals that are bothersome and sometimes hurtful.

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One Response to I am tired of disability stereotypes and tropes

  1. One of the first portrayals of hearing loss/impairment/deafness which I enjoyed was Matthew Braddock in Jessi’s Secret Language. There was another character, who showed the consequences of lack of support in her family, Adele. None of her family would sign with her, so Adele was happy when Jessi did. Martin was doing a homage to one of her favourite books as a child, The Secret Language.

    Probably the closest to a Super Special in the Babysitters Club about disability or the Little Sister series was Karen’s New Friend.

    There are some really great papers on stereotypes, for example David Bolt’s Beneficial Blindness which I read closely.

    A lot of them don’t tend to be cross-disability, though.

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