Actually Decent Disability Representation

Content/trigger warning: abortion mention, eugenics mention

This is going to be a short entry because it’s about decent disability representation and there is very little decent disability representation out there. I’m also only including characters that are explicitly stated to be Disabled, not characters who are coded as Disabled or characters that I headcanon as Disabled. Does Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager count as Disabled because of her cognitive development being Borg-induced and all the trauma she carries from being a former drone? In my mind, absolutely, but it’s not acknowledged in canon, so I won’t be talking about her in this entry (any more than I already have done).

So let’s start out with an example that everyone reading this probably called that I was going to talk about: Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Now, I have some issues with Toph in that her earthbending enables her to “see,” so that falls a little bit into the “Disabled superhero that isn’t really Disabled because of their super-ness” trope, a.k.a. the “supercrip” trope. But her disability also directly drove that adaptation, so I can’t be too mad; it’s just a little annoying that such a prominent Disabled character has elements of the aforementioned “supercrip” trope. (Note: I’m sighted. If a blind person feels like Toph is a supercrip, they have more reason than I do to think so, and you should listen to them.)

There are some things that are arguably pretty damn good about Toph as disability representation. She’s not ashamed of her blindness. She’s open about it and won’t hesitate to call out the people around her–particularly Sokka–when they make vidist comments or forget about her blindness. She’s also a well-rounded character as opposed to just being the token Disabled one in the group.

My favorite part of Toph as disability representation is that the show makes jokes about Toph being blind that aren’t ableist or and are genuinely funny. For example, when Toph insists that she can put up a poster, she does so with the image facing the wall, so it looked like she just put up a blank piece of paper. She then says, “It’s upside down, isn’t it?” Disability can be hilarious, although abled comedy writers have yet to figure out how and tend to just be ableist pieces of shit.

I don’t really have any better examples from TV or movies, and I couldn’t think of a perfect example. For an okay example, there’s Roland in Saved!, whois halfway decent representation because Roland is a well-rounded character, there aren’t any ableist jokes at his expense (that I can remember), and he’s not just a token Disabled member of the cast. And yet Macaulay Culkin cripped up for the role. Boo.

Roland does bring up being Disabled with regard to his relationship, but I recall it being handled pretty well. IMDb saved my ass here; apparently what he said to his girlfriend, Cassandra, was “I don’t want to be the guy who’s with the girl because he needs her, I want to be the guy who’s with the girl because he wants her.” The idea of Disabled people needing abled partners does come up in real life, so it makes sense to have a Disabled character say that to an abled partner. It’s realistic. Not the kind of thing abled writers usually do right, either (I say as if I have any idea whether the writer who wrote that line is abled or Disabled).

This is probably the part where you’d expect my geeky ass to talk about Geordi LaForge as good disability representation. Well…not exactly. Geordi gets hurt so often that there are YouTube compilations of him getting hurt. He’s borderline a Butt Monkey character. Not to mention the writers had no idea how to write Black male Disabled sexuality, so Geordi never had a datemate. It’s also my understanding that Geordi got un-Disabled at some point (I haven’t seen most of the TNG movies or every episode of Trek, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), which also pisses me off. So are there good elements to Geordi as disability representation? Sure; for example, when Geordi tells off a pro–eugenics-of-Disabled-people Romulan commodore. Was he probably some of the best disability representation for the time Star Trek: The Next Generation was airing, and is it valid that some Disabled people see themselves in Geordi? Absolutely, and I don’t want to discount that…but at the same time, we can do better.

And Star Trek has done better! In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Melora,” the eponymous character uses a wheelchair because her species is used to lower gravity than most of the species on DS9. I’m not a wheelchair user, but the episode seemed to be well done to me, such as when Melora decides to not become un-Disabled (THANK FUCK; I should do an entry on why un-Disabling fictional characters is usually ableist) using a new “neuromuscular adaptation” treatment developed by Dr. Bashir. Melora also drops some truth bombs to Sisko about how her disability (when it’s properly accommodated) isn’t a problem until people make it one, and how abled people will never be able to understand what it’s like to be Disabled. I especially like when Melora saves the day by using her ability to move in lower gravity to take out the bad guy du jour. Unfortunately, though, Melora was not played by a wheelchair user.

There was, however, a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode in which a trisomy 21 actress plays a trisomy 21 character…and I wrote a whole section on it before remembering a few particularly egregious lines that revealed that the message of the episode was “Down syndrome bad, eugenic abortion…well, we’re not going to condemn it.” So that’s really all I have for TV and movies, although I have heard good things about the disability rep in Breaking Bad and Call the Midwife because both of those actually star Disabled actors. I have no interest in Breaking Bad, though, and I can’t stand Call the Midwife because it is just too fucking stressful. (Thanks, hyperempathy.) So here we go with some book recommendations.

The first is the Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor, which is one of the most realistic and respectful depictions of PTSD that I’ve read. Binti is an Africanfuturist book about a Himba girl who is accepted to the best university in the known universe. The title character experiences a horribly traumatic event in the first book and has symptoms of PTSD in the second and third books, and the symptoms are described so realistically it made me want to throw the book across the room (but in a good way). The second is Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, a horror novel about killer mermaids that contains not just an Autistic character, but an Autistic lesbian who contributes to the survival of at least some of the cast using her accommodations.

Holy hell, I actually managed to write more than a few paragraphs on actually good Disabled representation! Still not a very long entry, but in any case, thanks for reading, and if you know of any good Disabled rep that I missed, please leave a comment telling me about it!

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