The discrimination of disabled/differently abled people in favor of able-bodied people, also known as ableism, spans far and wide in media, and ranges from the subtle to the glaringly obvious. While representation of disabled people in media in general is sorely lacking, plenty of the disabled characters that do exist in the mainstream are poor examples of real disabled people. Often these characters are used to cater to a majority abled audience and as such are victims of tokenism, poor characterization, and, most upsettingly, ableist tropes.
Of course, in an era that champions diversity, many writers may feel that the characters they create are helpful representations only to unintentionally come across as ableist.
What makes the difference between representation and ableism?
While this distinction naturally varies between different disability advocates, certain factors are hallmarks of ableism. In general, ableism can be created by defining the character by their disability and/or making the character appear inferior to able-bodied people. Looking at the factors laid out plainly in such a way, it seems instinctive that these portrayals are ill-informed at best. And yet, dozens of subcategories of ableism make their rounds in the media – some even becoming popularized tropes over time. For the most part, these tropes, while they present some nuance, can be grouped into two broad categories: Inspirationally Disadvantaged, and a fate Worse than Death.
So, what are these tropes, and what makes them so harmful to the disabled community?
Inspirationally Disadvantaged, also referred to by the late disability advocate Stella Young as ‘inspiration porn’, is when a disabled character is introduced to the plot to teach the main character a lesson about life and living. Oftentimes this character takes center stage for one episode, and is a barely-recognized side character, or else is never seen again after delivering their final life lesson to the main character. Typically, the lesson is something akin to gratitude or patience, which, when being ‘taught’ by a token disabled character, is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the idea that a disabled character should teach the main character (often a character with a privileged background) gratitude is alienating of real disabled people. It sends the message that the main character should be grateful for their circumstances because at least they aren’t disabled. Moreover, it creates a false perception that disabled people are or should be expected to be inspirational to abled people, without any consideration of their own feelings. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with finding someone to be an inspiration, the issue comes from why disabled people are considered inspiring. Instead of being based on their individual characteristics, thoughts, or feelings, disabled people as a whole are considered ‘inspiring’ purely because they are disabled. As Stella Young stated in her TED talk I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much:
“I wasn’t doing anything that was out of the ordinary at all. I wasn’t doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation.”
One example of this trope in pop culture comes from the hit show Glee. In the episode ‘Laryngitis’, the main character Rachel (played by Lea Michele) loses her voice and is temporarily unable to sing, causing her to panic as her identity hinges on her musical prowess. As a result, she is introduced to ex-football player Sean (played by Zack Weinstein), a one-time character who is now paralyzed from the chest down. Through meeting him, Rachel learns to not let herself be defined by one trait, though it hardly matters as her voice recovers by the end of the episode.
Like most Inspirationally Disadvantaged characters, Sean appears only in this episode, and exists solely for Rachel’s character development. His disabilities are only considered through the lens of what he can teach an abled person about life. This makes him a less of a character and more of a plot device. Instead of being seen as a person in his own right, he is a prop used however the story requires. Beyond this, the episode creates a false equivalency between Rachel’s lost voice and Sean’s paralysis. Even though Rachel has a temporary issue that will not adversely affect her life overall while Sean’s world has been altered completely, the audience is only supposed to see Sean’s life as a parallel to Rachel’s.
To summarize, repeated use of this trope creates the picture that all disabled people are bravely facing life with unwavering positivity, all the time. This should not be the case. Disabled people are, after all, people. They get upset with the hand they were dealt in life just as abled people do. They have complex thoughts about their disability, not just optimism. Furthermore, no minority character should be used only to inspire a life lesson in the protagonist. The people who belong to a specific minority are just as diverse and interesting as characters as the majority, and it is the responsibility of the writer to treat them as such.
Converse to this idea is the trope that suggests that disability is a fate Worse than Death by either having a disabled character actively saying so, or by killing off the character in a poorly-disguised mercy killing. Again, this trope is meant to pull at able-bodied heartstrings without considering its emotional impact on the actual disabled people represented by the character. A classic example of this trope in pop culture is the 2016 film Me Before You, in which the paraplegic love interest Will Traynor ultimately decides to end his life via legal euthanasia, rather than live with his paralysis. The film, despite being slammed by disability advocates and disabled people across the world, was hailed as the ultimate tragic love story by critics and won a People’s Choice Award in the dramatic movies category. This trope is harmful for a number of reasons, the most pressing one being the implication that people who live with disabilities similar to Will’s are living through a fate worse than death or cannot live a full life. Furthermore, the ableist idea that the assisted suicide of a disabled person is a ‘mercy killing’ is extremely problematic as disabled people are statistically more likely to experience violence than their able-bodied counterparts. Throughout history, disabled people were targeted based on the assumption by abled people that they were inferior (most infamously being the Holocaust). This trope subconsciously creates and confirms the ableist notion that the lives disabled people live are inherently inferior to those of able people.
Disability advocates have been objecting to these tropes for years, so why do they remain popular within much of the mainstream media?
As with much of the inaccurate or harmful representation of minorities, a major issue comes from writers and studio execs not consulting a disabled person during the creation process and not being aware of ableist tropes themselves. In some cases, especially with Inspirationally Disabled characters, writers may have the best intentions with the use of the disabled character – on the surface, just including a disabled character can be interpreted as positive representation. Writers may fall into the trap of thinking that their disabled character is just as ‘inspiring’ as they intended. But, as with representing any minority in media, research is paramount. When choosing to create a character with different life experiences, it is important to fully understand those experiences, or else you risk alienating the very group you set out to honor. This is the issue with ableist tropes – it takes the agency away from disabled characters and uses them to suit abled perspectives before discarding the character entirely, either by having the character never return or by killing the character off. While disabled audiences notice this immediately, the abled majority may not.
Ultimately, this is the crux of why ableism in media is still so prevalent. While these tropes alienate disabled people, the abled majority is either unaware of or is willing to ignore the nature of these tropes and what makes them wrong. As a result, media with disabled characters becomes actively targeted at abled people. To an abled person who may not be informed about disability activism, the Inspirationally Disadvantaged character is genuinely inspiring, and the Worse than Death character’s ultimate demise invokes sympathy and comments in the vein of ‘at least they aren’t suffering anymore’. As such, ableism sells. Me Before You, while considered catastrophic by disability advocates, grossed $208 million at the box office, largely by able-bodied people who hailed it as a heartwarming love story without considering its darker implications. And when ableist tropes are so popular, they keep being marketed. This creates a situation wherein disabled people are inserted into a story to serve abled characters – to create feelings of sympathy in an abled audience – all while wrapped in a package labelled ‘disability’. This media, much like the tropes it is based on, strips disabled people of their agency. It calls itself representation without considering the people it claims to represent, using them to serve the abled majority like props. At their core, what these tropes do is repeatedly point out to abled people that life is so much harder for the disabled. What this media fails to consider is that the reason life is harder for them is that society was both literally and figuratively built for abled people. As a result, it fails both to make meaningful commentary on disabled life beyond what will sell, and to show people what changes need to be made to create a more inclusive society. This leaves many well-meaning abled people simply unaware of the disability issues they should be advocating for, even though they consume media with disabled characters.
What does positive representation look like?
While the definition of positive disability representation varies between advocates, one thing is for certain: Hollywood must do away with tokenism. Disabled characters who lack personality and backstory beyond their disability do not resonate with real disabled people, nor do disabled characters who exist only for the protagonists’ character development. As such, disability representation going forward should be more focused on protagonists or recurring characters, as opposed to characters that only make one appearance. Furthermore, their characterization should not come across as patronizing or pitying to real disabled people. As with any character, a disabled character should be allowed to get upset and make mistakes, and should have complex thoughts, interests, and skills. Writers should consider what role the disability would play in the characters’ everyday life, and try to show the real challenges disabled people face in society without making the character helpless or inferior. One well-executed example is Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender, who is completely blind, but learns to navigate using the vibrations of the earth. Eventually, she adapts this skill to shift the earth to her will. While her blindness offers her some limitations and problems within her world, (e.g. her parents infantilizing her and treating her as ‘fragile’) she never falls into self-loathing because of it, and certainly would not rather be dead. Like real blind people, Toph does not have an inferior life to any of the other characters – she perceives the world differently to them but faces the same trials and tribulations. On top of that, Toph has a distinct personality and voice that is not centered around her blindness: her dry sense of humor and abrasive personality creates an interesting dynamic between characters, where she learns from them just as often as they do from her. What the show does correctly is treat Toph like any other character: a distinct person with a unique perspective, with a plethora of strengths and weaknesses. That is the representation that disabled people deserve more of – representation that reminds the abled majority that every human being has a different perspective, and the perspectives of different disabled people are fascinating not only because of their disability, but because of their character.
In conclusion, disability representation is unendingly important, but tropes like Inspirationally Disadvantaged and Worse than Death that reduce the struggles of disability to sob stories for abled audiences need to be phased out. A disabled character should not exist to prop up an abled character or to produce easy tears. Like any minority, they should have their own stories beyond being marketable to the majority. Disabled characters should be written for disabled people, which means making them just as unique and three-dimensional as real disabled people are. Every single person has a unique personality and perspective, and it is beyond time to acknowledge that disabled people are not an exception.