Like real life, some people in comic books have disabilities. Usually they’re not the main characters and tend to be secondary or tertiary characters at best and villains at worst. More importantly, many of these characters are unrealistic, and Saturday’s How (and Why) To Create Disabled Characters panel at New York Comic Con was all about discussing what defines a good or bad portrayal of a character with disabilities in popular media. And these weren’t just random panelists pulling random names out of a hat; all the panelists either had disabilities, worked with people with disabilities, were disability activists, or were a combination of the three, so they knew what they were talking about.
So, let’s start with what characters the panelists think are good positive representations of people with disabilities and why. Well, Professor Charles Xavier is an obvious choice, but not because he uses a wheelchair. Professor X is actually a good representation because, like many people with disabilities, he’s an activist, albeit for mutants and not people with disabilities. Regardless, Professor X reaches out to his fellow mutants and uses technology to create a safe, comfortable environment, which isn’t too different from what disability activists do. According to the panelists, another obvious strong representation of people with disabilities is DC’s Cyborg, and again it’s not because of the obvious, i.e., his prosthetics. Instead, the panelists believe Cyborg is a great representation because he doesn’t try to hide his disability and feels that any attempts to do so would be lying about whether he has one, especially if he hides it from his friends, the Teen Titans. Apparently, many people with disabilities share this feeling, which is what makes him true to life. While we’re on the subject of DC characters, the panelists believe Oracle is another good example of a character with a disability, and again not for obvious reasons (are you sensing a pattern yet). Oracle is a positive representation because she lives her life as she would without a disability: she goes out on the town, hangs out with friends, visits restaurants with them, and so on. In other words, Oracle does all the things people without disabilities do, because disabilities don’t prevent people in the real world from doing that kind of stuff.
Given the panelists’ ideas about what makes their chosen characters good representations, you would think they also have similar advice for up-and-coming writers who want to create these kinds of characters, and you would be correct. According to the panelists, anyone who wants to depict these characters should probably get input from a person who has a disability, which is apparently what the writers for the Fantastic Four cartoon did when developing Ben Grimm’s blind girlfriend; they consulted a blind woman to make sure the character was true to life. Another important piece of advice is to be as accurate as possible with the lingo. If a character is a little person, writers shouldn’t use words such as midget but refer to him or her with the specific condition name, like hydrocephalic dwarf or achondroplasiac dwarf. That’s what the creators of The Venture Bros. did for every character with a disability, which makes up far more characters than you would think. Moreover, the characters in The Venture Bros. aren’t defined by their disabilities, which is another key to creating a character with a disability. People with disabilities are multifaceted human beings with their own set of virtues, vices, and traits, and fictional characters with disabilities should be as well.
Now that we’ve gone over the good, it’s time we looked at the bad: bad examples of characters with disabilities and the wrong ways to present a character with a disability. While the panelists had fewer specific examples of unacceptable representations, they still had plenty to say about how poor representations tend to fall into negative tropes or are negative token characters. According to the panelists, the worst offenders are the characters who are villains because of their disability. Captain Hook is a prime example as a villain immediately distinguished by his wicked, prosthetic hook, which is where his characterization starts and ends. Sure, he’s a timeless villain, but a bad example of a character with a disability is a bad example, timeless or not. Another popular negative trope is the character who sacrificed a part of him or herself to gain evil power, which enforces the superstition that a disability is a sign of evil. And we can’t forget about the trope of the person who curses the world because of his or her disability and wants everyone to suffer just as he or she does, which reinforces the false belief that people with disabilities curse their disability.
So, what advice do the panelists have for writers for avoiding inaccurate characterizations of people with disabilities? First and foremost, do research. While it’s impossible to portray a disability 100% accurately, without the proper research, writers and artists can easily completely botch a portrayal. A common example of this kind of botchage is when artists draw people in wheelchairs using hospital wheelchairs, something only designed for temporary use, instead of a wheelchair designed for daily use. The panelists also think writers need to avoid as many tropes/tokenisms as possible, but that goes without saying. Case in point, before the panel, one of the panelists researched romance stories that had a blind character and found he or she always fell into one of the following tropes:
A) The character was a victim
B) The character was a villain
C) The character served as inspiration for another character to improve him or herself
D) The character finally “overcame” his or her disability
E) The character was cured of blindness.
Of course, blind people in the real world rarely fall into any of these tropes, so blind characters who do tend to be poor representations.
And that about covered it for the panel regarding dos and don’ts for depicting characters with disabilities. These honestly seem like straightforward pieces of advice. Still, writers should take this guidance to heart. However, one thing still nags at me: I really, really wanted to ask the panelists about their opinion of Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender and if she is a good or bad example of a character with a disability. I know what I think, but I don’t have the same experience as the panelists. If anyone who has a disability is reading this article, please tell me what you think of Toph. I really want to know.