One of the things that drives me just a little bit up the wall about disability in pop culture is when creators want to have a disabled character, but don’t want that character to have any of the actual consequences of being disabled. This plays out in one of two ways: Either the disability is just there, without any of the attending difficulties, or the disability has been turned into a Super Power. Sometimes, we get both.
Let me explain: My husband is a full-time wheelchair user. Trying to get around Halifax is occasionally a nightmare. The city’s built on a hill, there’s a million “just one steps” that prevent him from getting into most of the buildings, the curb cuts are awful, and it’s generally just very irritating. The average day of getting around the city is a pain, and I think his difficulties are pretty standard for people with mobility-issues.
I’ve never seen wheelchair-using Professor X have to actually deal with stairs. He uses his psychic powers to make his wheelchair float.
I’m certain the X-men movies, cartoon, and comic books would become tedious if everywhere Professor X went he had to deal with accessibility issues, but couldn’t they even mention it? A throw-away line in the movie? Maybe a short scene in the cartoon? Something that demonstrated that wandering around in a wheelchair isn’t quite as easy as “I make it float!”?
Of course, Professor X isn’t the only person in pop culture who’s got a disability where the adaptive technology is indistinguishable from magic and none of the usual issues with disability apply. Science Fiction/Fantasy seems to be the main culprit in this one, which is partly because “shiny magic/tech will fix everything!” Being a fan of both genres, I may have seen more of it than a pop-culture consumer who sticks with “realistic” shows (as realistic as crime-scene investigation shows ever are).
I should mention: These aren’t condemnations of the characters (my love for many of them is strong), but observations of a common trope: “Let’s have a disabled character, but with a magic device that means we don’t actually have to deal with disability! Ooh, and let’s be edgy and give them magic powers!”
The second go-to example is Geordi La Forge of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Geordi’s blind, but he has a VISOR that allows him to not only “see” people, but whatever else the writers wanted him to see that week. In general, his disability wasn’t a disability, because he wasn’t actually disabled by society - except when the plot called for it, and that usually meant his VISOR went missing.
I like Geordi. (I also used to make my hair band into a VISOR and play Star Trek, because I was that kind of girl.) However, the creators of the show got to use disability in order to make a point about the future: “We have conquered even blindness! Now, let’s conquer the stars!”
Of course, Star Trek had ‘conquered blindness’ in an episode of The Original Series, “Is there in Truth no Beauty?”. You can read an episode summary at Memory Alpha, but in short: Miranda Jones is a blind telepath who disguises her blindness (she doesn’t want pity, so she lies) by wearing a sensor web - a mesh that looks like decorative gold - over her whole body that allows her to “see” everything around her. She responds to people’s facial expressions, she can tell details of what people are wearing, etc. It’s almost like magic! Ultimately, this trope is slightly subverted in that Miranda is prevented from reaching her goal, but overall: magic! Well, tech. Indistinguishable from magic!
Most examples of this trope are about blindness. Angel: The Series had a blind assassin who could “see” using sound waves - she could even hear people’s hearts beat. Daredevil can apparently see by using sound waves as well (although truth be told I only know him from the movie with Ben Affleck). Blind seers are thick on the ground, and a few of them use their future-seeing ability to tell what’s going on in the next second so they can get around without need of a cane, assistance animal, or even outstretched arms.
When it comes to being mute (not Deaf - I haven’t run into this trope with Deaf people), the character is usually a strong empath of some sort who can both sense other people’s emotions and demonstrate their words through
overacting facial expressions and body language. Star Trek: The Original Series called their episode about this “The Empath”, where mute Gem can even go so far as to take on other people’s injuries and heal them, out of the goodness of her pure heart. Memory Alpha’s got a write-up. Cassandra Cain, who was Batgirl for 10 years, was raised without verbal language, thus developing the ability to read body language. She, too, was an assassin because of the “special powers” her disability gave her.
I feel this trope ends up being used when writers and creators want a “cool” character and think “Ooh, disability! We’ll be unique and slap our most powerful mutant in a wheelchair/make a blind assassin/mute empath! No one’s done that before!” They think this will make the character stand out in a world where super-powered characters are a dime a dozen. But they want to do it without taking on anything about disability, really. They just want a wow-cool factor.
You know what I’d really like to see? One of these characters as a disability-rights activist. It doesn’t even have to be a huge deal. Sure, one-shot characters (and characters from the far-distant future where humanity has overcome everything through the power of dilithium crystals) probably wouldn’t be able to take this on, and Professor X is doing Mutant Rights, so is a bit busy, but this trope isn’t going to go away, no matter how many times Disability Rights Activists bring it up. Having our Magical/Technologically-assisted person with a disability mention “Oh, I’m going to an ADAPT rally this weekend in support of the Community Choice Act” or “Oh, I’m meeting up with some folks to lobby for a new wheelchair ramp at the high school”, just… something that acknowledges that disability isn’t magicked away, even in the magical-technology world of t.v.
Unless, of course, a wizard really did make the whole world a post-accessibility utopia. In which case, build me some sets that reflect that, and I’ll be your friend forever.