Through the Arts
- Disabilities through Different Mediums of Art
- The Importance of Reflecting Disability in Art
- Disability as Presented in Works of Fiction (Case Study - Avatar: The Last Airbender)
- The Representation of Disability within Fictional Works
- Disability in the Bible (under construction)
- Disability in Early British Literature (under construction)
Exhibition Thematic Section: Through the Arts
Disabilities through Different Mediums of Art
Christopher Sutcliffe, Student, Fitchburg State University
People with disabilities have been underrepresented for a good part of history. In the present society, we are trying to represent both people with disabilities and without equally in all artistic endeavors.
In today’s society, many people can see that big brands and large art displays are starting to include people with disabilities. People with disabilities in today’s society are beginning to be represented for their differences. One such instance of this is the idea of disability art. Disability art is a subsection of the broader spectrum of art that focuses primarily on people with disabilities. This can be represented on any medium that the artist thinks works the best. Disability art can either be created by an artist with a disability or by someone who has strong feelings or opinions about disabilities. Most of this art speaks positively about people with disabilities. The article titled "Art and Disability: Intersecting Identities among Young Artists with Disabilities" talks about artists with disabilities showing “self-acceptance and a pride about who they are, not in spite of a disability, not because of a disability, but including a disability” (Sulewski). Disability art is trying to remove the stigma around disability and make people with disabilities better represented in all artistic mediums.
Disability art is a step in the right direction for people with disabilities. For example, in Canterbury Cathedral in England, there are many stained glass windows that depict people with disabilities, unfortunately mostly in a negative context. Henry of Fordwich is in a few different panels of stained glass. It pictures a seemingly typical man who is being dragged into the cathedral. He is being beaten because he is yelling out and not acting like a “normal” citizen. In the next panel, he seems to be healed of all his ailments because of where he was placed. The people of the Middle Ages believed that the cathedral in Canterbury had the power to heal people of any kind of disability because of a martyred saint’s burial site. This ranged from mental to physical disabilities to even broken bones. This stained glass piece shows a person with disabilities being healed for an issue that they cannot control. The stained glass window, amongst many others, is still up to this day. People still bring loved ones and people with disabilities to Canterbury Cathedral because of its representation of healing people with disabilities seen through its stained glass windows.
Across all of France, there are many different statues that seem to depict a man riding a horse. Until a person stops and gets a better look, they won’t realize that this man is actually Joan of Arc. A significant figure in French culture, she was seen by some as mad for talking to spirits and for trying to impersonate a man. In the end, Joan of Arc was killed by being burned at the stake for her crimes. In her court case, she started with over seventy different charges but by the end, she was only down to twelve, most of which had to deal with her dressing up as a man. Most of the charges that were dropped had to do with her talking to spirits because they couldn’t be proven correct or incorrect. Her trial essentially made impersonating a man and wearing there clothes a disability. She was looked at for being "mad," not for talking to spirits and angels, but for wearing men’s clothes as a woman (Cohen). In France, there may be many statues of her riding horses into battle but there are far more paintings of her talking and listening to angels and different spirits. In modern society, we can speculate that Joan of Arc had some sort of mental illness that can be attributed to these behaviors (“Statues & Monuments: Joan of Arc").
Another example of an historical disability figure is Richard III of England. Throughout most of his time as king, he was viewed as at least an effective ruler. There was something that people seemed to overlook for the better part of his time as king. He had scoliosis or a curvature in his spine. This caused him to hunch over and look different from the people around him. This physical disability was overlooked in paintings, some texts, and statues of him. It wasn’t seen mostly until the later part of his reign. The opposition and his enemies started to use his disability against him. They made fun of him for his scoliosis. Shakespeare was one of the biggest culprits of doing this. He wrote an entire play about King Richard III where he was depicted as a hunchback. Scoliosis is something that many people in the world have, both then and now. King Richard III wouldn’t look any different than most of society today, but the position he was in changed how people look at disability. His disability was manipulated, and he is usually seen as not ruling as well as other kings because of this depiction. In many art mediums, he is depicted as the person who is different because of this condition, as seen in Shakespeare.
This example of people with disabilities being represented in different art forms can be seen in the modern fashion industry. The Savage X Fenty fashion show and brand as a whole represent everyone including people with disabilities evenly. The fashion show includes big-name models as well as many people with disabilities. There are models that have both of their legs amputated, some models in wheelchairs and even a model with a cane because of her partial blindness. In the present day, the representation of people with disabilities is everywhere. The hardest market to break into has been disrupted just from one show that put everybody and every person, including those with disabilities, on display. Even five years ago a person couldn’t walk the runway if they weren’t the perfect person and had less than five percent body fat. Representation in this influential industry has been hard to come by. The fashion show was a breathtaking showing of people with disabilities and seemed to open many brands’ eyes to the beauty of people with disabilities in fashion.
For people with disabilities, the time to thrive in art is now. They are represented everywhere, from fashion to film to paintings in large-scale museums. Across the world, everyday people are trying to depict people with disabilities positively to show everyone that they are exactly like everyone else. As a society, we still have a lot to work on, but at this moment we are striving to help everyone with a disability and change the stigma that surround disability.
Bastien-Lepage, Jules. “Joan of Arc.” Metmuseum.org, 2000, www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/89.21.1/.
Cohen, Jennie. “7 Surprising Facts About Joan of Arc.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 28 Jan. 2013, www.history.com/news/7-surprising-facts-about-joan-of-arc.
Fenty, Robyn Rihanna, director. Savage X Fenty Show. Savage X Fenty Show, Amazon Prime Video,20 Sept. 2019,www.amazon.com/Savage-X-Fenty-Show-Trailer/dp/B07XDJCHVK/ref=sr_1_2?crid=7LVLLV8RNMAC&keywords=savage+x+fenty&qid=1585765417&sprefix=savage+x%2Caps%2C156&sr=8-2.
Preston, Cheryl. “The Miracles of Canterbury.” The Getty Iris, 25 July 2018, blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-miracles-at-canterbury/.
“Statues & Monuments: Joan of Arc.” Jeanne d'arc la pucelle, 22 Aug. 2019, www.jeanne-darc.info/statues-monuments/.
Sulewski, Jennifer Sullivan, et al. “Art and Disability: Intersecting Identities Among Young Artists with Disabilities.” Disability Studies Quarterly, 2012, https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3034/3065.
The Importance of Reflecting Disability in Art
Maddie Mantegani, Student, Fitchburg State University
Disability, over time, has been expressed through various mediums of art from photographs to paintings to stained glass windows. However, the disability that is being portrayed is not always shown in a positive light. Many see disability as being “abnormal” and something to look down upon, but disability is something we see in everyday life, something “normal.” Therefore, people with disabilities should be shone in positive light through art just as people without disabilities are.
In the online Europeana art gallery, they have a whole gallery that is dedicated to art that represents people with disabilities. It includes art created using many different mediums, some pieces which seem to portray more negative rather than positive feelings. The gallery also includes imagery of the assistive devices people with disabilities use to allow them to be independent and successful. Some of the devices included are crutches, prosthetics, guide dogs, and guide sticks.
One of the art pieces that was particularly interesting was an oil painting titled “The Blind Leading The Blind.” The title of the painting itself is a phrase that people have used to poke fun of one another in a negative sense, assuming that something bad or wrong is going to happen with whatever the situation may be. The painting itself shows a group of several people using guide sticks to walk and completely toppling over each other. The painter made it look like these people with blindness had no eyes at all, which is not true for all people who are blind; some may have lost their eye(s), yes, but some still have their eyes and some are only blind in one eye as opposed to both. The image also depicts the people who are blind just kind of swinging their guide sticks around randomly, suggesting that the don’t know how or are incapable of using them properly. This painting is a grotesque representation of people who are blind. There are many people with blindness that are fully capable of being independent, either with the help of a guide stick or guide dog. There are also people who are blind who help others like them learn how to use their assistive devices. After all, who would be better to teach someone how to use such a device than someone who is just like them and uses the same device daily?
Another set of artwork that includes representations of disabilities are the “Miracle Windows” at Canterbury Cathedral in England. These windows show the miracle workings of St. Thomas Beckett. St. Thomas Beckett was famous for “curing” the disabled, or in other words, making people’s disabilities go away. This was seen and may still be viewed by some as a good deed and something kind that he was doing for those who are “less fortunate.” However, this can also be interpreted as those with disabilities have something wrong with them that needs to be fixed or changed. People with disabilities have aspects that make them different, but that is not necessarily a “bad” attribute about them. There are many people with disabilities that are proud of their disabilities and support each other and encourage each other to accept their differences.
A form of art that we come into contact every day, which you may not acknowledge or think of as art, is the photographs we see of people with disabilities in newspaper articles and on the television news. We always see images of what the captions say as “extraordinary” feats and accomplishments. While this is a wonderful display, it also provides the suggestion that people with disabilities should be viewed solely as inspiration for those who are able-bodied. A specific image and article like this will appear in the exhibit, one of Katie Lynch of Wayland, Massachusetts. The image used in the article is of her walking the start, 26.2 feet, of the Boston Marathon. It’s an image that shows how someone who has a disability can do something by themselves just like those who are able-bodied. If this photographed were framed and displayed in a gallery with only “Katie Lynch of Wayland, MA: Dwarfism,” it would be a great representation and genuine exhibit of someone with disabilities. However, given the wrong, or in other words a suggestive, caption, it could portray that everyone should be inspired by her capability and ability to walk like the “normal.”
Another, possibly more indirect form of art, for people with disabilities is mini-architectural sculptures of historic, beautiful sites. Large works of architecture can be considered their own works of art, like the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, and the Notre Dame Cathedral, which has unfortunately been destroyed. However, these giant works of art can only be enjoyed and admired if you have the ability to see. But what if you can’t see? People who are blind can still read and write; they just have to use a different form called braille. People with blindness use their sense of touch to really navigate and enjoy the world. One place that has acknowledged this issue and has made an adjustment so all people can enjoy a structure’s beauty is Aachen Cathedral. At Aachen Cathedral, there is a mini bronze sculpture of the large-scale cathedral, made with intense and fine details. With this great detail and small-scale size, people who are blind can visit the cathedral and discover its beauty and work in their own unique way by touching the sculpture and feeling each individual detail. Places all over the world are doing a similar thing for those who need it; sites in Germany, Hungary, and Poland have all created mini, greatly detailed sculptures in order to allow people who are blind to enjoy the architectural artwork just like everyone else, in their own way. This is a perfect example of how art was used in a positive way to benefit those who are blind, instead of continuing to ignore the fact that those who can’t see can’t adore architectural art like the rest of us.
Art is beautiful and admirable and a wonderful way to express oneself and represent others. When used in the right way it can change people’s opinions and let them see a new light that they’ve never seen before. However, people with disabilities are not always portrayed in a positive light, if at all. More artists need to start representing this group of people and how wonderful and similar to the rest of the world they are. By representing even just a few more people with disabilities in art, we give just a little bit more of a voice to those who feel they are forgotten or unheard. Art is extremely powerful and should be used to help portray the positive characteristics of those with disabilities.
“Disabilities in Art.” Europeana, www.europeana.eu/en/galleries/disabilities-in-art?fbclid=IwAR0bMSAN_g9hH44DfUZxiuqDtfbZSEkMht7JK7g2LaAD-oEbrA9zTOeOXwU.
Preston, Cheryl. “Hugh of Jervaulx Detail.” The Getty Iris, 25 July 2018, blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-miracles-at-canterbury/.
Sommers, Kelsey. “Former WHS Student Inspires Marathon Runners.” Wayland Student Press, 7 May 2009, waylandstudentpress.com/6369/articles/former-whs-student-inspires-marathon-runners/.
Stewart, Jessica. “Miniature Sculptures in Front of Monuments Help Visually Impaired People ExploreArchitecture.” My Modern Met, 11 Nov. 2019, mymodernmet.com/bronze-scale-models-visually-impaired/?fbclid=IwAR2UJ61pPCOZKLmdeeqzL_lLBJQL56JaB3lLNDafnT4j8nG3t-jmRlMKNcw.
Disability as Presented in Works of Fiction
Andrea Pellizzari, Student, Fitchburg State University
Although we are seeing some improvements on this front, it’s true that characters with disability are often excluded from works of literature and fiction. When disability is shown, it is often portrayed in one of three ways: something that is inspirational or cured, something to be pitied or seen as victimizing, or something that is vile and/or must be destroyed. Possible examples include Forrest Gump (in which Forrest is seen as inspirational and even inexplicably breaks free of his leg braces, in a sense being “cured”), A Christmas Carol (where the character of Tiny Tim is there primarily to be pitied by Scrooge), and Shakespere’s Richard III (where Richard’s disability is portrayed as being the direct cause of his villainous ways), respectively. Beyond these examples are dozens more: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Moby Dick, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, etc; almost all of which include the disabled character being killed in some way. Rarely are stories found where characters have disabilities simply because they do, and those disabilities aren’t used to further a plot similar to the examples above.
But why? Why are disabilities so often portrayed this way, and why is it so important that disability is included better and more often in fiction at all? First and foremost, disability inclusion in fiction is important because representation in stories is more impactful than we may think. From a young age, most people use fiction not just as a form of enjoyment and escapism, but as a tool through which we live vicariously, through which we find characters and situations we can relate to, and through which we form opinions and ideas on what is and what could be. According to the article Literature as a mirror: Representing disability in fiction, “We associate ourselves with characters that we read about, and these associations shape our assumptions and beliefs about ourselves” (Hamilton). Not everyone is purely interested in reading about characters who reflect themselves, but it is important that all people can find characters they can relate to because, for many, we use those characters to think about how we perceive and are perceived. For instance, if someone with autism were to read a book in which a child with autism is portrayed in a negative light because of their disability, that someone might begin to think negatively of themself and their own disability, especially if they related to the character. That is not to say that, for example, a character with a disability cannot be a villain in a book. But that character should not be a villain merely because of their disability, as was the case in Shakespeare's Richard III, and disability should not be made out to be the defining characteristic of someone, as it so often is in works of fiction. It is to say that those with disabilities deserve better representation in a variety of ways in all different kinds of literature and storytelling.
As for why we often see disability commonly portrayed in one of the above ways, according to award-winning author Susan Nussbaum, a large part of it may be that for a long time disabled characters were written by abled authors, most of whom had limited understanding of what living with certain disabilities was/is really like. This could be in part that authors who fit into certain stereotypes like white, male, cisgendered, abled, etc., were more likely to have their work published due to possible bias. In her article, "Disabled Characters in Fiction," Nussbaum states, “I’m not saying writers should only write about people from their own racial or gender backgrounds. I have often written characters who are outside of my personal experience. But there’s an authenticity to characters that are written by someone who embodies the experience of oppression that can help break through old myths. Disabled people have only begun to emerge from the shadows in the past 60 years, but they’ve already started producing art of all kinds that reflects their lived experience.” More and more writers with disabilities are sharing their own stories or stories featuring characters with disabilities, but representation could still be significantly stronger. When acclaimed novelist Nicola Griffiths created a list of books that pass the Fries Test, a test that asks "Does a work have more than one disabled character? Do the disabled characters have their own narrative purpose other than the education and profit of a nondisabled character? Is the character's disability not eradicated either by curing or killing?", she found that only sixty-seven books passed (Hamilton). While this is a discouraging number, it is important to keep in mind those authors and writers today working on new books, television shows, movies, comics, and other works of fiction that will have meaningful and well-created representation of disability.
Though there has been a great increase in representation in fiction in recent years due to the rise of disability rights movements in the past century, examples of disability can be found in works of literature far beyond the start of the modern era. For instance, medieval manuscripts often displayed a number of different disabilities. One example was the Bishop Æthelwold, who was said to have had swollen legs, and needed assistance standing during mass. However, this is only confirmed by two references, and all other depictions of him seem to exclude his disability. Another figure, King John of Bohemia was blind, yet still fought on horseback. Several manuscripts seem to suggest that Homer, a famous Greek poet, may have been blind, and the idea was widely believed during the late Middle Ages. Another Greek example is one of the artifacts in the display, is a piece of pottery depicting the mythological hero Hercules. Hercules experienced a bout of “madness”, set on him by his vengeful stepmother Hera, that caused him to murder his wife and children. While Hercules was not thought to have any mental or emotional illnesses or disabilities, some view this “bout of madness” as representation, however negative and unfortunate. However, Hercules is pitied for this terrible act, and is made to perform a series of tasks as penance, rather than be killed, which could be taken as a sign of hope that certain actions could be understood if the person was believed to have had a mental or emotional illness or disability (Barker).
As time passed, so were written many of the previous examples like Richard III (Shakespeare, 1592) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hugo, 1831). The majority of these premodern depictions of disability portrayed physical disability and often in a negative manner, but they did help pave way for some of the more positive and inclusive representations we have now.
On that note, and to counteract the previous negative examples of disability in fiction, it’s important to include some examples of works that do have that meaningful and inclusive representation. Books like Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, and Maximum Ride by James Patterson, television shows like Avatar the Last Airbender (see more below), Breaking Bad, and Switched at Birth, and movies like A Quiet Place have all been praised for their positive and realistic portrayals of persons living with disabilities (though some may argue otherwise). Of course, when examining the quality of representation, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone is different and perceives things differently, so a movie that might have a great portrayal of disability to one person may fall short to another.
Representation and inclusion of disability is important in all forms of media, and fiction, be it through literature, television, film, etc., is no exception. It is necessary for such examples of fictional representation to be included in an exhibition about disability because fiction of any kind features prominently in most of our lives, and can have a huge impact on the way we view ourselves and others. No one should have little to no characters in fiction that they can relate to or associate with, because it is through these associations that we learn more about ourselves, and everyone with a disability deserves to see their disability portrayed in a positive and realistic light.
Barker, Clare, and Stuart Murray. “From Richard III to Captain Ahab: What Literature Reveals about How We Treat Disabilities.” The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/12/disability-literature-point-of-view#mainconten
Blank, Michelle. “People First: Disabilities in YA Lit.” The Hub, 7 Sept. 2012, www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2012/09/07/people-first-disabilities-in-ya-lit/.
Hamilton, Raynee. “Literature as a Mirror: Representing Disability in Fiction.” The Daily Cardinal, 21 Nov. 2019, www.dailycardinal.com/article/2019/11/literature-as-a-mirror-representing-disability-in-f iction.
Hudson, Alison. “Representations of Disabilities and Illnesses in Medieval Manuscripts.” The British Library, 9 Sept. 2016, blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/09/disability-and-illnesses-in-medieval-manuscrip s.html.
Lapointe, Grace. “The Alienating Lack of Disability Representation in Literature.” Book Riot, 9 Mar. 2018, bookriot.com/2018/03/06/disability-representation-in-literature/.
Nussbaum, Susan. “Disabled Characters in Fiction.” HuffPost, 23 Jan. 2014, www.huffpost.com/entry/disabled-characters-in-fiction_b_4302481?guccounter=1&guc _referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAABS WYKSk3l_kYDGUcgyGzwTDZiguRSu6PYXnKJiAfg20-ANnVzO_4vi-h6OxIC9Gaw OpKUbr2-OChWdJW9q-PQZCQ6KBEiynXgB5RjvYBd5AfteXWpVg0r-Wvdopah_8 62g_cH7C7rJbQXyOPI9fgmXTpVTmNwtHO0SpwJOC8.
Stokes, Katie. “Representations of Disability in Literature.” The Boar, 1 Feb. 2019, theboar.org/2019/02/representations-disability-literature/.
Case Study - Avatar: The Last Airbender
Disability has long been underrepresented in fiction, and when it is, it’s often in an unrealistic or offensive manner. This leaves much to be desired in terms of characters that those with disabilities can relate to. While we still have a ways to go, some works of fiction are paving the way for realistic and positive representation of various different disabilities, and one such example is the Nickelodeon children’s show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Despite being aimed at a younger audience, Avatar has won praise and admiration among teens and adults for its excellent pacing, plot lines, character development, diversity, and ability to portray mature themes in such a way that they could be understood and followed by children. In terms of diversity, Avatar can be commended for its positive representation of people of color, strong and complex female characters and, of course, characters with disabilities.
Before jumping into examples of disability in the show, it’s important to establish some background. Avatar is set in a fantasy world where some people are born with the ability to “bend,” move or manipulate telekinetically, one of the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. The world itself is split into four nations, one for each element. Some can’t bend at all ,and those who can are only able to bend one element, except for the Avatar, who is able to learn all four. In the show, the Avatar is a young airbender boy named Aang who is on a quest to master the other three elements in order to defeat the ruler of the Fire Nation, who is attempting to conquer the world.
On his journey, Aang meets a number of different people who either join him or help him in some way, and one of these characters is a boy named Teo. Teo is a non-bender and paraplegic member of the Earth Kingdom. As an infant, Teo was paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair after an accident related to a flood that ravaged his village. The survivors, including Teo and his father, took up residence in a nearby abandoned air temple. Because Teo is unable to move up or down stairs without assistance, his father crafts a glider to attach to his wheelchair, so that he’d be able to glide between floors using the many balconies as landing pads. After the glider is proven to be a success, him and his father construct one for everybody, and Teo is introduced to the show while he is flying with friends.
Despite only appearing in a handful of episodes and as a minor character, Teo certainly leaves a lasting impression. According to an essay, “In Brightest Day: Disability in the Avatar Universe” from the blog Lady Geek Girl and friends, Teo is an important and influential character because “he’s introduced in a completely non-ableist way and the Gaang [Aang and his friends] never reacts to him with pity or even shock—the only comment they make on his disability is Sokka [one of Aang’s friends] telling him that his glider chair is incredible.” Instead of making Teo’s character about his disability, his disability is just seen as something he has. It does affect him, and that can be seen in little details in episodes he’s featured in, such as an occasion where his friend helps push his wheelchair up some stairs, but it is never made out to be one of his defining features. Instead, he is seen and praised for his intelligence, ingenuity, and vivacious personality.
Another, and without a doubt the most prominent example of disability in Avatar, is a young earthbender girl named Toph. Toph was born completely blind in both eyes, but despite her lack of vision, she is able to use her earthbending abilities to feel the vibrations of movement and objects in the ground, thus being able to “see” using her feet. While this helps maintain a lot of independence and makes her an especially great earthbender, it certainly does not make up for every issue she would otherwise face, being blind.
When we first meet Toph, it’s because Aang and his friends, in their quest to find someone to teach him earthbending, end up at an underground earthbending arena competition. After several rounds of fights, the winner goes up against Toph, the reigning champion under the pseudonym “The Blind Bandit.” She defeats him almost instantly and easily, and Aang, being impressed by her skills, is able to track her down. Him and his friends find that she is the daughter of a very wealthy couple, who shield her from the world because of her disability. They don’t let her leave the confines of their estate, and shelter her to the extent that the other people in town don’t know she exists. They view her as weak and incapable of being able to take care of herself, simply because she is blind, and are subsequently unaware that she sneaks out to fight in earthbending tournaments. Toph, likely hoping to avoid conflict or thinking her parents won’t change, plays along to some extent with her parents false perceptions of her. When Toph and Aang are kidnapped by some of the fighters from the earthbending arena and are held for ransom, the truth comes out. After Toph’s parents pay for her and she is released, she uses her incredible earthbending skills to stop the others and free Aang. Toph finally reveals to her parents that she’s not the helpless little girl they think she is, that she’s strong and capable. However, her parents are outraged by the danger of the whole situation, and determine that she should be guarded even more closely. Upset and disappointed by their reaction, Toph decides to run away and join Aang and his friends to teach him earthbending, and is one of the main characters throughout the remainder of the show.
The way Toph’s parents treat her is used to highlight how harmful it can be to stick people with disabilities into a box where they become the object of pity. Her parents also view her blindness as directly affecting her well-being whereas Toph seems to have come to terms with the fact that her disability is not something that is constantly holding her back, but rather just a part of her that she has learned to live with in different ways. In fact, Toph seems to have a fairly positive view of her disability, choosing not to focus on the difficulties that come with being blind but rather what she has gained from it. As mentioned previously, Toph is able to use seismic sensing, feeling the vibrations in the ground, to, in a sense, “see” her surroundings. This is what allows her to become such a powerful earthbender and move around easily on normal ground without the assistance of a cane or something similar.
While this does seem empowering at first, it also does come dangerously close to falling into the “supercrip” category. According to Bitch magazine, “Supercrip provides a way for non-disabled folks to be “inspired” by persons with disabilities without actually questioning—or making changes to—how persons with disabilities are treated in society.... Supercrip cannot just be human; she or he must be superhuman and surpass not only her/his disability, but the realms of “normal” human achievement.” Characters who are “supercrip” in fiction are oftentimes characters whose disabilities are almost essentially rendered irrelevant because they are able to overcome them so immensely in some way. In many senses, Toph is able to overcome her blindness due to her seismic-sensing, earthbending abilities, because she doesn’t need to be able to see in order to move around and fight like any other character. However, what makes Toph different is that despite her abilities and her strength, we do still see her struggle with being blind.
Toph can’t read or write, which is brought up a couple times throughout the show. For instance, she chooses to wait outside while the others go into a library, she asks another character to dictate a letter for her, and she is unable to see her own wanted posters. She is also unable to detect things that are in the air, such as enemies or when another character throws something to her and it hits her, because he forgot that she wouldn’t know it was coming. She cannot swim, because she can’t see where to move to in the water. And one of her most prominent struggles throughout the show is that when she’s standing on a surface that’s not standard rock (or metal, as she later learns to bend the rocks in metal), she becomes truly completely blind. Whenever the characters are moving on sand, ice, etc, Toph is unable to use vibrations to feel her way around, and must grasp onto other characters for support. One of the best examples of this is one of the final episodes, when she is on top of a blimp in the air with her friend Sokka, and she’s completely reliant on him to guide her because she can’t use her earthbending. These moments and details can be easy to miss or forget sometimes because of how strong and independent Toph can be, but they’re important because they show that even though her blindness almost never holds her back, it’s still a disability, and disabilities can be challenging.
Toph also makes semi-frequent jokes related to her blindness. For instance, when the group goes into a dark cave and one of them remarks that he can’t see anything, she replies something along the lines of “oh wow! What a nightmare!” Another time, a character is being mocked for his drawing skills, and she says that she thinks it looks great, and he begins to thank her before realizing the joke. Little moments like those not only help to humanize Toph, but help further her own sentiment that she’s comfortable with herself, and while her disability is always there and can be challenging at times, she doesn’t let it hold her back. For all of these purposes, Toph can be considered a character with a complex, unique, and overall positive representation of disability.
Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t the only work of fiction with such representation, and certainly it isn’t always perfect in its portrayals, but it’s a strong example of a work of fiction that has strived to show disability as more than just something to be pitied, or completely overcome, or ignored. And for many teenagers today, it was one of the first shows we saw growing up that tried to normalize disability, making it especially significant. In terms of how this relates to an exhibition on disability, representation in fiction and media is a large and important topic, and it deserves examples to accompany it’s discussion as a whole. Just as those living with disabilities deserve to read about examples of works with positive representation.
Davis, Joanie. “Disability in Avatar: The Last Airbender” Challenging Bodies, 24 Jan. 2018, https://challengingbodies.wordpress.com/2018/01/24/disability-in-avatar-the-last-airben er-joanie-davis/.
Hamilton, Anna. “The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Disability Archetypes: Supercrip.” Bitch Media, 18 Dec. 2009, www.bitchmedia.org/post/the-transcontinental-disability-choir-disability-archetypes-supe rcrip.
Irenea, Anima. “Representation of Disabilities and Persons with Disabilities in Avatar: The Last Airbender (and Legend of Korra).” Anima Irenea, 23 Oct. 2014, https://animairenea.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/representation-of-disabilities-and-person -with-disabilities-in-avatar-the-last-airbender-and-legend-of-korra/.
Matlock, Piper. “Disability in Avatar: The Last Airbender” Of A Sound Body & Mind, 23 Apr. 2017 https://ofasoundmindandbody.wordpress.com/2017/04/23/disability-in-avatar-the-last-ai bender/.
Porluciernagas. “In Brightest Day: Disability in the Avatar Universe.” Lady Geek Girl, 18 Sep. 2015, https://ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/in-brightest-day-disability-in-the-avatar-niverse/.
Whitman, Stacy, “Toph: “Supercrip” stereotype or well-rounded disabled character?” Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire, 4 Sep. 2010, http://www.stacylwhitman.com/2010/09/04/toph-supercrip-stereotype-or-well-rounded-di sabled-character/.
The Representation of Disability within Fictional Works
Fiona Campbell, Student, Fitchburg State University
Often we see people with disabilities represented in the media and news, however we sometimes forget about the fictional representation of characters with disabilities. The process of creating characters whether it is in books, television shows, or movies is an important and vital step when writing a story. Writers have to think about the backstory, their characteristics and what essentially makes this fictional character who they are. However, as disability awareness grows and diverse characters become more desirable, sometimes writers do very little critical thinking on this character development stage, which results in token characters who have no depth beyond their trait.
Representation is crucial when it comes to fictional works because fictional television and stories are often more popular than those based on real events and people. People, especially children, can often relate more to the characters they see and read about in stories. We get to see the story through the eyes of a character and if we connect to that character it helps us to feel "normal" and can remind people that they aren’t alone. It is easy to write about the most generic type of person, however it’s important that everyone has a character they can look up to and relate with, especially when it comes to disabilities.
When an author is writing a character with a disability, it is vital that they invest the time in researching and creating that character. Just as we do not want people to feel defined by their disability we do not want characters that are placed into a storyline just as a token representation of that disability. For this reason it is important to do research on the disability to avoid stereotyping pitfalls which can be very offensive. If an author writes a character with a disability as a token character, it could have a counterproductive effect even when the original intention was genuine.
There are many blogs from writers who have helpful tips when it comes to writing about characters with disabilities. Larli Beth explains that disabilities shouldn’t be the center of the plot or characters. Instead, they should be part of the characters journey and backstory that ultimately defines the character. Additionally, try not to use a character’s disability to gain pity or portray tragedy. Beth also warns writers to not get into the medical background of a disability unless they are extremely familiar with it, as it can spread to misinformation. Finally, she says that it’s ok to ask for help and tells writers to find and talk to people who have the same disability as the character they are writing about. There are many online forums where writers can ask questions and find out more information about a disability (Beth).
It can also be challenging to determine whether a movie is dealing with the subject of disabilities in the appropriate manner. Are disabilities being used as an element of amazement or wonder? In a 2018 magazine article, Sarah Pripas Kapit explains the much darker interpretation of what “awareness” can mean to the audience and critics. She states, “The Academy gives actors props for portraying experiences that are perceived as being very far outside the norm of humanity” (Pulrang). Kapit is pointing out that disabilities are often alienized and over-glorified, which makes it more impressive to critics when able-bodied actors are able to pull off a role that is so different from their personal experiences. Scott Jordan Harris provides a good example of Kapit’s argument: “The ultimate ambition of Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking is to contort his body convincingly enough to make other able-bodied people think ‘Wow! By the end I really believed he was a cripple!” (Pulrang).
To avoid situations where actors are applauded for playing a character because they do not share that disability, it’s important to try to give the role to an actor who has the disability. A study provided by the Ruderman Family Foundation showed that 22% of television shows had a character with a disability and 20% of those characters were represented by an actor with the same disability (Ramos). There are many talented actors with disabilities and they should be given their chance to shine. However, sometimes shows and movies are unable to cast people with the same disability as the character they are portraying for safety reasons. The television show Legit did its best to cast people who shared disabilities with the characters they were playing. The show is a dark comedy and quite raunchy with its humor, but it did a very good job of normalizing disabilities in a positive way while not neglecting to bring up important discussions regarding the topic. Many different actors with disabilities have been on the show from Diana Elizabeth Jordan, who has cerebral palsy, and Katy Sullivan, who is a double-amputee. The creator Jim Jefferies says, “People are saying how nice it is, but I want to make the point we’ve never written a disabled part because it’s nice, Only if it works for the story. For us, it has been a load of coincidences” (Couch). The creators originally wanted to cast the main character of Billy, who has muscular dystrophy, to an actor who actually had the condition but 12 hours a day on set would unfortunately be too physically demanding for someone with that disease.
A big trap that writers tend to fall into is turning disabilities into a villaininess trait. While it is ok and natural for villains to have disabilities of their own, it’s important that it is not portrayed as an evil quality within the villain. Disabilities are never at fault for making someone a bad person. Other characters besides the villains should also have disabilities, because it shows that disabilities have no bias when it comes to good or evil, they just exist. One particular villain with a disability I think it interesting to look at is the Joker. Mental illnesses are a very common disability writers give to villains. The “psychotic behavior” and unpredictable nature of a villain can be a very frightening aspect assigned to a villian. This is a negative representation as it promotes the idea that somebody with a mental disability is unstable and crazy (Onyx).
However it’s possible for these characters to be redeemed with the right research and portrayal of their characters. The 2019 film The Joker is not perfect in its portrayal of disabilities and mental health but it does a good job of redeeming this character in a way that doesn’t make his disability the defining aspect of his evilness. The movie also has many additional characters who have mental health issues and disabilities. By the end of the movie you understand how the character got to the state of mind that he did and it really shows that the result of his behavior is due to the actions of society around him, rather than his mental disability. The movie does a fantastic job of showing the struggle of people with mental health issues in relation to social support and class struggles. However, this movie is very complicated to look at when critiquing its approach to addressing mental health, one aspect being that the film makes it seem that people who are not mentally stable are more likely to be violent which is a myth and portrays people with mental illnesses in a negative light. In fact “only 3% to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness” (Alexander). The Joker is a difficult character to approach with the subject of mental health only because of the fictional reality he was created in. It’s very easy for the lines to blur between fiction and reality.
Ultimately, it is important to recognize that when it comes to fictional works, there will always be problems when it comes to addressing real topics. That is why when it comes to these works, it is important to always be skeptical and not take things for face value. Although these works are fictional, they reach an extremely large audience and impact society around us. This is why it is so important for writers to do a lot of research and create as accurate a portrayal for people with disabilities as they can. A lot of authors avoid talking about these types of topics for fear of misrepresentation and backlash, but if people don’t at least attempt to bring up these conversations in their fictional works, then people with disabilities will never have that character they can deeply relate to.
Studying the history and effects of fictional works when it comes to disabilities is just as important as studying the history of disability rights and people’s personal stories. Every fictional representation of a person with disabilities, attributes to how society treats and discusses disability. It’s important to learn from the past and the present about how we should be evolving media in a way that presents conversations in a positive and accurate manner so we can continue to discuss solutions as a society.
Alexander, Bryan. “How Accurate Is 'Joker's Portrayal of Mental Illness? The Answer Is Complicated.” USA Today, 27 Oct. 2019, www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2019/10/23/what-joker-movie-gets-right-wrong-about-m ental-illness-violence/3978028002/.
Beth, Larli. “9 Tips for Writing About Characters With Disabilities.” The Mighty, 8 May 2020, themighty.com/2018/11/writing-characters-disabilities/.
Couch, Aaron. “How FX's 'Legit' Became the Darling of the Disabled Community.” The Hollywood Reporter, 18 Apr. 2020, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/fxs-legit-jim-jefferies-embraced-430325.
Onyx, Fay. “Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability.” Mythcreants, 7 Sept. 2018, mythcreants.com/blog/five-common-harmful-representations-of-disability/.
Pulrang, Andrew. “Disability Movies Aren't What They Used To Be. That's Good!” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 14 Feb. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/andrewpulrang/2020/02/13/disability-movies-arent-what-they-used-to-be-thats-goo d/#29de82105efa.
Ramos, Dino-Ray. “Authentic Portrayal Of Characters With Disabilities Sees Significant Progress – Study.” Deadline, 5 Feb. 2020, deadline.com/2020/02/ruderman-family-foundation-disabilities-representation-inclusion-diversity-this-clo se-special-1202852158/.