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Stereotypes in Disability Portrayal

So, today’s #NationalDisabilitiesMonth article was going to be something grand, sweeping, and heartwarming.  However, while researching information, I came across several consistent stereotypes that seem to come up a lot when a fictional character is disabled in some way, and I felt the need to rant.  These are stereotypes that feel more like subtle insults to the disability population than they do a true portrayal of the person a character is.  There are actually about 10 or so of these, but I thought I would give you my most hated “Top 3”.


The Cruel & Sadistic Villain
This character’s disability has typically fractured their psyche, rendering them basically incapable of empathy or love for another.  A good example of this is the character of Dr. Arliss Loveless (his last name means “without love” for crying out loud).  The legless character kills without remorse, and does whatever he can to make himself tower above (even literally, towards the end of the movie) those he feels have wronged him.  Sure, this was a terrible movie all around, but Loveless’s character felt…unfinished.  Not fleshed out.  It was like his only purpose was to be pitied & hated, instead of letting audiences see where his vileness stemmed from.

The Bitter Outcast:
This is typically a character whose disability is a result of some trauma (crime, vehicle crash, accident, etc.) in their lives.  They usually have a chip on their shoulder, and become distant & hard to reach by their peers.  We’re going to go back in time a bit for this one.  Herman Melville’s classic book, Moby Dick, prominently features the character of Captain Ahab.  This is a man who lost his leg to the titular whale, and has become consumed with revenge.  He is angry at the world, isolates himself, and is focused only on killing the creature he blames for his disability, thus hopefully negating the perceived loss of his own self-worth.

The Inspiration
I truly hate this one.  These characters usually feel like their sole purpose in the story is to provide the main protagonist(s) with some sort of perspective on strength of character, how things could always be worse, or a lesson on how to look on the bright side.  The biggest offender of this stereotype I’ve seen in television or film, has probably been Arnie Grape, in 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”.  Arnie (expertly portrayed by a young Leonardo DiCaprio) is a developmentally disabled 17 year-old, being cared for by his older brother Gilbert.  The character serves as an “unexpected source of wisdom” for Gilbert, and it sometimes feels like he’s only there to be a gleeful foil to Gilbert’s introspective nature.

Where’s the success?
Now that we’ve got the negatives out of the way, I have noticed one BIG piece of current pop culture that seems to be doing things right.  They’re actually able to make characters with disabilities shine.  What is it?  Believe it or not, it’s Game of Thrones.

Look at Tyrion Lannister: He’s a dwarf.  He has felt persecuted & ridiculed for his whole life because of his physical stature.  Through all of that, however, he retains his high intelligence, his want to help the kingdom, and a driving need to improve the people’s view of the Lannister family name.  While Tyrion may possibly have some unresolved issues coping with his dwarfism, he has never let that stop him from pursuing his goals.

Then there’s Hodor.  A gentle giant of a man, who is incapable of speaking anything but his own name (which some experts have said could be due to a neurological condition known as expressive aphasia).  His loyalty to House Stark, and especially to the paraplegic Bran, shows a real heart & caring mind in the hulking near-mute.

While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Bran.  Rendered paraplegic after being thrown from a tower window by Jaime Lannister, Bran does regress into a bit of bitterness in the beginning.  However, he comes around when he builds a deeper connection with the aforementioned Hodor, and even more so once a cart is built for him (medieval wheelchair, yay!).  His cleverness and “joie de vivre” make Bran a character with a lot of layers, and one that fans of the show have come to care about.


All of this being said, I want to call on filmmakers & authors to do some homework on the disabled population, and really think about the motivation behind the characters you write/direct/portray.  We’re real people.  We have real lives, and we shouldn’t have to be relegated to these (fairly idiotic) stereotypes.  You may find that there’s a lot more to us than what we can teach a main character, or how much we can “inspire” people.

About Doug T. (491 Articles)
A lifelong gamer, disabilities advocate, avowed geek, and serious foodie. Doug was born in South America, currently resides in Northern VA, and spends the majority of his time indulging in his current passions of gaming & food, while making sure not to take life or himself too seriously.
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