Handicapped Heroes and Cruel Cripples: Disability in Media

Monica Silny | staff writer

It is generally understood among marginalized groups that representation in mainstream media is severely out of balance, with nearly every narrative occupied by the infamous straight, white, ambulatory male. While watching TV late at night, you may have to lean in to the screen to find women in meaningful roles, you will definitely need to squint your eyes to see any people of color in these same positions, and good luck discovering members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The representation of individuals with disabilities is among the most invisible in media.

According to Glaad.org’s 2013/2014 publication Where We Are on TV, just one percent of series regulars will be people with disabilities on primetime broadcast television. With 13 percent of Americans living with some form of disability, this gross underrepresentation people with disabilities is obvious.

Mass media historically used disability as a way to portray evil, sickness and pity, the most famous examples being Shakespeare’s character of Richard III, whose deformities were portrayed as monstrous, contributing to his overall evil nature, and Charles Dickens’ character Tiny Tim, who was no more than a plot device to invoke a sense of tragedy in the narrative. Contemporary media has conjured up some really positive characters with disabilities like Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender and Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon. However, closer analysis reveals that even positive characters with disability can perpetuate stereotypes and ignorance.

The list of tropes about people who are disabled is long and tiresome. In his 1991 study, Paul Hunt breaks it down into 10 recurring stereotypes: the disabled person as pitiable and pathetic, an object of curiosity or violence, sinister or evil, the super cripple, atmosphere, laughable, their own worst enemy, a burden, non-sexual and being unable to participate in daily life. These tropes demonstrate that even a positive portrayal of a character who is disabled can carry negative implications for the disabled community.

The “super cripple” is a trope defined as a person who is born with or acquires some form of disability, and in turn in some way develops a skill or ability that “compensates” for their disability. These characters are generally well-loved and well-received among disabled communities because of their general badassery, but the trope can come with some serious real life implications. Super-crip gives people with disabilities the pressure to “make up for” their own disability by being extraordinary in some way, and if they cannot, then they are of no use to society.

The “inspiration” trope is a character who is disabled that is regarded as – you guessed it – an inspiration, usually for completing perfectly ordinary tasks in day-to-day life. This character’s heroism is elevated simply because the individual completes the task “despite their disability.” Advocacy groups continually speak out against this trope due to its patronizing nature.

The problem of disability representation stems from a fundamental lack of understanding of people who are disabled in society. Writers who are able-bodied choose how to represent these characters- if they even choose to represent them at all- and if they do not understand people who are disabled, it is no wonder their portrayals are so unrealistic. There can be multitudes of disability presence in media, and it will not matter, because their lines and stories still translate to inaccurate representation for the unknowing audience members. Unfortunately for content creators across the media spectrum, writers cannot just slap a disabled character in a narrative and scream, “We’re progressive!”


Monica is a first-year student at the University of Pittsburgh studying Astronomy.


Check out more from December 2015 issue here.