Disability & Pop Culture: An Amputee’s Point of View

Whenever you think of disabled characters in pop culture, you’ll probably think of Geordi La Forge from Star Trek, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader from Star Wars, and maybe of Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. Disabled characters, whether they have a physical disability, an intellectual disability or have a chronic illness, are far and few inbetween in pop culture. There is a greater variety of vampires, ghosts, and aliens than disabled characters (or any other minorities for that matter).

I was born one-handed (don’t worry, I have no difficulties with typing this) and for the longest time, the only characters in film, tv, or books that looked like me, and by that I mean characters with missing limbs, were Luke Skywalker, Lieutenant Dan, and the occasional villian such as Darth Vader or Azog from The Hobbit. Naturally, most of them immediately became my favourite characters of that film or tv show regardless of whether they were good guys or even well-written characters. Seriously, no matter who the characters is, I’d get excited beyond words just to see someone ‘like me’ on screen, even if it was murderous Orc.

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Me, a few years back.

A statistic by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative from 2015 revealed that “just 2.4 percent of characters in the top 100 movies who spoke or had actual names had disabilities. That’s a significant gap between fiction and reality, since the Census Bureau has found in 2010 that 56.7 million people, or 18.7 percent of Americans, have disabilities. ” I’m sure the numbers will be the same for many other countries as well.

Here is a detailed breakdown of what this study uncovered:

Characters with disabilities appeared in 55 of those 100 movies. And of those characters, 61 percent had physical disabilities, 37.1 had mental or cognitive disabilities, and 18.1 percent had communicative disabilities. Characters with disabilities were overwhelmingly male; just 19 percent of characters with disabilities were female. Characters with disabilities were likely to be relatively marginalized in the movies in which they did appear: 10 of the 100 top-grossing films from 2015 featured characters with disabilities as leads or co-leads. Of the 11 movies that Smith and her colleagues classified as ensemble, two featured characters with disabilities as part of the core ensemble. (Source: washingtonpost.com)

The number of disabled actors on film and tv is similarly small. In fact, whenever I see a disabled character portrayed, I automatically roll my eyes thinking “ah yes another abled-bodied actor”. The exceptions to this are characters with dwarfism or down syndrome. These are the only examples that come to my mind where disabled actors are always chosen to portray a character that has the same disability as them. When it comes to other disabilities, more often than not, an able-bodied actor is chosen.

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Luke Skywalker

I can still remember, years and years ago, when CSI: Las Vegas came out how I reacted with cynicism upon seeing the Coroner Dr. Albert Robbins walking with a crutch. Even more so when it was revealed the character of Dr. Robbins is a double-amputee. Only later did I found out that the actor portraying Dr. Robbins, Robert David Hall was, in fact, a double-amputee himself! Over the years my interest in CSI: Las Vegas dwindled, especially after the departure of actor William Petersen, but I kept on watching it just for Dr. Robbins. Finally, I’ve found a character whose disability was just one aspect of his personality and not a walking-talking stereotype, nor a villain.

For most of my life, I didn’t really think about this issue in-depth. I just accepted the low numbers and sometimes terrible representation without question. However, as I get older and started my academic career in culture studies, with a focus on literary studies, I began to think critically and eventually began a Ph.D on disability in literature. For a year now, I’ve been reading and researching books and short stories in science fiction featuring disabled characters and let me tell you it wasn’t very easy. Not all summaries online will tell you that a book or short story deals with disability issues. Some books, I’ve stumbled upon by accident on amazon while browsing for another unrelated book.

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Lieutenant Dan

Initially, I intended this to be a brief “x amount of disabled characters in Science Fiction” – list. However, I realized very early that this is not an issue I can summarize in just a few sentences, hence, my Ph.D project. I could go on an on in this post, but it is too long and to “here and there” already. In other words, I want to write more blog-posts discussing disability in pop-culture. I don’t know, nor can I promise anything, how long this series will be or how frequent these type of posts will be. However, I will try, at the very least, to contribute a bit to the discussion of disability rights. I’m over 30 now and if a few random posts here and there end up helping a young person growing up with a disability to feel more confident and find characters that “look just like themselves” then I’ve succeeded.

So what’s next up? A short list of science fiction books and short-stories I’ve recently read that feature disabled characters. Moreover, there are numerous movies, tv shows, or books with disabled characters that I haven’t watched or read yet. So I think it’ll be nice to give brief reviews of my first thoughts on these characters.

It is your turn now. What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you have a movie, tv-show, game, comic, or book featuring disabled characters that you absolutely love or hate? Leave a comment down below!

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3 thoughts on “Disability & Pop Culture: An Amputee’s Point of View

  1. James M says:

    I don’t know of any characters with epilepsy, which I have; and I don’t think there should be any. unless having a character with epilepsy does something to further the plot. I have never identified with characters – I have never understood why some people think doing so is important, and I don’t think characters should reflect familiar social problems.

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  2. gekitsu says:

    i’m 100% with you on this, and am eagerly looking forward to what you have to say.

    re media: a while ago, i’ve come across a comic about an amputee. it’s called extremity, by daniel warren johnson. the first trade is out right now, and starts telling the story of the daughter of a tribe’s chief, an artist, who loses her drawing hand when they are raided by an opposing tribe. on one side, i appreciate there being some layeredness in the character – anger, want for revenge, but also frustration and sadness, being torn between her warlord father and more conflict-averse little brother – but in the larger picture of representation, it’s still her defining trait in the context of the story. much like in born on the fourth of july, it might well be a plausible story about a traumatised person with a disability, but it might not be the biggest boon to people with disabilities as a group, who are more than characters propelled on an identity-subsuming story arc by their disability.

    since you mentioned him, what’s your take on geordie? given tng’s very 90s treatment of some issues, i always read him as quite an achievement. his blindness is a front-and-centre-placed aspect, and there are stories that revolve entirely around it, but he’s also allowed to be the offbeat nerd of the crew. especially in the stories about his shyness, his visor seems to be just a part of him, not his defining trait.

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  3. thepopculturallists says:

    Good article. The Farrelly Brothers usually included actual disabled actors in their films, I believe, although they don’t seem to be making many movies anymore. I appreciate when an actor with a disability is cast in a role that doesn’t call for it. I know there are good examples, but can’t think of them write now!

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