The Portrayal of Disabilities in Fiction

Kenneth Jeon

With popular culture’s growing focus on minority representation and societal acceptance, stories featuring capable and heroic characters with real-world disabilities have come to see greater prevalence over time. While these stories serve as great ways to produce representation for and awareness of these conditions (as well as new and fresh narrative directions), portraying such disabilities in such a positive light may come with its own set of ethical dilemmas and unintended harms.

When thinking of positive portrayals of disabilities and disorders, one of the first examples that may come to the minds of teens and young adults is the wildly popular Percy Jackson franchise. Almost every member of its large cast of superhuman protagonists lives with some sort of learning disorder, the most common ones being attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which affects attention and self-control, and dyslexia, which affects the ability to read. In the story, these disorders are explained to be the natural side effects of superhuman traits, with ADHD coming from heightened battle senses and dyslexia from a “hard-wiring” for ancient Greek.

With that detail, readers might immediately be able to see how turning disorders into demigod superpowers might not be the best way to depict real-world conditions with which people suffer every day. By adding fictional benefits to these disorders, the harmful negatives may be deprived of their seriousness and urgency, especially to those not already familiar with these disorders.

X-Men has a somewhat similar premise to Percy Jackson: a cast of misfit characters born with superhuman abilities find a community with each other and save the world. While not explicitly described to be real disabilities, the mutant powers serve as fairly direct metaphors for them as they are unavoidable features of each character and prove to cause trouble with fitting in with others around them. And similar to Percy Jackson, their outcast status is seen as a way into the earth-defending team of superpeople.

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that these stories are meant to revel in pure, unabashed escapism. It’s fantasy: it’s supposed to be unrealistic. The transformation is so simplistic and linear that it’s pretty hard to take it as anything other than an innocent and imaginative effort to empower young readers living with these disabilities. Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan wrote them into his characters largely because his son suffers from both ADHD and dyslexia, so it’s hard to argue that these portrayals come with any intentions to downplay or take advantage of disabilities. And yet, it can’t be hard to see why the implications of such depictions can be problematic, especially when there is an explicit societal message at play throughout the story.

The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro’s gothic modern fairytale from 2017, got into a bit of hot water over its overarching message about outcasts. The protagonist, a mute woman, essentially learns to reject the society that mistreats her, which, as empowering as it may sound, is not a super helpful message to those in the real world who do not have the option to just up and leave society.

Playing into the misfit status of people with disabilities, or really any stigmatized group, is a dangerous game. It’s important to feel proud of the unique characteristics that make up a person, but accepting them as inherently separating dividers can often do less to empower and more to keep the goal of widespread acceptance out of reach.

However, for all the potential missteps of these examples, they do seem to get the most important thing right: writing relatable characters. These characters struggle with common human issues of love, identity, trust, and more. While these problems are definitely impacted by their disabilities, it’s hard to say that they’re entirely dictated by them. The depictions often cited to be the best representations of disabled people are often the ones that highlight the passionate and energetic aspects of its characters. The ability to form a strong connection to these characters and to real people with these conditions will usually far outweigh any dismissive elements of fantasy.