I first learned about panic attacks as a disability in the Mercedes Lackey novel Children of the Night. The main character, Diana Tregarde, has crippling panic attacks in the aftermath of a major attack on her. The panic attacks are so bad that she feels she is reliving the moment, and even blacks out from panic. They come on her without warning, when anyone says something that brings the night of her attack to mind.
Over the course of one (exhausting) evening, her vampire lover teaches her to turn the energy generated by these panic attacks into a magical shield of light that affects vampires and protects her. This shield, of course, helps save the day.
And, of course everyone “knows” that blind people develop extra-sensory hearing abilities to “compensate” for their blindness. I remember an episode of M*A*S*H* – a US show set during the Korean war, a dramedy that focuses on the doctors in a medical unit stationed there – in which Dr Hawkeye Pierce is temporarily blinded, and within a few days is able to hear the choppers bringing in the wounded before anyone else. Because that’s just how it works, right? (He also manages to smell a problem his fellow doctor is having in the OR – a perforated bowel. It’s realistic, I think, that someone of Hawkeye’s experience would be able to do that, but it’s strongly implied his temporary blindness is what enabled him to do so.)
It’s even better in “Blind Date”, an episode of Angel where the “vampire with a soul” has to battle a blind assassin. She, of course, is acquitted of her crimes because no one believes a blind woman can commit crimes. But within the episode she can “see outside the normal range of human sight”, and apparently can hear people’s heartbeats.
Of course she can.
The number of times I see a person with a disability in pop culture with some form of super-power versus the number of times I’ve seen someone with a disability portrayed somewhat realistically is… Well, there isn’t really a lot of the latter, and there sure is a lot of the former. There are so many of the former that TV Tropes has a page, with many sub-pages, for Disability Superpower. [See Also: TV Tropes on Inspirationally Disadvantaged]
Depending on the day of the week, I see these stories in one of three ways: Either the creator is thinking “I really want to include disability in my storyline, but I don’t think disabled people are interesting on their own. I better come up with something to make them more interesting to the storyline.” Or “You know what’s Special? Disability! Let’s do a disability special, and make that person have special powers!”.
(The third way is “Damn it, I’m irritated as all get out. Why am I even watching this?” Which is why I’ve never seen past the the radar-rain scene in Daredevil.)
I get frustrated with these stories not because there’s something deeply wrong with Disability Superpowers, but because there’s very little to counter-balance them in pop culture. It feels like, outside of the news (where people with disabilities are either tragedies or Very Special Lessons), television, books, and movies go for Super Powered, Special Lessons, or Not At All.
This is why we keep talking about it.