Let me tell you all about my disability super powers

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.

By 5 April, 2010.    media and pop culture   



16 Comments

  1. It also primes people to think that disabled people should be kindly types who rise above using their amazing powers of strength and possible superpowers, when the real picture is that people with disabilities are human, no more and no less.

  2. Weird coincidence – yesterday at my grandma’s for easter my cousin put Daredevil on the TV. I was very quickly infuriated by the diability superpower trope. Grumble.

  3. I think this kind of media representation is a huge factor in the way kids are socialized to interact with people with disabilities. Back in the day when I worked for Starbucks, we spent a lot of time training new employees on how to be friendly and chatty with customers while also being tactful and appropriate. It’s amazing how many kids come into a job like that with the assumption that you should talk extra slowly or loudly to a customer with a visible disability, and almost all of them will speak only to the disabled person’s companion if they’re with someone else. We probably spent the most training time on this issue, and their reactions were predictable. One girl asked, “well then how do we speak to them?” The other manager who was doing the training with me that day was getting impatient so he answered “Like people. You speak to them like they’re just another person. ‘Cause they are.” The trainees all sat there for a minute contemplating this like it was some new idea they had never been exposed to before. But you have to wonder if this would be really different if they were used to seeing people with disabilities playing a variety of roles and living ordinary lives in the media on a regular basis.

  4. I didn’t know Starbucks did that. I wish more places did – I’m not Don’s mouthpiece.

  5. I know – I was always taught to make eye contact and speak directly to people, so it suprised me that so many of our new employees didn’t automatically do that too. I had a friend I tutored with who was a little person and that was her big complaint too, that people of average height wouldn’t make eye contact, or would talk babytalk to her in spite of the fact that she was clearly a mature woman. Her response was to talk in exaggerated babytalk right back to them.

  6. I regularly (irrationally) feel like a failure, because my depression hasn’t turned me into a super creative, brilliant writer.

  7. Doorslam,

    Look, the odds of a disability turning out to be some monumental force for ‘genius’ creativite expression are really, really, -really – low.
    Even if a disability does contribute (or is ‘the cause of’, however you want to put it) something spectacular in, say, the arts, that still means the disability itself is still there and may/(often, imo) affect people in…not so hot ways, even in their field of excellence!

    If you’ll allow bluntness the SuperCrip! trope isn’t all it’s cracked up to be from this end, either. I didn’t have a ‘scribble’ phase during childhood wrt drawing. I started right at newspaper cartoons (Garfield, et cetera) and storybooks, then went to Disney when they got video cassettes I could see the covers of, which was before school age. There were (and are) no mistakes (unless I’ve been drinking or I’m rather tired). I can also resize whatever image I see in damn near any medium. (I’ve used oils …twice I think, wasn’t fond of the cleaning and don’t know much about ’em hands-on).

    I – can not -, however, draw moving objects. I can’t do life drawings from people to my satisfaction – people twitch, people move. I can do a good representation, but I can’t do it like other life-artists because people – move – too damn much. A hair in any direction and I’m screwed, nothing connects quite properly.

    That ‘speciality’ in art didn’t, however, do a damned thing for me being able to, say, locate my parents in the grocery store, or read the blackboard or catch a moving object (ball, keys, insert whatever here). There’s a sort of performance irritation because whatever I do wrt art is considered a ‘performance’ by most abled people and it’s treated as such. Much more so when I was younger, since most of the neighbors weren’t aware I’ve low/really odd vision. Now that I’m older, it’s changed from “You can’t do that because you’re so young!” to “You can’t do that because your eyesight sucks!”.

    Abled people are more than happy to point out, often accusingly, that it
    – wasn’t fair to them – that I could do that, both when I was younger and now. So far as I’m aware, a lot of abled people want pwd to ‘rise above their station’/think positive/mind over matter!/insert ridiculous trope here, so long as we don’t actually – move anywhere -. The Lifetime movie, you see, isn’t supposed to live next door.

    I also wish those movies could portray realistically any particular assets gained. I’ve ptsd, which I think is what affects my hearing – ie, it’s generally pretty damn good (and also an incredible pain in the ass, and with where I’m currently living it raises my stress levels something horrific). But I’d bet a million dollars I don’t have that my hearing wouldn’t be portrayed at all accurately and would instead be stuck as some sort of ‘compensation’ technique instead of, say, a response to stress that has – nothing to do with my visual issues -.

    Left eye was mostly blocked for a while and combined with my peachy neuroatypical brain it’s just how my vision developed. Nowhere in my head did my brain go “Oh, we must give A.W. some sort of compensation to – cancel out – this thing.”

    Which is another thing ….Being able to do one thing doesn’t cancel out shit. It’d be nice if people would learn that and remember it.

    Ack, my apologies, I’ve wandered a bit in the comments. My whole point was, really, that by the general public, they both do and do not consider pwd to have ‘compensation’. It’s a double bind, damned if you do (trust me here, really are damned if you do) and also damned if you don’t. I tend to feel like a failure as well, especially when trying to find work because absolutely no one wants to subscribe to the ada laws.
    So yes, I s’pose I hear you.

    In other news, I’ve also severe depression – that doesn’t help my art at – all -, either, so you’re not alone!

  8. Noooooooo, creative is misspelled! And prolly the ‘affects’, to, now that I think about it….

  9. I should also like to point out (please pardon the serial commenting) That if you – can – do This One Thing (whatever this one thing is) that relates directly to your disability, it also seems to cancel out whatever meager help might be offered. As in, I didn’t get any accessibility (besides being allowed to move up in front of the blackboard in school, which didn’t quite solve the problem of reading it) until I turned twenty-six, and that was only because a friend of mine dug up and recommended an appointment with Blindness and Visual Services, which I wasn’t even aware existed at the time.

  10. A.W., oh, I know, which is why I made sure to label it irrational. There’s just so much talk about how depression leads to great writing ability, and I used to be halfway decent at it. No matter how much I know it’s ridiculous, I can’t help but feel bad.

  11. I wonder how many creative types are truly depressed – “we” diagnose them after they commit suicide. I think there are some that are/were (Kafka?) but it’s just some kind of weird carrot – “Don’t worry about your depression, it’ll pay for my retirement! Now start creating!” (Or so-and-so “fought” depression or stuttered or was deaf or blind or anything else… so buck up kiddo, you’ll be famous or one day!)

    So… what is my special power stemming from my chronic pain? The ability to withstand larger doses of narcotics?

    I must know what my super power is! Lately, because it’s been so long, it’s the ability not to fall on the floor when the pain whacks me in the stomach. But that’s a common one. I must be unique! *puts on cape made of 20 year old 2nd hand Simpsons sheet* PainGirl, away!

  12. Oh, you mean a giant bullshit dectector, knowing when people are talking down to you and the institutional hypocracy (sic) detector ISN’T the super power?

    I guess there is no point observing that the people paid to assist you are treating you like some horrid cumbersome thing to get rid of if no one listens or acts – not much of a super power.

    Though Wilkie Collins who took large amounts of opiates took doses which killed an assistant who decided he wanted to get high. (I don’t consider killing writing assistants a superpower either, oddly).

    What is odd is that the more you are in pain chronically, the more people see you as a person who feels no pain, or treats you that way. Even if your level of pain is such that you have to lie and scream and be held down until the shot or pill takes effect, if it happens every day, then people will start talking to you about a cold sore while the world is actually hazy from pain, and how this cold sore really HURTS and it makes eating chips difficult and really sucks. As for you, well, gee, aren’t you the endless bucket that can have pain dumped into you forever? I mean, not really a human (if that is a superpower) but more like how Mengele saw those in the medical units, beings which could withstand pain until they just stopped moving. Or maybe just confessor units. It annoys me, yes.

  13. As a long-term Daredevil fan, don’t just rely on the movie! Created in the 1960s, many of the “super-crip” stereotypes have come from Daredevil himself (though there are certainly a few earlier super-crips like Zatoichi) and the character was radical at the time, not because of portraying a blind superhero, but for portraying a successful blind lawyer. And considering portrayals of disabled characters today, I think the Matt Murdock half of the equation, if not the Daredevil half, is still something fairly special. (There have been other disabled characters in the comics, too, including wheelchair user and lawyer Becky Blake, and most recently Matt’s wife Milla, who is blind but not super-powered and works in public housing.)

  14. My roommates and I have reacted to that stereotype by referring to ourselves collectively as SuperCripple! Together we can function like an able bodied person.

  15. I think a lot of people are more comfortable thinking of disability as a victimizing experience — one that requires a hero to “overcome.” It’s not enough that a person with a disability is a person who just happens to happens to have a disability. The disability HAS to be part of the storyline, HAS to define that character. Any sense that this person is living a full life is met with adulation: “Good for you!” People with disabilities are often congratulated for living full, active lives. It surprises many that people with disabilities don’t sit at home feeling sorry for themselves, that they are usually able to do most of what everyone else can do, just in a different way.

    Perhaps this “supercrip” phenomenon stems from a notion that a person with a disability MUST have some sort of power to be really interesting. Maybe these authors of scripts feel that they want to include a character with a disability to be inclusive, but to avoid people becoming bored with the character who has a plain-old, boring disability (sarcasm), writes superhero abilities into the storyline.

  16. This article was a bit enlightening for an ignorant very-fully-highly-abled (?) person