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Sunday, May 2nd, 2010 09:29 pm
This is a somewhat expanded version of the presentation I made about Disability in Science fiction.

Note: Don't take my word for any of this! I'm still figuring this stuff out. Corrections and other input very much welcome!

I've reached a point where I Just Can't Think About It Any More, I may edit again later. Make sure to check to out the comments for other people's additions.

The fantasy examples are very much tacked on, I'm sure there's fantasy specific tropes I'm missing, plus links to the relevant Disability Tropes. Mental illness and cognitive impairments are underrepresented too.

What is disability?

EDIT: This is the definition I am working from, it is definitely not the only valid definition.

A combination of an impairment and the way that impairment interacts with the society you live in eg myopia is only a disability in a society without glasses. A lot of Deaf people don't see themselves as disabled, since a lack of hearing is not a big problem if everyone around you also lacks hearing and uses sign language.

The solution is to fix/work around impairments AND fix society to be more accommodating of difference.

For more information see the social vs medical models of disability.

Disability in Spec fic

Fiction reflects social attitudes, and the social attitudes to disabled people tend to suck. Disabled people are presented as scary, pathetic, exotic, demanding, laughable, etc.

But some tropes are popular/unique to SF.

It's not all bad: speculative fiction allows for powerful allegory, and can also make very interesting explorations/extrapolations of future attitudes/experiences of disability.

Character Tropes

The Monster/The Psycho

Ugly=Evil="Abnormal" (physically or mentally)

They skulk in the shadows resenting their lack of a "normal life". Any attempt to improve things is doomed and wrong. Whether born that way or "twisted" by mistreatment they become an evil "thing" who must be killed without remorse. Sometimes Tragic but Doomed, other times the viewer is expected to have no sympathy at all. Often uses similar/combined sexual threat imagery to the Scary Gay Man and Scary Black Man.

Xfiles and Supernatural are very fond of this trope.

It's an easy plot device: Why are they doing it? They're a monster!
Is it ok to kill them: of course, they're a monster!

Something keep an eye on in this and other tropes: "good" disabled people tend to otherwise look pretty healthy and attractive, and it's the evil ones who actually look sick. See also Red Right Hand, Driven To Villainy and Always Chaotic Evil.

Some examples:

  • born evil: Tooms from Xfiles, Alpha from Dollhouse (even when his mind is wiped!)
  • Got damaged, became evil: Reavers from Firefly and Two face from Batman, who has a very explicit good=unscarred, bad=scarred dichotomy.
  • turned evil, became damaged: Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars
  • The bad guy in "Avatar" had a big scar on his face, and said he'd been "marked by the planet".
  • All the ugly and abnormal witches, orcs, and "abominations" etc of fantasy.
  • Subversion: Batman on the whole does actually allow people to draw on injury/psychological problems to become superheroes
  • Subversion (sort of): Zuko getting a scar on "Avatar the Last Airbender" helps him on the path to being a better person, and his unscarred sister is more the badguy (…and then she becomes a Psycho. Oh well)

Behold the wonders of modern science

A character has some impairment which our society considers a disability, but thanks to (in sf) futuristic technology or (in fantasy) magic, it has little or no effect on the character's life.

Entirely plausible in world with advanced technology or magic, but does mean you can't equate the experience of the "disabled" character with that of someone in the real world with the same impairment. Nothing inherently wrong with this trope, but such characters are not a substitute for disabled characters whose impairments do significantly interfere with their lives.


  • Geordie LaForge from Star Trek TNG: has a visor which almost entirely replaces his sight (nb I am inclined to see this as a non ableist example of the trope, especially since the visor has it's own downsides)
  • Jake Sully from Avatar: is paraplegic, but gains a new able-bodied alien body. We never find out how his new people would treat him if he was still disabled, but a deleted scene implies they euthanise Na'vi who lose their queue.

Disability Superpower

Somewhat of a subtype of the previous trope, and has a lot of the same issues, eg it's a way to avoid writing anyone whose disability actually disables them. Less problematic in a superhero setting where everyone has a superpower so disability+superpower is still a disadvantage.

The disability gives you powers eg blindness leads to super hearing, Power Born Of Madness

The powers make you disabled eg visions drive you mad, Cursed With Awesome

Or just part of the "cosmic balance" eg Blind Seer

See the Tv Tropes page.


  • River Tam from Firefly: The modifications that gave her superpowers made her mentally ill
  • Robocop: cyborg replacements for his damaged body make him superpowerful
  • The Ship Who Sang: Helva born with physical handicaps encapsulated in a titanium life-support shell. NOT pretty, but later books get pretty bodies.
  • Daredevil: Gained super hearing when he lost his sight
  • Cassandra Cain as Batgirl unable to talk or read as a direct result of her training (or at least she started out that way)
  • Toph from "Avatar the Last Airbender": can "see" through vibrations in the ground. Can't read, also can't see when in flight, still gets discriminated against because people think of her as blind.
  • Sookie Stackhouse: her telepathy is her disability.

He's more machine than man now a.k.a. evil paraplegics

Being abnormal makes you evil
disability makes you special
trying to improve humans with technology is evil
Powerful disabled person with mechanical aids is inhuman and machine like

Actual disabled people do not generally see their aids as evil. They are the useful thing that lets you move/breathe etc!


  • Davros, creator of the Daleks (original Dr Who) and John Lumic, creator of the Cybermen (new Dr Who): mad geniuses in wheelchairs twisted into creating their own over mechanised master race
  • Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader from Star Wars
  • Dr. Arliss Loveless from Wild Wild West: he has a machine to help him have sex how TERRIBLE.
  • Borg Queen: Needs a machine to walk!

Tragic Victim

Character is either mopes constantly or is plucky and inspiring with everyone else being struck by how sad it all is. Tend to either die in an inspiring/heartrending way or get better.

See I Will Only Slow You Down and Death by Disfigurement for the argument (either explicit or subtextual) that being disabled or injured makes you inherently less useful and thus expendable.


  • Daphne from Heroes
  • Logan from Dark Angel
  • Drives much of the plot of "Angelic Layer"

Story Tropes

Fantastic Ableism

Forms of disability that don't exist in the real world.
Can allow audience to see disability from a fresh perspective, also allows writers to say horrible things because it's "not real".


  • Mutants in Xmen and Chrysalids are a hunted minority
  • Muggles and squibs (people with no magical ability) in Harry Potter. The treatment of squibs is pretty disturbing, magical society has less respect and accommodation for them than ours does for people with very severe disabilities.
  • Gattacca gives agency to the character who is disabled by his society's definition but not ours...but goes straight for "pathetic victim" with the character who we see as disabled.

Wookies need extra legroom

The world has several very different sentient groups with their own needs: robots, cyborgs, aliens, mutants, moon-people etc in scifi, and centaurs, giants, elves etc in fantasy.

Requires accommodations for lots of different types of "normal", challenges the very idea of "normal".

Some settings regardless only designed for ablebodied unmodified humans.

Others end up much more flexible than our society. Sometimes a deliberate metaphor for disability. eg "This Alien Shore" by CS Friedman


  • "This Alien Shore" by CS Friedman: every human colony has a different disability or difference, physical and/or psychological. On their own planet people are accepted but they experience discrimination off world especially amongst the "normal" humans of Earth.
  • Magical society in Harry Potter is All About the anthropocentrism.

Everyone's disabled compared to Superman

Advanced beings make people who are able-bodied/neurotypical by our standards look disabled.

Allows ablebodied audience to sympathise with "disabled" characters.


  • X-men: mutants vs non-mutants (though non-mutants have the political power
  • Gattacca: people with mild genetic defects second class citizens (disabled people with no genetic defects not so well off either)
  • Muggles and squibs again, though the reader seems to only be expected to empathise with the former.

A Brave New World

If we have the ability to remove all disability, should we? What happens to remaining disabled people? Will the definition of disability expand?

SF and ablism (or: a not-as-such brief thought)

  • Gattacca: they just treat increasingly minor impairments as "disabilities"
  • Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld?

EDIT: Since this has been linked a few places: Comments are screened, and I expect people to follow my comments policy. But while I can be a bit slow (especially when it's nighttime in Australia) chances are your comment will be unscreened eventually even if I don't like it. At worst I might wait to unscreen until I feel up to replying with an explanation of why I feel your comment is inappropriate.


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