05 June, 2010

acquired disability is hardly the only kind

I was thinking about Battlestar Galactica and how two of the characters who acquire disabilities are bitter about it and one becomes evil. On FWD/Forward this was said to be a bad thing, and although I do think it's cliched, I guess I don't find the trope as inherently offensive as some people do. I don't think it's unreasonable for a person who acquires a disability to be quite upset about it. It's a very different experience from being born with one.

[Fun fact: The third acquired disability on BSG was actually written in at the last minute as an accommodation for the actor's temporary disability. I really think that inflexible notions of "the way things have to be done" is a huge barrier for PWDs in many different areas--actually, one of the biggest barriers of all--and the fact that the BSG writers don't subscribe to that shit redeems them in my eyes for anything they've done wrong.]

However--why are fictional characters with physical disabilities almost always people with acquired disabilities? Usually paraplegia? Don't quote me on this because I'm too lazy to do an analysis of all the recent TV shows and movies that have included characters with disabilities, but I think I'm right. For example I think Avatar was the most recent big movie that had a character with a disability, and he of course had paraplegia. I think it's usually paraplegia. (Actually, House is an extremely good example--it's probably the most popular TV show with a major disabled character, and he is played not very convincingly by a non-disabled actor, and though he is well-developed he fits the bitter/evil disabled person stereotype in a way that wouldn't be possible if the character had been born disabled).

One obvious reason is casting. As we all know, people with disabilities can't act, so you can only write disabled characters who can be played by nondisabled actors. There are some disabilities where people who have them look physically different. There are also disabilities where people move differently--a person who doesn't have CP probably could play someone with CP, but it would take actual study and work. Which would be terrible.

(I want to start watching Breaking Bad for the sole reason that there is a character with CP. He's played by an actor with CP, which makes it 400 times better, but even if he wasn't, I'd just be so excited to see a character with something besides a spinal cord injury.)

But the other reason, I think, is just that the idea of someone being born with a disability is unrelatable or unattractive to audiences/writers, or threatening, or just inconceivable--which makes me really angry. I'd like to think this isn't true but I think it's not only tremendously rare to have characters who were born with disabilities, it's especially rare to be given anything from those characters' perspectives (this includes telling their friends how they feel, having a relatable emotional outburst, and so on).

I think that:

1. It is hard for normal people to relate to someone with a disability who is not upset about having a disability. It's a lot more logical for someone to be upset about having a disability if they didn't have a disability before. Then the normal people can just be like, "yeah, I can relate, that would suck." Whereas someone who's just never been able to walk very well and is used to it would be impossible to relate to because...HOW CAN YOU BE OKAY WITH NOT BEING GOOD AT WALKING?? THAT'S SOOO TRAGIC!

2. Maybe people who acquire disabilities don't "feel disabled," at least at the beginning of their life with a disability. Maybe normal people can't identify with people who feel disabled, or they don't think of us as real, maybe because we're not good enough at being upset. So if we are portrayed, the focus has to be on our relatives and how upset they are, because watching a non-upset disabled person is just not possible for most people?

What do you think?


  1. About the "characters who acquire disabilities [and] are bitter about it" and that "trope as inherently offensive"...

    I think that the notion that the image of the embittered acquired-disability character is inherently offensive is wrong when you think it through in terms of PTSD, whether as the acquired disability itself or as a result of the event that left the character disabled.

    It seems to me that you could say that bitterness is most commonly a central part of the basic phenomenological experience of it, which seems rooted in permanent or very long-lasting changes to the portions of the brain such as the amydala. In addition to the primary features itself, there is also the phenomenon known as the second assault:

    “Victims of trauma often become subjects of passionate concern in those around them—concern that may have no direct connection to their actual well-being. Often voiceless about their innermost fears, and accustomed to life happening TO them, victims of trauma are vulnerable to being used for a variety of political and social ends, both for good and ill; they can be nurtured and idealized, or just as easily spurned, stigmatized, and rejected. Solomon has described how, between 1947 and 1982, Israeli society moved from the latter to the former position in its attitude to Holocaust survivors, without even resting in the middle of the continuum by treating them as fellow human beings who had been exposed to the unspeakable.

    “The personal meaning of traumatic experience for individuals is influenced by the social context in which it occurs. Victims and the significant people in their surroundings may have different and fluctuating assessments of both the reality of what has happened and of the extent of the victims’ suffering. As a result, victims’ and bystanders’ assessment of the meaning of the trauma may set the stage for the trauma to be perpetuated in a larger social setting; soon the allocation of blame and responsibility, not the trauma itself, may become the central issue.

    “Traumas provoke emotional reactions in proportion to the degree of threat and horror accompanying them. One way of dealing with these intense emotions is to look for scapegoats who can be held responsible for the tragic event. Family members and other sources of social support can be so horrified at being reminded of the fact that they, too, can be struck by tragedies beyond their control that they start shunning the victims and blame them for what has happened—a phenomenon that has been called “the second injury”. Many personal testimonies of trauma survivors indicate that not being supported by the people they counted on, and being blamed for bringing horrendous experiences upon themselves, have left deeper scars than the traumatic event itself. Victims often feel the same way about themselves: They feel ashamed and disgusted by their failure to prevent what has happened. Thus, for many victims, a break in their relationship to their expectations of themselves and of their culture becomes part of the traumatic experience.

  2. “Ironically, both the victims of PTSD, and the larger society that is asked to respond with compassion, forbearance, or financial sacrifices, have a stake in believing that the trauma is not really the cause of the victim’s suffering. On the one hand, society becomes resentful about having its illusions of safety and predictability ruffled by people who remind them of how fragile security can be. On the other hand, many victims suffer from an impaired capacity to translate their intense emotions and perceptions related to the trauma into communicable language. Not being able to give a coherent account of the trauma to others, or even to themselves, without feeling traumatized all over again makes it difficult for them to articulate their needs. The combination of the wish of the bystanders not to be disturbed by the raw emotions of injured people, and the problems of victims in articulating what they feel and need, can make it extremely difficult for the victims to stay focused on working through the impact of the trauma. Because the victims cannot make clear-cut statements that convey the reality of what has happened, traumatic memories start leading a life of their own…” (pp. 26-7)