Turning a Blind Eye – Physical Disabilities in Sci-Fi & Fantasy Entertainment

The following contains mild spoilers for Logan and several others screen productions.  While watching the intensely affecting Logan over the weekend, one thing that kept running through my mind...

The following contains mild spoilers for Logan and several others screen productions. 

While watching the intensely affecting Logan over the weekend, one thing that kept running through my mind was that physical disability is rarely addressed in sci-fi or fantasy TV shows or films, and when it is, it is seldom done well. Of the series and movies (or series of movies) I can recall having seen, I can identify eleven that have included characters with physical disabilities.

As a physically disabled/differently-abled person myself, among the prevalent issues that I see as a theme in the following list, is the idea that with the intervention of technology, or toxic chemicals, one’s disability can be cured, improved upon, or the source of one’s superpowers. For others, it’s the source of gifted insight, or of what motivates them to be good or evil. Only one character has been crafted outside of these scenarios.

1. Lieutenant Commander Geordie La Forge, Star Trek: The Next Generation – The blind-from-birth character of Geordie (LeVar Burton) was created by Gene Roddenberry in honor of quadriplegic fan, George La Forge, who passed away in 1975. It was Roddenberry’s wish that Geordie be a disabled officer. While it was an optimistic view of what technology in the future could do to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and most handicapped people would be thrilled to get rid of their conditions, Geordie’s visor was something of a cheat. Slap a shiny hair clip on his face, and while he still can’t really see, that thing gave him a way of seeing things sighted people could not see. That visor gave him a superpower, but without it, he’s blind.

The other aspect of it feeling like a cheat is that it would have been far more challenging to television norms, in storytelling, and for the actor, had Geordie actually been a paraplegic.

Still, Roddenberry deserves credit for intentionally creating a handicapped character, whose disability was not an impediment to his functioning as a member of the Enterprise crew.

2. Matt Murdock, Daredevil – Matt Murdock’s (Charlie Cox, or Ben Affleck if you really want to go there) blindness was as a result of exposure to a radioactive substance as a child that also heightened his senses, eventually making him into super badass Daredevil. Training from ninja master Stick completed the transformation from a blind orphan, to the dark, brooding crime-fighting vigilante in the red, costume with nipples on his cowl. His powers ultimately came from the motivation to overcome his disability. And the need for vengeance.

3. Chirrut Imwe, Rogue One – Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior monk who joined the Rebellion against the Evil Empire. Without the power of the force but with a strong belief in the Jedi ways, he carries a big stick, and uses his skill as a warrior to aid in retrieving the plans for the Death Star. While not an entirely fleshed out character for this one off movie, one gets the sense that he became a fierce warrior as a way to overcome his blindness.

4. & 5. Alicia Masters, Fantastic Four and Marissa Clark, Early Edition – While entirely different characters in entirely different storytelling universes, both Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington) and Marissa Clark (Shanesia Davis) serve essentially the same purpose. Both, by virtue of being blind, have the gifted insight that sighted people seem to lack, which provides the hero of the story with necessary support to function. Alicia Masters’ blindness allows her to see past superficial appearances, and love Ben Grimm (The Thing), giving him the strength to live with his own deformities. Marissa Clark provides Gary Hobson with moral support, and runs his bar while he is absent rescuing people from disaster after getting tomorrow’s newspaper today. Both, while providing some semblance of character, serve as plot devices more than anything else.

6. Jake Sully, Avatar – Paraplegic Marine veteran Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) gets sent on a mission to replace his dead twin brother, where his disability will not be an issue. He is to be part of the Avatar Program to assume control of a fake Na’vi body, to promote the corporate interests of RDA in seeking out unobtanium from Pandora. His avatar body allows him to interact with the real Na’vi, so their delicate ecosystem can be pillaged for profit. Inevitably, Jake falls in love with a Na’vi female, and rebels against the mining corporation and military to protect the Tree of Souls and Pandora.

Ultimately, he helps defeat RDA and the military, and returns to the Tree of Souls, where he had his consciousness transferred into his Na’vi avatar body. He is free from the constraints of his disability, and can roam freely, arms, legs, tail, and all.

7. Elijah Price (Mr. Glass), Unbreakable – Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is the opposite, and arch nemesis of Bruce Willis’s indestructible, unbreakable David Dunn. From birth and throughout his life, Elijah Price has had every bone in his body broken, because they are all so fragile. As a result, he has spent his life confined by casts and a wheelchair. Pain and comic books are his constant companions. Having figured out from comics that every hero has a nemesis who is his opposite in terms of abilities, he seeks out his unbreakable opposite by committing mass murder all over the Philadelphia area. His disability and confinement are the sources of his depravity. I doubt that M. Night Shyamalan endeavored to imply that disability leads to evil, but in this case, this character’s actions are informed by his severe constraints.

8. Tony Stark, Iron Man – The near-fatal injury to Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) heart is the impetus for creating the tech that saves his life, keeping him functioning, and making him a superhero. Like Matt Murdock’s blindness, it’s an injury that causes the creation of Iron Man, and technology can essentially cure it. As with Geordie La Forge’s visor, it is a way of having a disabled hero without an apparent disability. Except for the occasional damage to his artificial heart thingy, it’s as if he’s like any other normal superhero.

9. Phil Coulson & Daisy Johnson, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Tech as cure for injury or disability does exist in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. if you consider that Phil Coulson has a cool fake, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker hand that is replete with spy gadgets, or Daisy has to wear arm braces to keep her broken bones together every time she Quakes out.  Could Life Model Decoy arms be far off? We did see Phil Coulson struggle with the loss of his hand and a prosthetic, and he recently dreamed, or was forced to dream, about having a real hand again.

10. Dr. Stephen Strange, Doctor Strange – Motivated by the loss of the use of his hands in an automobile accident, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) seeks out a cure for his hands, so he can go back to his old life as an arrogant and successful surgeon. Like people who truly are permanently disabled, what he finds instead, is a different way of functioning in the world using the abilities he does have, and learning new skills in the process. Instead of being a surgeon, he become a powerful, dimension-bending sorcerer who finds that saving the world from danger is just as rewarding as performing brain surgery. His story and new abilities grow from his coming to terms with his disability, but still motivated by it. It is a metaphor for the struggles that people who develop disabilities, either through accidents, illness, or slow progression of a condition, which includes the stages of grieving. Ultimately, the acceptance of his disability is part of the process of reinventing himself.

11. Charles Xavier (Professor X), X-Men (all the movies) – Finally, possibly the one character whose disability is neither a plot device, nor the source of his power, is Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Xavier’s mutant abilities preceded the injury that left him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. His paralysis, the result of a conflict with best friend Eric Lensherr (Magneto), was something he had to reckon with despite his abilities.

As happens with most people who seek out ways to cure their conditions, Xavier found that a cure for his paralysis was possible, but at a great loss. Medications for non-mutant disableds often have negative side effects. They can do everything from turn us catatonic, make us gain weight, or cause severe agitation or depression (among a myriad of other issues). The consequence for Xavier was the loss of his mutant abilities, which ultimately forced him to opt for the wheelchair, instead.

The case of Charles Xavier makes his the most fully realized disabled sci-fi character of any that have appeared on screen. As viewers, we’ve watched him progress from his childhood (in X-Men: First Class) through extreme old age (in Logan). We understand his abilities, his history, his personality, his intelligence, and his humor. We’ve seen him go from able-bodied to disabled. In Logan, I found myself grieving as this great man, still with his mutant abilities intact, suffers from the ravages of old age. He still has his sense of humor, but his disabilities have become more pronounced, which is driven home many times as Logan (Hugh Jackman) must lift him into a car, then collapse his wheelchair and load that in, all while dodging a barrage of bullets.

For Charles Xavier, as for so many of us, his disability is permanent and incurable. Disability can affect the way one lives, without being the source of what drives us in life. Like Stephen Strange, we often must find ways of functioning that can sometimes be better than what “normal” people find in their lives.

The presentation of disable characters in sci-fi and fantasy entertainment (including literature) is extremely rare, despite one in ten people worldwide, and one in twenty people in the US living with disabilities. Perhaps it’s because able-bodied writers generally don’t know how to write stories involving disabled characters. Perhaps there is an assumption that in a futuristic world, disability will be rare and curable. Perhaps, at least in US culture, people tend to avert their eyes when someone passes in a wheelchair.

Yet, as X-Men, and Logan have proven, it is possible to tell stories with fully rendered disabled characters in them, whose handicaps are incidental or tangential to their stories, but don’t necessarily define who they are.

Robin Brownfield writes here, because she had to give up her teaching job due to multiple conditions causing chronic pain and fatigue.

2 Comments on this post.
  • arcticgoddess
    6 March 2017 at 8:42 pm -

    You missed one – Stargate Universe. There was a character in several of the episodes who was a quadriplegic. That was done well, She didn’t get super powers and was still able to do her job and even have a relationship with one of the lead characters in the show. Check it out.

    • Robin Brownfield
      6 March 2017 at 11:28 pm -

      Having watched that series, I honestly don’t recall her at all. What was her name?

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