Over Christmas dinner, I was telling my family that I wanted to write about disability in science fiction. My future brother-in-law, who is a big sci-fi fan, was doubtful that disability was covered often enough in sf for me to study it. (He had previously asked me if there was enough material to warrant doctoral programs in women’s studies. Apparently, he hadn’t heard that women and girls make up a little over half of the world’s population.) After that, I got to thinking about it and started to compile a mental list of characters with disabilities and disability themes in sci-fi/fantasy. In the interest of appealing to my fairly concrete minded brother-in-law, this list is limited to characters who would be read as having a disability in the US in 2012 rather than characters who demonstrate that disability is on a spectrum and culturally relative. The latter will come later. Without any further ado, I give you my rudimentary rundown of disability in sci-fi/fantasy.* You are forewarned: here be spoilers.
Firefly/Serenity: River Tam acquires a psychiatric impairment after the Alliance’s experiments.
Farscape: Scorpius can’t control his core body temperature and inserts coolings rods into his brain to prevent it from melting. Stark goes “fahrbot” after Scorpius’ torture. Talyn’s hybrid genetics render him mentally unstable. Chiana has periods of blindness after using her slow-downy-vision in the fourth season. By the series finale, she is completely blind but is given synthetic eyes before the start of the miniseries.
Star Trek: TOS: In “The Mengarie” parts 1 and 2, Christopher Pike has quadriplegia due to radiation poisoning and Vina has an orthopedic impairment and facial scarring after reparative surgery by aliens who’d never seen Humans before. In “Is There in Truth in No Beauty?” Dr. Miranda Jones uses a sensor web to see–making her something of a forbear of Geordi.
Star Trek: TNG: Geordi LaForge has been blind since birth and uses his super cool visor to see. Worf was temporarily paralyzed following an accident (“Ethics”). Riva, a famous mediator, is deaf and unable to speak verbally (“Loud as a Whisper”).
Star Wars: Darth Vader employs cybernetic adaptive technology to stay alive.
Buffy: the Vampire Slayer/Angel: Drusilla’s torture at the hands of Angelus triggers a mental illness. Spike temporarily uses a wheelchair in season 2. Glory’s “brain-sucking” gives Tara and many other Sunnydale residents mental impairments. Cordelia’s visions give her debilitating headaches. Lindsey’s hand is cut off by Angel and later replaced with an evil hand. Xander permanently loses one of his eyes after being attacked by Caleb.
Harry Potter: Mad-Eye Moody has a magical glass eye, facial scars, and a wooden leg.
X-Men: Charles Xavier has lower-body paralysis.
Once Upon a Time: Prior to gaining magical powers, Rumpelstiltskin has a limp, which is present in Storybrooke counterpart, Mr. Gold. The Blind Witch is, you guessed it, blind (“True North”).
Lost: John Locke is paralyzed from the waist down for a period of time before he comes to the Island. He becomes depressed and suicidal after leaving. Hurley, Libby, and Walt are at one time patients at the Santa Rosa Mental Health Institute. Christian Shepherd has alcoholism. After leaving the Island, Jack Shepherd develops a drug and alcohol addiction and becomes suicidal. Claire Littleton acquires a psychological impairment after making friends with the Man in Black. Mikhail Bakunin is missing his left eye. Pierre Chang has a prosthetic arm. Daniel Faraday’s time-travel experiments give him memory loss, which is healed when he comes to the Island.
Game of Thrones: Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf. An actual dwarf, not a magical one–a rarity in fantasy.
Doctor Who: Davros and Lumic are wheelchair users. Max Capricorn and Bannakaffalatta were converted into cyborgs following accidents (“Voyage of the Damned”). Elliot Northover has dyslexia (“The Hungry Earth,” “Cold Blood”).
Wild Wild West (film): Dr. Arliss Loveless has a badass steampunk wheelchair.
Peter Pan: The crocodile ate Captain Hook’s hand, which he replaces with, you guessed it, a hook.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Marvin the Paranoid Android has depression.
Wicked: the Life and Death of the Wicked Witch of the West: Nessarose, the eventual Wicked Witch of the East, was born without arms and uses the magical ruby/silver slippers to give her balance enough to walk. Previously, she used a wheelchair.
American Horror Story: Adelaide Langdon has a genetic developmental disability, heavily implied to be Down syndrome. Her brother Beauregard also has a developmental disability and facial disfigurement. Dr. Charles Montgomery is addicted to ether even after he dies. Moira O’Hara, in her older ghost form, has a glass eye. Larry Harvey has facial scars and a mobility impairment after being badly burned in a fire. Violet Harmon self-harms and eventually commits suicide.
Avatar: the Last Airbender: Toph was born blind and uses the mad earth bending skills taught to her by badgermoles to perceive her environment. Teo has a badass flying wheelchair made by his father.
District 9: Obesandjo, the leader of the Nigerian refugee gang, is a wheelchair user.
Community**: Abed, “the undiagnosable,” might be “on the spectrum” but it’s really “none of your business.” Pierce temporarily uses the most expensive wheelchair he could find after breaking both of his legs. He later becomes addicted to pain medication. Annie Adderall had a nervous breakdown during high school and became addicted to Adderall.
The Evil Dead Trilogy: Ash amputates his own hand (the second evil hand on this list) and later replaces it with a chainsaw.
Inspector Gadget: Doctor Claw has, you guessed it, a claw for a hand. Inspector Gadget has prosthetic everything following an accident.
Dollhouse: Alpha develops a psychiatric impairment and attacks Whiskey, giving her facial scars. Bennett’s left arm is paralyzed.
Carnivale: Lodz is blind. Samson is a person of short stature and his ex, Sabina has ectrodactyly. Both are played by actors with the same disabilities as their characters.
Dark Angel: Logan is paralyzed from the waist down until cured by Alex.
Avatar: Jake Sully is also paralyzed from the waist down until turned into a cat-alien with dreads for erogenous zones by a giant magic tree. I shit you not.
As I hope I’ve demonstrated,
I was right and he was wrong! disability is much more prevalent in sci-fi/fantasy than my sister’s fiance thought. Even without really delving into what “disability” means or could mean in a fictional, sff world, we can see that disability has a role in some of the biggest names in sci-fi/fantasy film and television. Yet somehow one of the nerdiest guys I know didn’t see it. I’m guessing the same is true for most fans. I know I wasn’t aware of disability’s impact on sci-fi/fantasy until last year. I want to use this space to geek out about my new discovery.
*I realize it’s problematic to identify people with disabilities by their impairment, but it’s helpful politically to show our numbers. Also, I know I’ve missed many many characters with disabilities on my list. These are just the fandoms I’m familiar with. If you know anyone who should be added to the list, drop me a line in the comments section.
**Okay, okay. Community isn’t strictly sci-fi or fantasy in the aliens and dragons sense, but it’s had episodes with zombies, Dungeons and Dragons, and alternate timelines.