Disability in my sci-fi?

Hyperbole and a Half meme

Image: Background: a cartoon of a blonde woman punching the air with her fist and holding a broom in her other hand. "CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!" is handwritten above her head. Foreground: the caption: "LIST ALL THE SPACE CRIPS!"

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.


7 Responses to “Disability in my sci-fi?”

  1. March 29, 2012 at 7:27 am

    i dont believe they are available w english subtitles yet, but the spanish sf tv series pluton brb nero which can be watched online at the shows website and the film accion mutante both feature disability. both are by well known director alex de la iglesia. the tv show is apparently similar to the british series red dwarf which im told is hilarious.

  2. April 25, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    This is REALLY interesting! I came across your blog a few minutes ago when I saw your post about Abed on the Community LJ. You have quite a great list here and, even though I don’t watch every show you listed, it’s nice to notice what is out there (and I’m amazed at what I have overlooked!) Thanks for putting this all together! I just started watching a show called Early Edition (aired several years ago) and one of the close friends of the main character is blind. She uses a cane and a German Shepherd as a guide dog. I’ve only seen the first 10 episodes, but it’s a great show with science fiction themes. 🙂

    I’m also a UC Berkeley student (it’s my last semester), majoring in Film Studies with a minor in Disability Studies. Small world! One of my main interests is disability in the media, particularly on television. I don’t blog as much as I should, but I’ve written about disability in my scripts and fanfiction.

    I will definitely be keeping tabs on your blog. Keep writing! 🙂

    • April 26, 2012 at 12:20 am

      I remember Early Edition! I used to watch it with my family when it first aired. I’ll have to check that out again.

      Wow, small world indeed. I wonder if we’ve taken any classes together. Are in CP 120 this semester? I also took UGIS 110 last fall, UGIS 112 last spring, and ENGLISH N135.

  3. 4 Rachel
    April 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I am really excited about your blog. I came here looking for disability-centered talk about Abed, which I found, but what really delights me is seeing Scorpius and Stark at the top of the page. I remember watching Farscape way back when it was actually on TV, and desperately searching the internet for anything about Stark that wasn’t about how annoying he was. At the time I had absolutely no knowledge of disability theory/politics (not sure what words to use here) and was not identifying as disabled… Um, sorry, I’m running out of coherent sentences and I don’t want to write a whole messy essay.
    In conclusion: I’m so excited for more posts, especially if they are about Stark, or Abed, or most any of the other characters in the other shows/movies/etc you have mentioned.

  4. April 14, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    I am so glad I found your blog! (yaaay). I’m doing my MA in what is considered in my Cultural Theory department to be a somewhat obscure (in that I think fantastic) thesis surrounding physical dis/ability, prosthetic/assistive technology, post/transhumanism, and crip “cyborgs” in Sci Fi. I understand the whole “is there enough material to warrant a PhD or MA in Women’s Studies or Disability Theory?” mis-informed assumptions that regard dis/ability itself as an obscure thing. (Women are 51% of people, and people with dis/abilities constitute around 15% of the world’s population – varying statistics according to diff sources, this is a mean #).

    Because there is such a HUGE range of dis/ability, let alone representations of dis/ability within Sci Fi alone (television, film, novels, short stories, comic books, webcomics, video games, AAAG!!) trying to account for every instance is a HUGE undertaking – this is a PhD thesis if not a book project.

    Unfortunately for my MA, I am “allowed” to only focus on one or two instances of dis/ability in Sci Fi (choosing Dark Angel, Logan’s physical dis/ability, wheelchair tech, prosthetic exoskeleton, etc) and focus on a corresponding technology to discuss within current Posthuman Technocultures, gotta go with the exoskeleton, as it keeps popping up as the new “superman’s” tech along with comparisons to Iron Man (oivey).

    Can’t wait to see moar posts! there’s a great annotated bibliography of texts by Kestrell called “Decloaking Disability” that goes over a number of (over 100) Sci-Fi texts/films/etc. Unfortunately, not many discuss webcomics, comics, or other non-traditional media. This is why I think your project (and similar projects of others, like myself) should be a collaborative one within Crip Theory – it’s just SO MUCH info to deal with. There are HUNDREDS of representations of dis/ability within SciFi. Whoa. Thanks for making academic obscure lives like mine easier through your research 🙂 Also, TV Tropes does an “okay” job of citing disability representations, but not great.

    I have a blog too if you’re interested (Crip Cultures and Cyborg Criticisms) but it’s barely started :S I’d really appreciate your input!

  5. 6 GlenPoint
    May 30, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Interesting study. Just a quick note, but Bran Stark is also paralyzed from the waist down. And the book series Game of Thrones is based on features several other prominent characters with disabilities (it’s also a fantastic read- so, so much better than the tv show).

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Space Crip

People with disabilities? In my sci-fi? It's more likely than you think.

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