Surprise! Your Favorite Character Might Be Disabled
It’s no surprise that I love seeing myself in my favorite stories.
Take “Mass Effect,” for example, a science fiction media franchise by video game developer BioWare. One of my best friends, Sherry, has written several columns about the franchise, which she recently played from beginning to end. Every morning, I awoke to a handful of messages from Sherry about “Mass Effect,” ranging from heartbreaking plotlines to cringeworthy side quests. (Sherry lives in Singapore, so the time difference limits us to asynchronous communication via Discord. Cue crying emoji.)
At one point, we were talking about Tali’Zorah, a fan-favorite character from “Mass Effect.” Tali is a quarian, a fictional humanoid alien with a weak immune system. Quarians’ immune systems are so weak that in order to survive, they dress head to toe in enviro-suits, including respirators, that protect them from disease or infection.
Sherry offhandedly referred to Tali as disabled, which makes sense. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a disability is “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).” Tali’s impairment, immune deficiency, is a textbook example of disability, down to her enviro-suit. She even uses straws to drink! Yet, for some reason, I never clocked Tali as an example of disability representation.
Last week, I argued that all of us will become disabled and sick. Disability isn’t a nebulous concept that only affects a chosen few; it touches all of us at one point or another. Disability as a concept is simple yet far-reaching, an inextricable aspect of life in a mortal body. When you think about it, the prevalence of disability is staggering, far greater than the estimated 25% of adults.
The question then is why we don’t see disability reflected in the stories we tell. At least that’s the question I’ve been asking myself. Disability representation is at the heart of what I do, and is equal parts motivation and reward. More than anything, I want to see girls like me in my favorite stories, from romantic fantasies to superhero blockbusters.
But the fact remains that disability is not a monolith. Disability is diverse; it looks different for everyone. Disability includes SMA and everything SMA entails — but it also includes mental illness, learning disorders, and immune deficiencies. Just because Tali doesn’t drive a wheelchair doesn’t mean she isn’t disabled.
The more Sherry and I talked about representation, the more we saw. Virtually everyone on the SSV Normandy, the ship players command in “Mass Effect,” classifies as disabled, from Kaidan’s migraines to Shepard’s post-traumatic stress disorder.
Luke Skywalker? Disabled — he lost a hand in a dramatic duel with his evil dad.
Tony Stark? Disabled — there’s an electromagnet in his chest to prevent shrapnel shards from piercing his heart. Not to mention the PTSD and intrusive memories.
PTSD is especially prevalent in sci-fi and fantasy; it violates the laws of fiction to go up against the Big Bad without losing some crucial part of yourself. But we also see disability in other more mundane stories.
Parker, the quirky thief from “Leverage,” who is coded as autistic.
Rapunzel, everyone’s favorite Disney princess, with unbreakable hair and an innate magic that affects how she interacts with the world. Ariel loses her voice — disability. Even Elsa, with her powers of snow and ice — disability. Hence the gloves.
Heck, I’m pretty sure one of the cats from the “Warrior Cats” series was blind. (Don’t judge me. It’s been a long time since I read an Erin Hunter book.)
That’s not to say that all of these characters deserve the mantle of disability representation. Some of them are terribly written. (See Will Traynor in “Me Before You.”) Some of them are the butt of a God-awful joke. (See DJ in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”) Some of them are magically cured, because everyone knows that disability is to be avoided at all costs. (See Felicity Smoak in “Arrow.”)
But some are good. Some, like Tali, are tangentially disabled — their impairments are so interwoven with the narrative that you don’t realize you’re looking into a mirror until they complain about the lack of straws. Some are worth uplifting, especially as we celebrate Disability Pride Month.
I can only hope that we’ll see more of these tangentially disabled characters as time goes on.
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.