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Primer: Disability as Tragedy and Heroism

Posted in Education, and Primer

If you haven’t read my Introduction I strongly recommend it

Primer articles explore the complex web of disability representation focusing on far reaching tropes and their consequences.

(Spoiler warning for The Expanse)

At first, I contemplated splitting these two topics into different articles, but I couldn’t ignore how closely they relate. Disability has served as a means of tragedy and heroism for millennia. Disability certainly plays well into stories of loss and struggle. It’s pretty easy to whip up a narrative where someone becomes disabled in the first act and then fights their way back up in the next two. Or a story where someone is so passionate about what they are doing that they push themselves to the “ultimate sacrifice” which is the loss of mobility or death. Most of us have probably seen a movie, or read a book about a person with a disability who dies by the end in a form of noble sacrifice, or peaceful exit.

An example that is incredibly close to my heart is the movie Simon Birch.

I loved this movie before I began to critically think about disability in media and it still has a place in my heart even now that I have more mixed feelings about it. The film opens with Jim Carrey standing at the grave of the titular Simon Birch, right away the viewer is keyed into his eventual death. The meat of the film then builds up your compassion for this character and talks blatantly about God’s purpose in making Simon the way he is. By the end, he saves a busload of kids from tragedy, because of his disability, and then passes away because of this heroic act. Simon Birch isn’t really a subtle movie, but it is a strong example of disability used as both tragedy and heroism. This kid who isn’t well accepted by his community becomes more accepted in death than life. I bring up this example because it had an impact on my mental thought processes as a young teen and still has lingering effects on me today. Because of this movie, I definitely had a sense about me that my divine purpose was to throw myself in front of a train to save someone else. That trading my “incomplete” life for the life of someone “whole” was why I was placed on this earth. These narratives do have an impact on how people perceive themselves and each other.

In an article about the manga Real, by Takehiko Inoue, I discussed the character Hisonobu Takahashi and his recent accident leading to paralysis from the waist down. Stories about non-disabled people becoming disabled are important stories for people to encounter. That being said these stories tend to lean into the embitterment of their characters or extreme ends of the spectrum of experiences. They overlook the more representative struggles for more sensationalized ones, thereby causing more harm than good.

Often the flip side to this tragedy is heroism, these stories tend to choose one or the other. In the third book of The Expanse by James S.A. Corey, there is a character named Bull that has a spinal injury much like Hisonobu above. Bull decides to push his body knowing that it will further exacerbate his injury and ultimately gives his life to save the lives of others. Throughout this entire sequence he is rationalizing it as acceptable because he isn’t interested in living with his disability. Which invokes once again that idea that being disabled makes you lesser and therefore in some form of utilitarian exchange your life to save others is a cost-effective bargain.

Hisonobu and Bull come from two incredibly different stories and yet they are the perfect pair to demonstrate the two concepts we are discussing. These two men are put into situations by their respective authors where they are physically parallel and yet embody two different tropes. In my mind neither representation is better than the other, they are equals in their misrepresentation and destructive dramatization.

I think a lot of these stories come about because they are relatively easy to write. But this cheap shock value is playing towards deep-seated ableist tendencies. Thinking about disability as overly tragic is another way in which society perpetuates the idea that being disabled is being lesser. When we behave as though the loss of something physical or mental is a loss of humanity, it has broad sweeping implications that make it difficult for all types of people with disabilities.

As will be my usual message when engaging with this type of material, make sure to engage with it critically. There is nothing wrong with enjoying these stories, but it is important to take a step back and think about what may be hyperbolic or emotionally manipulative.

With my Primer articles I love to support discussion. For this article please talk a bit about something you have engaged in that involved the characterization of disability as tragic and/or heroic. Whether it is a personal experience or a relationship with a piece of media or even just a story about disability that falls under this trope. After that feel free to communicate your broader thoughts on the topic.

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