Primer articles explore the complex web of disability representation focusing on far reaching tropes and their consequences.
In my research I have been unable to find the accepted terminology for a class of media visualizations portraying disability. For the time being I will simply use the term disability visualization. Disability visualization can be broken into two subcategories; use of imagery as a metaphorical explanation of a person with a disability’s lived experience, and use of imagery as an attempt at a literal portrayal of a person with a disability’s lived experiences. They are in essence an attempt at peeking through a cracked door to understand what living with any given disability is like. In this primer we are going to focus on these two categories with a broad range of examples.
As I said above a literal disability visualization is used to try and directly show what a person with a disability is experiencing. For example in the movie Rain Man, there is a scene later in the movie where Raymond Babbitt is over stimulated on a walk downtown. In this scene the film uses a series of rougher camera movements and more obtrusive audio to simulate the perspective of Raymond.
In the play version of The Elephant Man there is a scene where Doctor Treves is describing the anatomical features of John Merrick to the audience. In this scene the actor playing John Merrick contorts their body as the description is given, inviting the audience to imagine their bodies doing the same. In this example there is the quite literal attempt to bridge the gap between the primarily able-bodied audience and the physical experience of John Merrick.
Lastly for literal visualizations is in the specific example of superpowers negating blindness. These visualizations tend to show a first person perspective of these characters and their ability to “see” via their powers. In the case of Hyakkimaru in Dororo this takes the form of “seeing” the souls of people. For Toph from Avatar the Last Airbender, it takes the form of showing her seismic sense.
A classic example of a metaphorical visualization is the use of underwater scenes in the movie Children of a Lesser God. In these scenes, the audio is heavily dampened as a representation of deafness. When the character James joins the character Sarah underwater it is represented as the idea that he is joining her, momentarily, in her deafness. Through audio and visual cues the viewer is also shown the filmmaker’s interpretation of deafness as a sort of beautiful, somber, isolation.
Another example I used in my article about REAL is when Takahashi Hisanobu experiences his paraplegia for the first time. In the manga there are two panels that visualize his disability as two distinct metaphors. One is of a radiating white fire rising out of his lower body, a representation of his lack of feeling. In this panel the whiteness is used to remove any defining features other than the outline of his form, suggesting an emptiness or lack of existence. The second panel shows Hisanobu’s legs bound in barbed wire. The perspective of the panel elongates his torso to create distance as he reaches down helplessly for what he no longer has.
Disability visualizations are not inherently a bad thing, they can in fact be a good way to express something that is unknowable to most people. They create opportunities to glimpse just the tiniest sliver of someone else’s experience. That being said I personally think the more literal of these visualizations are more universally bad. A visual that tries to show, in a literal sense, something that is unshowable can only lead to something being misconstrued. On the other hand visuals of a more metaphorical nature invite the consumer to contemplate the idea of differing perceptions without being told “this is the way it works”. Metaphorical visualizations can definitely contribute to the furthering of negative tropes and can overstay their welcome. However, given the right care, they are an effective storytelling tool.
Are there any examples of disability visualization that have stood out for you? Do you agree that they can be done well or do you think that there is simply too much room for inaccuracy and misrepresentation? Let me kno in the comments.