Happy October Listen Up readers! It’s time to start getting ready for the holidays or, if you are a fellow writer, it’s time to prepare for National Novel Writing Month! To celebrate both of these, today’s blog post starts with a creative experiment! Take out some markers or colored pencils and a sheet of paper. Take five or ten minutes to draw a monster.
If you chose to skip the drawing, this experiment will also work with a monster you’ve seen in a movie, TV show, or book. Let’s begin!
Explain why the monster is a monster. What characteristics make it a monster? Is it the way it looks? The way that it is shaped? The way that it hunts? Write down why. Lastly, does your monster have physical deformities, scars, or any disabilities?
If you answered “yes” to the last question, you don’t need to feel guilty. The truth is the majority of people have been taught to associate disabilities with villains and monsters since the time they have been engaging in stories. The literary world has a longstanding trend to use disabilities or other physical differences as a way to highlight or reflect other negative characteristics, which may not be otherwise apparent in a character. Since we start to see this as kids, we end up learning to unconsciously associate disabilities with these villainous characters. As we get older, those associations become built into stigmas that surround disabilities today.
Let’s talk about a few examples. Think about your favorite stories as a kid. How many can you name that have physical differences to “mark” the villain? How many villains are mentally unstable or become unstable as the story goes on?
Scar from The Lion King and Captain Hook from Peter Pan not only have physical differences from the perfect-bodied heroes, they don’t even have a name outside of their differences. The Wicked Queen in Snow White takes becomes more and more mentally unstable as her efforts to kill Snow White are repeatedly foiled.
Another example is The Hunger Games. The villain in this series isn’t a specific person but rather a society. Throughout the series, Katniss meets several characters marked with disabilities, all or nearly all of them had their disabilities inflicted by evil acts of the Capital. Even though the Capital isn’t a person or disabled, readers are taught to associate the Capital with disabilities because it highlights the cruelty of the Capital.
Perhaps the greatest example I can give is the Star Wars franchise. Almost everyone associated with the dark side is disabled or has physical differences. Scars, deformities, missing limbs, mental disabilities, among many other examples. On the other hand, the Jedi and their allies, are always able-bodied. This ablest mindset is reinforced particularly when Obi-Wan speaks of Darth Vader. “He’s more machine now than man: twisted and evil.” This statement implies that Darth Vader is no longer a person because he has multiple disabilities and needs several pieces of assistive technology for his daily life. Secondly, it implies that he is not worth saving because of his disabilities.
What about Luke Skywalker? Luke, one of the main characters of the franchise, acquires a disability in Episode V. That’s where things start to get interesting from a literary analysis standpoint. Even though Luke is an example of a disabled hero, he appears completely able-bodied for the rest of the second trilogy. Furthermore, Luke became disabled because of Darth Vader. In other words, it is a case of the hero being permanently marked by evil. It’s not really disability representation, but rather meant to be a symbol of evil.
It’s a complicated subject and I imagine I will be writing a whole blog post series on Star Wars, especially because they have been trying to address the ableist nature of the franchise by bringing forth more characters with disabilities, such as in The Bad Batch and Rogue One.
Another way to look at the subject of disabilities and villains is with the nullification of disabilities theory. Disabilities are often seen as undesirable or as a weakness, which ends up being significant because villains are designed to lose. With the nullification of disabilities theory, we start to see how disabilities are used to play a role in power status.
An example is Azula from The Last Airbender. Azula is easily one of the strongest and most cunning characters on the show. However, the closer she gets to her goal to be the Fire Lord, she becomes more and more mentally unstable. In other words, the closer she gets to power, the more disabled she becomes. In the grand finale, Azulaalmost succeeds in killing two of the show’s main protagonists as a testament to how powerful she is. Azula, in her prime, I don’t think she would have been defeated by the good guys. But her mental health was disrupted to a point that she was making rash decisions in battle and over-committing to moves, which ultimately led to her defeat. Azula would not have been defeated unless she had a disability.
To summarize the basis: bad guys, or villains, have disabilities and/or physical differences. The good guys, or the heroes, are always able-bodied (some may say perfect-bodied). I recognize that part of this is due to beauty standards. A lot of people don’t see disabilities as something that can be beautiful. But most often disabilities or physical differences are used as a metaphor for evil. Especially mental disabilities.
This subject has affected me for a long time. Recently I was reflecting on my childhood and I recalled that I would often call myself names such as “mongrel,” “cursed,” “monster,” “half-breed,” and the like. I was at a critical point where I was beginning to build a larger awareness of my disability and becoming aware of how it made me different. I wondered why I was disabled. I wondered if I had done something bad in a past life, so I had to be punished. I wondered if my parents had angered God, so he punished them by cursing me.
Now that I am an adult, I understand that none of these things are true. But as a kid, I was building awareness of my place in the world. It’s natural to question why things are the way they are and sometimes we come to the wrong conclusion. My conclusions, as wrong as they were, were the only way that I could make sense of my disability with the knowledge and examples that I had seen demonstrated in the world around me. Disabilities were marks of evil. I was disabled, therefore, I must be the result of evil.
Monsters and villains, more often than not, are designed to create fear. I, for one, refuse to believe the best way to highlight negative characteristics is to rely on disabilities or physical differences to cue the reader to the presence of evil. It’s been a longstanding tactic for many writers, but it’s time to start addressing the messages these tactics are setting. It’s also not okay to use disabilities as character “flaws.” Disabilities run so much deeper than what you see. Disability is an identity just like skin color, religious affiliation, gender identity, or sexual orientation. It has history and cultures built around it. The experience of disability is unique from person to person as well. Even if the two people in question have the same disability, they will find unique ways to adapt.
As you go out shopping for Halloween costumes this year, take note of what costumes seem to emphasize physical differences. Are they imitating disabilities as something to inspire fear or suggest evil? Pay attention to movies and how villains are presented. Are they given physical differences or disabilities, whereas the hero is not? Being aware of these issues is the first step toward building a better representation, and therefore, a better future.
For further reading: here is a link to an awesome article that talks more about the harmful implications of tying disabilities to villains and other harmful forms of disability representation. I found it very informative.
What are your Halloween plans this year? Comment below and let me know! I have yet to decide on a Halloween costume myself.
Genre: Superhero, Action, Science Fiction/Fantasy Released: October 20, 2016 Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Brief Summary Doctor Steven Strange is at the height of his career as a neurosurgeon when a car crash damages his hands. In a desperate search for a cure, Dr. Strange ends up learning magic at Kamar-Taj and comes to realize that the world is in peril.
*Disclaimer:This post will focus exclusively on Dr. Strange based on the MCU movie. I will not be covering any comics or TV shows.
Welcome back Listen Up readers! If you’ve been wondering where I have been lately, check out my last post “The Power of Voice.” This week I am excited to analyze the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Doctor Strange. Writing on this character has been my most difficult blog post yet. Originally, I was planning to use this film as an example of my nullification of disability theory. In preparation, I rewatched the film and realized while this film does have moments of arguable nullification, as a whole, the film does an amazing job at acknowledging Dr. Strange’s disability.
If you’ve been with me for a while, then you might recall mentions of Dr. Strange from previous posts. As I was going from memory, I wasn’t all that accurate. The way I remembered the story was Dr. Strange’s disability disappears after he learns to use a sling ring, thus the nullification of disability by power gain, which is to say, reinforcing the stereotype that a character can’t have a disability and be powerful at the same time. In addition to differences before and after using the sling ring, the film uses a lot of dark colors after Dr. Strange becomes disabled. After he gains power, however, colors become notably brighter and colorful. This gives the impression that life with a disability is dark and dreary.
This interpretation has several questionable messages, which I had been preparing to write on before I rewatched the film and realized I was missing a lot of points. The film is pretty consistent with portraying Dr. Strange’s disability and the color differences are more or less a reflection of his inner state rather than mirroring the rise and fall of his disability. So let’s dive into my revised take on this!
First off, I will be making some assumptions about Dr. Strange’s disability based on a couple of scenes that take place shortly after he acquired it. In one scene, Dr. Strange is seen struggling to hold a pen and print his name. In another, he attempts to shave, slowly bringing a shaking razor to his face. At the last moment, he decides against it. Based on these scenes, I’m going to assume he has issues with dexterity and grip strength.
Since Doctor Strange is an action film, I paid particular attention to how he fought. Grip strength is of vital importance to throw a proper punch. The tighter a fighter can close their fist, the less prone they are to injuries. If a fighter can’t close their fist properly or if they lack the coordination to land the punch across the first two knuckles of the hand, they are at high risk of broken bones, sprains, and other types of injuries. Grip strength is also important for holding weapons. Dr. Strange, with his disability, is going to have to learn to fight without his hands and conventional weapons. The few times he does use his hands to fight, such as when trying to handle the thugs that jump him in Nepal or when he hits the door of Kamar-Taj after he is thrown out, Dr. Strange screams in pain: supporting my theory that he can’t use his hands in a fight.
Which begs the question, how does he fight?
Shortly after beginning his training, Dr. Strange learns to conquer weapons with magic. He seems to favor having magic tendrils stretched between his hands, which he uses to block blows instead of his bare hands. The tendrils can also be used offensively as a type of whip. A weapon made of magic means he doesn’t need to hold onto it, thus it can’t be knocked from his grip. It makes so much sense and I appreciate the thoughtfulness and consideration on behalf of the writers and fight coordinators. Dr. Strange’s fighting style stays pretty consistent throughout the movie, but there is some variety.
For example, in another part of the movie, Dr. Strange is training with weapons and grappling with Mordo My first reaction to this was to say that the limits of his disability were being nullified, but then I thought about it a little more. Every martial art style in the world has moves that are practiced in the studio but never used in a real fight. The difference between them is the artistic versus the practical. I’ve seen bo staff forms where people jump up and land in a split. Cool? Of course! Practical in a fight? Not so much. If someone is throwing a punch at you don’t dodge it by doing a split. However, being trained to do the splits means you can kick higher and with more control. Therefore, while there are few, if any, practical reasons to use a split in a fight, it is still important to learn the move.
Dr. Strange does train with weapons and practices grappling moves in training, but he never uses these moves in a real fight. (With one exception: when he is fighting in the astral plane, his disability doesn’t carry over and his style changes to straight grappling and brawling.) As a martial artist myself, it was cool to see how much thought and effort went into composing Dr. Strange’s fighting style. In later MCU movies, his use of magic has improved so much that he doesn’t need to fight close combat.
In hindsight, because he has to rely on magic more than any other person to be able to attack and defend himself, his disability lends itself to developing a deeper mastery of magic than his ablebodied peers. This idea is recapped in one of my favorite parts of the film when Dr. Strange is talking with the Ancient one, watching the snowfall.
[Ancient One] “When you first came to me, you asked me how I was able to heal Jonathan Pangborn. I didn’t. He channels dimensional energy directly into his own body.”
[Dr. Strange] “He uses magic to walk.”
[Ancient One] “Constantly. He had a choice, to return to his own life or to serve something greater than himself.”
[Dr. Strange] “So, I could have my hands back again? My old life?”
[Ancient One] “You could. And the world would be all the lesser for it.”
In other words, without his disability, Dr. Strange never would have reached a higher potential. Another thing I love about this conversation is that it pushes back against the cure agenda, which is an enormous ethical, political, sociological, and economic debate. The cure agenda, as it sounds, seeks to prevent, cure, or eliminate disabilities with various methods including, but not limited to: abortions of fetuses with disabilities, assisted suicide, sterilization, and social pressures to conform to ablebodiness. The cure agenda operates on the assumption that people with disabilities will always be “lesser,” and secondly, that if a disabled person had a choice, they would always choose to be ablebodied. Of course, the cure agenda is downright offensive to me and many other members of the disabled community. It is, sadly, a modern matter of life and death. You can read more about the harm a cure agenda can lead to in this blog post: “Disability History, Part 3: Aktion T4 and the Holocaust.”
The last aspect of the film I will cover today is Master Hamir, who is another character with a disability. Viewers might remember that he was introduced near the beginning of the film when Dr. Strange mistakes him for being the Ancient One, but his disability isn’t revealed until later. When Dr. Strange stubbornly blames his inabilities to do magic on his disability, the Ancient One asks Master Hamir to provide a demonstration to show that hands are not a requirement to perform magic. But here is what upsets me: when Master Hamir pulls back his sleeve to reveal his missing hand, it’s presented in a way that’s meant to shock the audience. The camera focuses only on his scars and missing hand. This emphasis essentially says that his disability is the defining feature of the character.
To go into this a bit deeper, people with disabilities face an ongoing struggle to get acknowledgment past their disabilities. Now, make no mistake, many of us are proud to be disabled. It is a part of our identity and it shapes how we see the world. But we are more than our disabilities.
To explain this idea better, I’ll share a story from my own life. Back in the summer of 2018, I was job hunting. As a deaf/disabled person, there are extra barriers in my way to getting a job interview. Many companies conduct a phone interview before conducting an in-person interview. This was the case with my local grocery store. They called me and started asking me a lot of questions. Of course, I had to ask multiple times for things to be repeated. “Sorry, I have a hard time hearing on the phone,” I would say, “Would you repeat that please?” Eventually, the caller said, “Yeah, this isn’t going to work out,” and hung up on me. After that, I was invited to an interview at a local bread baking company. I was lead through the kitchen to an office in the back. Along the way. I noticed the radio was blasting above the noise of the machinery and chatter of the workers. I did the interview and was offered a job on the spot. I politely declined because the noise level meant I wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively.
Yet another employer invited me to a group interview. Since I am not comfortable talking about personal accommodations for my disability in a group setting, I asked for a one-on-one interview. I didn’t receive a reply until two months after the initial interview, by which time I had found other employment.
Then one day, I received a call from Joanns asking me to come in for an interview. It was the second interview I’ve had in months and I was excited at the idea of working in an art supply store. I was particularly excited about the employee discount on fabric!
It was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had. I was chatting and laughing with the interviewer. She asked about my art projects and I showed her pictures of my quilt projects and paintings.
“Rachel, I am very impressed with you,” she said with a smile, “I think you’d be a perfect fit for this job. Do you have any more questions for me?”
I smiled, knowing that I nailed the interview. But now was the scary part. Bringing up my disability. Because there are so many stereotypes associated with being disabled, I wait to discuss it until the employer has a chance to get to know me a little and after we discuss my qualifications. I have found this technique usually works quite well for me. Usually.
“Actually, I do have something else I’d like to discuss.” I said. “I have a disability.”
She raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“I’m deaf.” I pulled back my hair, turned my head, and pointed to my red hearing aids. “So that means that sometimes I have a hard time understanding what other people say.”
When I turn back to her, her smile is gone. Her eyes racked me up and down like I had told her I was some kind of alien from outer space. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. At this point, most employers start asking questions about my disability to better understand it and my needs. Instead, she sat in silence.
“You don’t look deaf.” she finally said.
I was flabbergasted. What was I supposed to say to that? What do people think a deaf person “looks” like? Trying to save the sinking ship, I asked if she had any questions or concerns about my deafness.
“No.” she stood up from the table and walked toward the door. I realized the interview was over.
“Um,” I stood up to follow her, still trying to salvage the interview. “If I get the job, when should I expect a call?”
She walked me to the front of the store. “We’ll call you.” She refused to look me in the eyes, holding the door open. It wasn’t enough for her to walk me out of the interview, she had to walk me out of the store.
Refusing to show weakness in front of her, I thanked her for the interview and got inside of my car. And then I cried. Big heaving sobs that made me so dizzy I thought I might pass out. I had no idea what I was supposed to do in this situation. I wasn’t even sure if it was illegal for her to walk me out of an interview for being deaf (it was). I didn’t have any money for an attorney, I was a college student for crying out loud. What’s more, even if I did take the matter to court and I was hired, I had no interest in working with the company anymore. But the worst part of it all? Living the fear that I always had as a child, of being denied job opportunities and more because of my disability. That’s what hurt the most. It was a nightmare that became real.
Sometimes it does not matter how talented you are, how many skills you have, how many qualifications, or how much experience you have—when you have a disability, that is the only thing some people will choose to see.
That’s why I was disappointed by how Master Hamir is portrayed only for his disability. He’s an image, not a person. I know exactly what that feels like and it is not a good feeling. It’s being invisible in all but one aspect.
Obviously, I have made some personal connections with Master Hamir and maybe that’s all it is. But I feel strongly that if Master Hamir had a few lines to speak or if he had been shown in the background fighting or teaching others, if there was more to his image than just his disability, I’d probably see him in a different light. As it stands, the way his disability was presented is disappointing.
To end on a positive note, one of the things I loved about the film is all these little, inmate moments and scenes where Dr. Strange is learning to adapt to his disability. He holds a cup of tea with two hands to keep it steady. After he learns to use an electric razor, he starts wearing brighter clothes, showing that he’s growing into his disability. And I love the closing scene where Dr. Strange holds his broken wristwatch in his hands. And in future movies, he frequently wears gloves which can be a form of assistive technology for his hands.
In relation to the scenes I originally interpreted as being nullified because Dr. Strange’s disability seems to disappear, I’ve realized I have overlooked a factor. Not all disabilities are constant. His hands could be steadier one day, but not the next. These scenes might not be reflecting a disappearance of his disability, but rather the inconsistency of it. I have included a few photos below of particular scenes that made me question whether or not his disability was being nullified. Comment below and let me know what you think of these scenes!
Dr. Strange’s next appearance in the MCU will be in Spiderman: No Way Home on December 17, 2021. If you haven’t seen the official trailer for it, here is the video link. He will also be getting a second movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness on March 25, 2022, which is rumored to be the next biggest film in the MCU because it will change everything we think we know.
Thank you all for reading today’s post and especially thank you to my readers who have been reaching out to check up on me and for encouraging me to keep writing.
Thank you for your patience as I have not been able to post as previously scheduled. I am still struggling with my mental health, but I am working on building better strategies to manage it. However, I am not sure what my posting schedule will be for the next while. The good news is that I am still working on writing and will be covering some exhilarating topics in the near future! Make sure to sign up for email notifications at the bottom of Listen Up’shome page or follow Listen Up’sFacebook page to stay updated on the latest posts.
Genre: Children’s fantasy animation Released September 2018 – current (the fourth season is expected to be released later this year or early in 2022) Rated PG
Brief Summary The world of Xadia is divided between the humans, who practice dark magic, and the elves, who use primal magic. The border between them is protected by the King of Dragons, whose only egg was destroyed years ago by the humans. Callum and Prince Ezran find the last dragon egg and set out on a journey with elf Rayla, to return the egg to the Dragon King and restore peace to Xadia. But there are many who do not want them to succeed and do everything they can to stop them.
When I was about ten years old, I set out on a quest to find a book with a leading deaf character. I didn’t want just any random book. I specifically wanted a medieval fantasy story, with a female, deaf knight, and involved dragons. I was so determined to find this story that I got up the courage to ask the school librarian for help. We didn’t find anything available in the library, so I looked on the internet, which also had nothing. I came to realize that if I wanted to read a story about a deaf knight and dragons, I would have to write it.
Well, that all changed when I got to watch Netflix’s original series The Dragon Prince, which has General Amaya, one of the highest-ranking military official in Katolis, entrusted with guarding the human side of the Border, sister of the late Queen Sarai, Aunt to two of the show’s main protagonists Callum and Ezran, and who happens to be deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate.
Getting my childhood dream at the age of twenty-two, you bet I cried. While it wasn’t the first deaf character I have come across, General Amaya was the first portrayal of a deaf person in a position of power and who plays a big role across the story that I have experienced. In general, the whole show is amazing on so many levels. It was literally designed to push for diversity and representation. For that reason alone, it comes across as special and meaningful because so many minorities are being represented at once—and in positions of power! You have LGBTQ+ queens and assassins, so many powerful female leaders, and people of color by the dozen (among both elves and humans).
Not only is General Amaya deaf, but she uses real sign language—like proper grammar and everything. It’s not just a few token signs to help sell the part. And—something else that is noticeable—when she speaks, there are no subtitles to translate what she is saying. You have to know sign language to understand. I think this choice has a powerful impact because it allows the audience to see her differently. Plus there are some hilarious jokes you’ll only catch if you know sign language.
I did some more research into this. The ASL was so good, I wanted to know if there was a deaf person involved in the creation of this character. It turns out that one of the show’s co-creators, Aaron Ehasz, asked the question “What if [General Amaya] is deaf?” Ehasz also worked on another famous show Avatar: The Last Airbender, and is responsible for the tough-loving, sassy Toph, a blind earthbender. In creating General Amaya, Ehasz and the other producers reached out to several Deaf and Hard-Of-Hearing organizations, met with several deaf people, and worked with several ASL interpreters to make sure Amaya’s signing was authentic.
General Amaya is also in a position of power—one of the King’s most trusted advisors and one of the highest-ranking Generals in the Katolis Army. Serving in the military alone is something extremely meaningful and powerful for the Deaf and Hard-Of-Hearing community. In America, disabled citizens are not allowed to join the army or serve in any related military role. Now, that might come off as strange to you and maybe you can think of a few examples of disabled veterans who are actively working in the military. That’s because the US military has a loophole. If a soldier in the military acquires a disability during active service, the military will make all accommodations necessary for them to continue doing their job. So there are people with disabilities serving, but only able-bodied people are allowed to join.
This becomes even more questionable when looked at from a global standpoint. America is one of a small handful of countries that do not allow people with disabilities to serve, in contrast to the rest of the world where they are allowed and even encouraged to serve. Or, if you look at this issue from a historical standpoint, there have been deaf soldiers serving in every single war in US history up thru WWII.
Keith Nolan, a deaf man and a teacher at the Maryland School for the Deaf, has been fighting for years to get the military to open for the Deaf and Hard-Of-Hearing. He participated in an ROTC program for two years and was able to earn the rank of a cadet private before he was barred from advancing any further simply because he was deaf. Nolan also traveled to several other countries to interview deaf soldiers actively serving in military roles and wrote a 98-page paper on why the Deaf should be allowed to serve.
Nolan’s activism was successful up to the point that a bill, named after him, was drafted and sent to congress. The bill would open up a test program for the Deaf in the Air Force. If it went well, it would open the doors to regular service and test programs in other branches of the military. Unfortunately, the bill suffered from bad timing. Obama was a big supporter of Nolan, but the bill didn’t reach congress until Trump was in office. Trump has never been supportive of disability civil rights. Thus the bill ended up getting swept under the rug.
The topic of deaf in the military hits home for me. I remember the first time I was ever asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I was in kindergarten and still learning how to write. All the other kids were writing down that they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, firefighters, veterinarians, but I decided I wanted to be a soldier. I still have that assignment tucked away in one of my memory boxes.
It’s not something I talk about a lot. I used to tell people that I wanted to be a soldier, but apparently, I have such a reputation for being kind, that my friends and family laughed at the idea of me being a soldier. Growing up, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be allowed because I was deaf. When I was seventeen years old, I started doing more research as I knew there were early military programs for high school students. That’s when I found out that I would never even been given a chance. That put me in a dark place for a long while. But I still hold out hope that things will change and maybe I’ll still have the chance.
Coming back to The Dragon Prince, that’s one of the reasons that General Amaya is such a powerful representation. She is an example of something the Deaf community is actively fighting for. She represents hopes and dreams and inclusion and recognition.
Now, I wish I could leave this blog post at that, but if you recall my last blog post, I introduced my own literary theory about the nullification of disabilities. As much as I hate to throw General Amaya under the bus, she does fall prey to this.
General Amaya is introduced to viewers as a nonverbal character, meaning she relies on sign language for communication. So either people know sign language to communicate with her, like her nephews Callum and Ezran, or as it turns out, she has an interpreter, Commander Gren, to communicate with those who don’t know sign language. Everything is great.
That is until General Amaya assigns Gren to stay at the castle and keep an eye on Viren, while she goes on to check the border. Now, of course, deaf people do not require an interpreter at all times. There are plenty of other ways to communicate. The issue with this is that the writers didn’t show how Amaya communicated without an interpreter. Do her soldiers all know some sign language and that’s how they communicate? Is there another interpreter? General Amaya is in a powerful position where she is communicating with others all the time. By removing Gren and not showing how she communicates otherwise, it ends up nullifying her disability by refusing to acknowledge and respect the limitations of her disability.
Unfortunately, it gets worst. After she leaves Gren, she seems to gain the ability to lipread everything. There are scenes where Amaya is in a room full of people speaking verbally and she follows the conversation without any questions.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again, lipreading is extremely inaccurate! Lipreading at best—at best—can give you 30% of what someone says, depending on the language. If it is a tonal language (meaning words change based on the tone of voice, such as with Mandarin), you’ll get even less. In addition, lipreading has so many factors—how expressive someone’s face and body is, how fast they talk, if they mumble their words, and we haven’t even gotten to accents yet or being in the right mindset to lipread. Lipreading is exhausting work. I’ve had times where I am so tired at the end of the day, trying to lipread is like trying to understand a foreign language. When I reach this point, I say “I can’t understand English right now.” People laugh at that because they think I’m being funny, but really, I’m being serious. Basically what I’m saying is relying on lipreading alone is the crappiest form of communication on the face of the planet. It only works when it is put together with other things—like knowing the context of the conversation.
Yet, General Amaya doesn’t seem to have any of these issues. But wait—it gets worst (again). In Season 3, General Amaya is taken captive by Sunfire Elves. Now, the elves have a completely different set of cultures and languages than humans do. Yet, despite having no experience with elvish dialects and accents, General Amaya seems able to lipread most of what they say. Not all of it though, as they do bring in a non-native sign language interpreter into the story when they are interrogating General Amaya in a ring of fire.
To draw from my own experiences, I have a lot of opportunities to work with people who speak Spanish as a first language. In some cases, I have worked with the same people for years and let me tell you, even though I’m familiar with the Mexican accent, I struggle to lipread it. It’s like trying to lipread a foreign language. That’s why I’m saying General Amaya being able to lipread the Sunfire elves doesn’t make sense. These elves have a completely foreign accent and English is not their first language, so it doesn’t make sense that she can lipread what they are saying. In addition, she is not always at her best. In the ring of fire scene I mentioned above, she’s weak and beaten down, which would affect her ability to lipread in the first place because it takes so much mental effort to try to piece together what someone is saying even under fair conditions.
So in short, General Amaya, as awesome as she is, is a good example of nullification by refusing to acknowledge and respect the limitations of a disability. When the limits of a disability are not respected, it ends up reinforcing stereotypes. In this case, it encourages the myths that lipreading is 100% accurate and that all deaf people have an innate ability to lipread. These myths, which are already common beliefs among able-bodied people, then affect the lives of deaf people. I hate it when people just expect me to lipread what they say and refuse to listen to the accommodations that I actually need to communicate. Like when I ask for something to be written down, they refuse and point at their mouth and keep repeating what they say. In other cases, I’ve had people grab me, pull me into their face so that they speak directly into my hearing aid as if that’s going to make things clearer. It’s frustrating and uncomfortable. But it’s also frustrating because I can’t fault others for doing this as they have never been taught otherwise.
With all that said, I still love General Amaya. She is my favorite character in the series and it is so cool to see how much she is involved in the story! She’s not some token side character. She’s almost a main character at this point. I will never forget the moment that I first saw her appear on screen, the way I did a double-take when she started signing, the way the realization hit me, and the tears started flowing—this is the story I’ve been waiting for my whole life to hear, the story I’ve been looking for since I was ten. She is such an amazing character, representative of so much more than just being deaf, and her signing is authentic ASL. Her portrayal is not perfect, as I pointed out the issues with her lipreading, which leads to the nullification of the disabled experience and which directly impacts people’s perceptions and understanding of disabilities. Because like it or not, most people are introduced to disabilities through a screen, that’s why increasing accurate representation and visibility is so important to the disabled community.
The Dragon Prince is an amazing story to watch and it has so many unique elements in it. It is one that I highly recommend. And it is family-friendly too. I am excited to see the next season, which is expected to be released sometime this year or early in 2022.
What’s on your “to be watched” list? Got any recommendations for me? Comment below and let me know!
I was first introduced to disability studies through a critical literary studies class, a basic requirement for English majors where students learn different theories or “lenses” for analyzing literature. This includes theories such as deconstructionism, Marxism, Colonial and Racial studies, among several others. But I noticed that we weren’t assigned to read the last chapter of our textbook, which was about contemporary fields of study and included a small section on disability studies. Naturally, I was curious and read it. While the scant twelve pages had a lot of interesting points to ponder, I found it disappointing. The reason I was disappointed was that it failed to explain trends I have observed over the course of my life about characters with disabilities. I ended up creating my own theory to explain these trends and presented it as part of my final presentation for the class. Since then, I have been revised it countless times. Today, I’m proud to finally share it with you!
This theory is called the nullification of the disabled experience or the nullification of disabilities for short. The gist of it is to examine the relationships between power and disabilities. Because disabilities are associated with many harmful stigmas and with the lower class, disabilities and power are not presented together. Take for example the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom I mentioned in a previous blog post. Roosevelt had polio and was paralyzed from the waist down, thus used a wheelchair and other mobility devices. However, he refused to be photographed with his wheelchair because of the stigmas associated with being disabled. He wanted to appear as normal as possible so people would take him seriously and not assume he was weak and feeble. He would use braces under his pants and walk with the aid of a family member to help hide his disability from the public, even though his disability was common knowledge. Roosevelt was essentially trying to “nullify” his disability in the eyes of the public to maintain power, trust, and status.
Roosevelt serves as a good example of how disabilities and power have conflict. Anyone can tell you that the appearance of power is important. The way disabilities are present in stories is equally important. Because of the conflicts between disability and power, they are often not presented as coexisting. When one appears, it often nullifies the other. This can happen in several ways. For example, if a character has a disability, then gains power—the disability becomes ignored or washed away. On the flip side of the coin, a character can be in a position of power, from which they are removed when they acquire a disability. Or another common narrative, a character seeks a cure or must otherwise overcome a disability in order to be powerful enough to defeat the big bad evil force of the story. But the simplest way a disability becomes nullified is when the limitations of a disability are ignored.
The last one is probably confusing to you. After all, isn’t part of the reason I run this blog is to help people see past the limitations of disabilities? This is true; I run this blog is to fight against the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding disabilities. But fighting against stigmas is a little different than acknowledging limitations. (Granted there is an overlap). The point here is that acknowledging and remember the limitations of a disability is a sign of respect. Ignoring limitations silences our struggles and denies that discrimination exists. But going too far to the other side by letting our limitations take center stage, will also encourage stereotypes and stigmas, which further results in overshadowing the capabilities and contributions of those with disabilities.
Think of it this way. I am a deaf person. My coworkers acknowledge the limitations of my disability by making sure they get my attention before speaking to me. They make sure to pull their face masks down so I can lipread. When I worked in a factory, my coworkers would stop machines to eliminate background noise before communicating with me. By taking these steps and accommodating my needs, they are being very respectful. It is an act of empowerment to acknowledge, accept, and respect my limits. Whereas if they don’t pull down their face masks or take steps to communicate better with me (ignoring my limitations) comes off as disrespectful.
Interestingly enough, this is the critic’s argument against the social model of disabilities. The medical model focuses only on limitations through the person’s body whereas the social model only looks at society and cultural factors. The social model doesn’t acknowledge the limitations of individuals’ bodies.
Bringing the idea of acknowledging limitations into the field of literature, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen disabled characters in TV shows or movies portrayed so accurately and amazing in the beginning, but as time goes on their limitations are ignored more and more. Which ends up nullifying the disability because the character is doing things that they shouldn’t be able to do. For example, lipreading. Lipreading is extremely inaccurate and yet, most Deaf characters I have seen on the screen can lipread every single word flawlessly. It drives me crazy! Lipreading is so much more complicated than it is presented on screen and it encourages stigma. (Check out this four-minute video that explains the complexities and issues with lipreading so much better than I ever could).
Representation like this is a slap to the face for the disabled community. Disabled individuals do not have the luxury of choosing when our limitations apply and when they don’t. By ignoring limitations when they become inconvenient, writers and directors end up nullifying the disability. It’s like saying, “We are representing a minority community—but they’re only sometimes disabled because being able-bodied is much more convenient and powerful for the story.”
I recognize this may not be the intention of the writers and directors, but it happens regardless. This is why—to be inclusive—there needs to be more people with disabilities involved in the workforce and especially in the creation of characters with disabilities. They are the ones who are going to spot inconsistencies and inaccessibilities that nullify what it is like and what it means to have a disability.
As I was writing this post, I recalled a hilarious TEDtalk given by Maysoon Zayid who has cerebral palsy: “I got 99 problems . . . palsy is just one.” In college, she participated in the theater program. When the theater announced they were going to put on a play where the leading role was a character with cerebral palsy, Zayid thought she had been born to play it. She went through the whole audition process and didn’t get the part. Instead, it went to an able-bodied peer.
Understandably upset, she met with the director to ask why. He gently explained the reason she didn’t get the part was because she couldn’t do the stunts.
“Excuse me!” she said. “If I can’t do the stunts, then neither can the character!”
This illustrates an important point in the representation of disabilities. I briefly mentioned this in a previous blog post about the representation of disabilities in Hollywood. 5% of all roles in Hollywood are for disabled characters. Of that 5%, only 2% of those roles go to disabled actors. The other 98% are played by able-bodied actors. This means that the disabled community (which comprises about 30% of the US population and well over a billion people worldwide) is being represented by .001%.
Because disabilities are often invisible and because anyone can acquire a disability at any given time, Hollywood gets away with able-bodied actors in disabled roles. Whereas other minorities—people of color, women, and those with alternative sexual orientation or gender identities—usually have visible characteristics, so Hollywood can’t get away with it as easily. Respecting, remembering, and acknowledging the limitations and the capabilities of those with disabilities is an act of empowerment. And the best way to learn about those limitations and capabilities is to learn directly from us.
So that is how disabilities can be nullified by ignoring limitations. Another way nullification happens is when a disabled person gains power, their disability will disappear—or vice versa, when a person in power gains a disability, their power disappears. Naturally, this sends several problematic messages about disabilities. A great example of this comes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Dr. Steven Strange.* Strange starts off being in a position of power as a genius (albeit arrogant) surgeon. Later, he gets in a car crash which destroys his hands and ends his career. Strange’s life is presented as hopeless, dark, and dreary. Thus, when he became disabled he lost his power and his status—nullification of power by acquiring a disability. In pursuit of a miracle cure, Strange ends up in Nepal training in the mythic arts where he struggles a lot and blames his inability on his hands. When he does finally get the hang of magic with the use of a sling ring, from that point onward, we never see him struggling with his disability again. He appears able-bodied. So when Strange regained power, his disability seemingly disappears. That’s the nullification of disability by power gain, which results in ignoring the limits of his disability. The next time (and I believe the only time) his hands noticeably shake following his gain in power isn’t until several movies later in Avengers Endgame when Strange hands over the timestone to Thanos.
I have so much more to talk about with Dr. Strange, so look out for a blog post in the near future where I will dive deeper into everything I said above and more!
*September 2021; Writing on this character has been my most difficult blog post yet. Originally, I was planning to use this film as an example of my nullification of disability theory. In preparation, I rewatched the film and realized while this film does have moments of arguable nullification, as a whole, the film does an amazing job at acknowledging Dr. Strange’s disability. Check out my revised take on Dr. Strange here!
The message that this sends is that a person with a disability cannot hold power or be in a position of power. Furthermore, it reflects an expectation that a disabled hero cannot accomplish the same thing as an able-bodied hero.
To go further, the nullification of disability by gaining power is also common with temporary disabilities. Even an injured character—an example of a temporary disability—is often quickly healed or cured of anything that could make them less powerful or seemingly incapable of achieving their goal. For example, most science fiction and fantasy tend to have technology or magic with the ability to instantly or almost instantly heal injuries.
I think a big reason behind this is that when a writer has a character with a disability because they haven’t been taught very much about disabilities or have lacked access to the subject, they think of the disabled character as “useless.” Thus, finding a way to restore that “usefulness” quickly and reliably takes precedence.
I will admit this is something that I struggle with as a fantasy writer. Injuring characters is a great way to ramp up the stakes and build tension in a scene. For example, in one of my works I have a high-stakes chase scene with a character who ends up taking an arrow to the shoulder. Originally, I had planned for the healer on the team to instantly restore him to an able-bodied state because he has to fight in another big battle shortly after the chase. Without that instant heal option, I have to think about my story differently. How long a wound like that would take to heal naturally? I could give him a minor flesh wound (so he has time to heal naturally) or he could be fighting with his injury—which might not be such a bad idea because I can see it adding tension if done right, especially if he ends up having to sneak around the King’s patrols.
Now, I am not saying that no one should write stories with an “instant heal” or “restoration of able-bodiedness” option. If that is where your imagination takes you, I encourage you to follow it. For me, it has become a personal choice not to have instant heal as an option because I am so interested in exploring the disabled experience on the page. My intention in sharing this side of the coin is to show that there are other options. Instant heals, I feel, are something that has been done over and over. It has become something of an expectation. It’s been ingrained in stories since writing was invented and was probably around for thousands of years before that through oral storytelling. (Fun fact: the Bible is based on stories originally written in cuneiform, the oldest discovered writing system in the world which was first used around 3400 BC).
I, for one, refuse to believe that disabled characters cannot be in positions of power, nor that they cannot participate and play valuable roles in high stake plots. Writers haven’t been taught to explore the perceptions of power in regards to disabilities. Since literature embodies, reflects, and critiques culture, based on what I have seen, there seems to be a deep fear within our culture about disabilities. It is time to start exploring that fear, to question it, and to make apparent what we are really afraid of. What will happen when disabilities are allowed to linger on the page and be seen? What happens when disabled heroes are allowed to save the day?
At this point, hopefully, you are starting to see possible applications of the nullification of disability theory. If you feel that you are struggling with the concept, that’s okay. Critical literary theory usually makes more sense in application than in explanation. This post is meant to serve as an introduction. Over the coming weeks, I will be applying the nullification of disabilities theory to several different works of literature.
Don’t forget to like this post and/or leave a comment below!
FOR FURTHER READING
Goddess in the Machine – discusses a disabled character who is in a position of power and how the limitations are acknowledged