Disability as metaphor, and why you shouldn’t

The use of disability as a metaphor in pop culture and elsewhere is widespread, but that doesn’t mean it should happen. After all, dog feces are also widespread, and I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we leave them sitting out willy nilly for anyone to step on. It’s not just that using disability as a metaphor can be hurtful to disabled people who would prefer not to be used as object lessons, targets of pity, or other propped-up figures. It’s also that, frankly, it’s lazy. And it’s obvious. If you want to make a point, be creative about it, rather than relying on thoroughly abused tropes that could really use some time off.

Disability as metaphor can take a number of forms, but one of the most classic is the use of a character’s disability to make some kind of comment on her personality, or that of those around her. I’m not talking about idioms and turns of phrase like ‘love is blind’ or ‘my arguments fell upon deaf ears,’ although those are irritating and you should stop that too. Again, they betray a fundamental lack of desire to actually explore a situation and say what you really mean; do you mean, for example, that someone wasn’t respectful when you tried to make a point, or that despite your attempts to dissuade someone, she went ahead and did whatever it was that she was going to do anyway? Why not just say that?

But no, what we’re examining here are creative decisions to slot in a disabled character or disability reference to make some point of artistic point. The classic example is probably the bitter cripple — think back on recent archenemies you’ve encountered, and chances are high that one or more had a disability. Maybe she used a wheelchair for mobility, maybe he wore an eyepatch. Maybe she walked with a cane. These figures aren’t just disabled, but angry about their disabilities, lashing out at the world around them. They are the personification of evil and in a sense their disabilities themselves are evil as well.

When we see a menacing figure roll on screen in the evil leader’s hideout, it’s a metaphor. It’s also a very heavyhanded one, given how frequently the evil/bitter crip is used. You’d think it would be kind of old by this point, but creators absolutely relish opportunities to use it, for obscure reasons known only to themselves. They especially like giving someone a horrible accident/traumatic illness that turns them bitter and evil — sometimes they’re kind enough to show that transformation on screen, at other times it’s part of the character’s backstory (I’m looking at you, Darth Vader). In both cases, viewers understand that this is going to fall out along familiar lines, because what’s worse than being disabled? Nothing, really, so of course being disabled would make you fightin’ mad.

Of course, the bitter/angry cripple isn’t the only overused disability metaphor. There’s also the inspirational and saintly cripple, who is usually a child, and if the words ‘Tiny Tim’ didn’t spring to mind, you probably weren’t raised within the Western literary canon, because he’s an indelible part of Western pop culture and social attitudes. He, too, is just a metaphor, though. A Christmas Carol is very much a problem novel, meant to highlight the depths of Victorian poverty and the greed of the upper classes. Tim’s disability stands in as a symbol for dispossession and misery, for his father’s inability to care for him, allowing Scrooge to achieve redemption, and he’s one among many child characters subjected to the same sort of ill use.

A disabled child usually means that a story is going to end tragically, but with a special lesson and a high note. The nondisabled characters around that child will come away with incredibly inspiring learning experiences that push them out into the world to do good, all because of the child who taught them so much. The child herself fades into the background — she’s not important, playing a primary role as an object in the narrative, not as an actual character. It’s one reason why such characters are typically extremely one-dimensional, informed by little more than their disability, because that’s all that matters to their characters.

We also see individual disabilities, of course, used as metaphors, relying on common tropes and social attitudes. The crazy ex, for example, is a classic case of disability as metaphor, taking on intersectionally misogynistic and disabilist attitudes about mentally ill women to produce a colourful pile of pop culture vomit. Such women are rarely defined and given depth: The point is that they are evil, and they’re threatening the lives of their exes and their new lovers/families/friends. Crazy exes aren’t human beings, but rather metaphors for the drag of past relationships and the influence they hold on the lives of the characters. Hardly the stuff of which dreams are made.

These uses of disability matter. It’s not just that disabled people — especially those who share the disabilities being used — find them repugnant and frustrating. It’s also that they become embedded into social attitudes and they inform the way people think about disability. Many people, especially men, for instance, iterate some version of ‘no crazies’ in their search for romantic partners, and that’s in no small way because of the crazy ex mythology and what’s been built up around mental illness and relationships. Similarly, disabled kids get treated like inspirational learning experiences instead of, like, human beings, because people are used to perceiving them as objects.

Creators owe it to themselves, their characters, and their audience to do better.