Back in the early 2000s, Nickelodeon debuted a show called Pelswick. The series followed a teenage boy named Pelswick Eggert going through the eighth grade and using a wheelchair. Created by irreverent cartoonist (and quadriplegic) John Callahan, the show depicted life from Pelswick’s perspective, with the lens never all the way on or all the way off his disability.
The first episode involves Pelswick being denied a chance to go on a camping trip because his school is not zoned to handle accidents he might incur due to his chair. He says from the start, “I don’t get camping. You bring bad-tasting food into the forest, sleep in a garbage bag with a door, just so you can wake up with a line of ants up your nose.” Still, he liked the idea of hanging out with his friends and roasting marshmallows with his crush, Julie, and is somewhat disappointed. In a furor to advocate on his behalf, some friends and family begin lobbying and protesting, and the trip is cancelled for everyone. When Pelswick speaks on his own behalf, he explains that he never wanted to ruin anyone else’s fun, and the camping trip becomes a backyard camping party that everyone enjoys.
The show sometimes included these disability-based storylines, but they were never the standard. Just as often, episodes centered on normal teenager issues. My absolute favorite was one in which Pelswick derides (in front of his friends) a popular boy band called N’Talented, but pretends to enjoy them to impress Julie. When his ruse is discovered, she is furious and throws a CD at him, asking “Why don’t you listen to them before you make a judgment?” When he does, he discovers that he really does love their music, and he shamefully hides it for fear that his peers will ridicule him. As a longtime N*SYNC fan, I related.
Pelswick got it right. It was a show about a person with a disability, but not about the disability itself. It was never heavy handed in showing how life for a teenager in a wheelchair is like any other. Pelswick had to deal with occasional condescension, physical limitations, and regular bullying (frequent antagonist, Boyd Scullarzo, would humiliate him and regularly call him “Pels-wheels”), but he also had an embarrassing family, difficulty talking to girls, and a guardian angel voiced by David Arquette (seriously). I still point to this show as being more instructive for how to treat and respect those with disabilities than anything I got in formal education. It remains the standard by which all other disability narratives should be judged.
Unfortunately, that standard isn’t met very often. Ableism in culture has existed for as long as disability and storytelling. While the use of disability as a narrative tool has varied from one tale to the next, I have rarely come across depictions in which the characters’ lives are not defined through the ableist gaze.
A couple of months ago, I had a free evening and decided to spend it watching the first couple of episodes of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix. I ended up watching eight episodes, passing out for the night, and finishing the remainder the next morning. This is highly atypical behavior for me. I’ve never been a binge-watcher of anything, but this one grabbed me. I’ve been a fan of the Daredevil character since I was a child, always thinking him one of the more fascinating figures in comic book fiction. My feeling has less to do with his blindness than with the incredible writing that has followed him over the years.
That said, Daredevil is a great showcase for the troubles we have with disabled characters. Yes, he’s completely blind, but through some strange combination of getting radioactive gunk in his eyes and being trained by a mysterious blind sensei, he “sees” better than the sighted. He can hear heartbeats from across the room, and he knows that they’ll speed up when people are lying (a debunked notion, but I digress); his fingers are sensitive enough that he can read standard print just by feeling the subtle rise on the page; in the comics, they go far enough to outright state that he has a “radar sense” that paints a 360-degree picture of his surroundings in his mind.
No one expects actual blind people to do any of these things, but the narrative plants a horrendously misguided expectation in the opposite direction: that all blind people are completely sightless. Actual sightlessness occurs in degrees for everyone affected. Someone need not be in “total darkness” to be considered blind. Legally blind individuals are classified as having “no better than 20/200 corrected vision in the better eye,” meaning they probably can’t see past the large “E” at the doctor’s office, even with glasses. They might still be able to read books and signs, recognize places and faces, and are not, in fact, real-life versions of Mr. Magoo. Still, blind people are often accused of faking when they present the ability to live alone, work normal jobs, and play multiple musical instruments. In some cases, blind individuals have had their work desks rearranged and their privacy invaded just because their peers and neighbors insist that there’s no way they can be getting on as well as they are without faking it.
Another result of this outlook is no less sad: the constant questioning about how those with disabilities can stand to go on living. An example is the 2009 film Avatar. The actions of the protagonist, Jake, are largely driven by the fact that he is paraplegic and desperately wishes to walk again. Jake’s misery has little to do with deep mental trauma or existential questions of purpose. He’s simply angry that he cannot walk. Similarly, in the 1997 film Gattaca, Jude Law’s character — a former swimming champion crippled in a car accident — chooses to burn himself in an incinerator rather than continue life in a wheelchair. Finally, Dr. Curt Conners in The Amazing Spider-Man dedicates his entire life to splicing human and reptile genes because he feels that his entire existence is made so horrible by having lost one of his arms.
These narratives are disrespectful and dangerous at their worst, and outright lazy and boring at their best. The assumption that those with disabilities are generally miserable and would trade anything for “normalcy” ignores the many disabled people who live perfectly happy and manageable lives. It ignores that we have more in common than not. And it makes for superficial characters. Representation in popular culture of people with disabilities is important, but it’s just as important that that these representations employ engaging and interesting characters. That means that disabilities must inform characters, not define them.
The most recent example of getting it right concerns the character of the one-armed Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Her prosthetic serves as an occasional inconvenience and occasional advantage, but it never defines who she is as a character. As in Pelswick, her disability is shown not only visibly and unapologetically, but also without pretension, melodrama, or stereotyping. Furiosa is not a “magical cripple” like Daredevil. She is a person with power and flaws, and she carries her missing arm, without pity or shame, as a piece of the past that has forged her. When it comes to disability representation, this is the direction in which we should go.[Headline image: The photograph features three children in blue capes playing and laughing outdoors. A light-skinned child using a walker is on the left, a light-skinned child with glasses and a hearing aid stands in the center, and a dark-skinned child is laughing and using a wheelchair.]