Why There Needs to be More Disability Representation in Comic Books

Disability representation is something that needs to be considered for all types of media content, but how much recognition is it given within existing comic books? Find out, here…

2021 has been a promising year for the comic books market. This isn’t all that surprising, given the number of comic-based movies and franchises launching in recent years. However, many believe recent successes can, in part, be put down to the two largest comic companies making an effort to be inclusive and representative.

From Ms. Marvel to DC Comics’ Naomi, the conscious effort from major players in the industry to improve the representation of previously under-served groups is clear. That being said, when it comes to disability representation, there’s certainly room for improvement.

Not all heroes wear capes and not all heroes are able-bodied, something which we are often led to believe. We have seen a number of superheroes, villains, and other comic book characters living with various types of disabilities. Some characters are born with these disabilities and others develop them from various life experiences (could a medical negligence claim be on the cards for Wolverine?).

The question is, what are comic books doing right, and where could disability representation be improved in the industry?

What is Disability Representation and Why Does it Matter?

Disability representation refers to the active and accurate inclusion and portrayal of disabled individuals across media platforms. Those who campaign for proper disability representation in the media request that:

  • The correct number/ratio of disabled individuals to able-bodied individuals is portrayed. According to Scope, there are over 14 million disabled people in the UK. Around 1 billion people worldwide are living with some form of disability (from the World Health Organisation).
  • Various types of disabilities are represented – including both physical and mental disabilities.
  • A diverse range of actors and other presenters are seen to represent disabilities in the media.
  • Disabilities and their signs, symptoms, and limitations are thoroughly researched ahead of representation.
  • Characters with a disability are well-rounded and not solely developed with their disability in mind.

While a study from Nielson found that disability representation in the media has risen 175% in the last 10 years, other statistics show there’s still a way to go. Looking specifically at the world of comic books, disability representation is clear to see, but where can improvements be made?

Are There Superheroes with Disabilities?

When you hear the word ‘superhero’, you wouldn’t be the only person whose mind instantly jumps to the likes of Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. This is partly down to the media and its exaggerated promotion of these superhero ideals.

For many years now, comic books have been telling the stories of various disabled superhumans and their heroic efforts in saving the world from villains. Here are just a select few of these heroic characters that we can certainly look up to.

  1. Daredevil: visually impaired, with superhuman reflexes and endurance.
  2. Oracle: formerly Batgirl, until shot in the spine by the Joker and paralyzed from the waist down.
  3. Doctor Strange: a car accident and extensive nerve damage led to Doctor Strange finding their magical abilities.
  4. Deadpool: lives with cancer and chronic pain, with an accelerated healing ability.
  5. Professor X: the most well-known disabled superhero with a whole host of mental superpowers (including telepathy and mental manipulation).
  6. Echo: one of the very few deaf superheroes, possessing photography reflexes.
  7. Iron Man: uses technology to cope with physical and mental disabilities.

How Can Disability Representation in Comic Books be Improved?

While it’s clear to see that comic books have been representing disabilities to a certain extent, there are many open debates and discussions on where improvements can be made. Some ideas include:

1. Avoid utilizing disability as a motive for villainous behavior

Many argue that comic books often place blame on a character’s disability being the reason for them turning into a villain.

Let’s take Harvey Dent, for example. When half of his face is burned by acid and he becomes known as Two-Face, that’s when his villainous behavior begins.

Then there’s Ava Starr, AKA Ghost, who suffers from lifelong chronic pain as a result of an accident when she was a child. S.H.I.E.L.D. promises to help her find a cure in exchange for utilizing her powers. Her character development as a villain begins when she realizes the organization was never going to honor its promise.

There are many examples in comic books where both mental and physical disabilities are considered the cause of a character’s turning into a villain. With many young individuals easily influenced by their love of comic books, this is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed.

2. Fully exploring disabilities

Those campaigning for improved disability representation within comic books call out for a more in-depth portrayal and exploration of disabilities.

All too often, we are presented with a character whose certain disability is the root cause of their superpower (or their villainous behavior). From there, the story continues with much more emphasis on the superpower as opposed to the disability. What would improve disability representation is further exploration of the disability itself.

This could involve delving into the more complex details of the disability. It could be observing the frustrations the character faces as a result of their disability. It could be the moment of acceptance or the moment where they realize their disability doesn’t necessarily have to be a hindrance.

Through further exploration of the disability itself, readers could develop more of an understanding of these differences that they can then apply to everyday life. This theory applies to both those living with their disabilities and those looking to learn more about a disability’s complexities.

3. Cover varying degrees of disabilities

While multiple individuals may have the same disability, they may not experience the same level of symptoms. In comic books, we are typically led to believe that disabled characters suffer from one degree of disability: blind characters cannot see; deaf characters cannot hear. In real life, disabilities are much more complex than the stereotypes we often place on them.

With that in mind, future disability representation in comic books would greatly benefit from the inclusion of a spectrum of specific disabilities.

4. Consultation with disabled individuals

When it comes to developing a storyline involving a disability, it makes complete sense to seek the knowledge and expertise of those living with them. Consider reaching out to various individuals, including everyday people, or even expert writers, actors, producers, and directors.

No one has a better understanding of what it is like to live with a disability than those actively living with one. Using real-life words and experiences, character and story development can be turned into something that is not only meant for entertainment, but for awareness and understanding too.

Do Comic Books Need More Disability Representation?

It goes without saying that disability representation is certainly considered in the world of comic books, perhaps more so than in some other forms of media. That being said, nothing is perfect and there is always room to grow.

Perhaps discussions like this here will help the world of comic books to advance the recognition and representation it gives to those living with disabilities.





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