Jul 23 2012 1:00pm

Extraordinary Abilities, Ordinary Disabilities

Extraordinary Abilities, Ordinary DisabilitiesOver the years, superhero comics have diversified their roster of characters by adding more female heroes, more heroes of color, with diverse religions and even different sexual orientations, and thus allowed more of their audience to see more of themselves in their heroes. One way I think they can continue to improve is by adding more heroes with disabilities. 

As a genre, superheroes explore power and play with what the human body can and cannot do. As such, it’s a perfect forum to portray the lives of the differently abled, what they can do, what they can’t, and how society treats them based on assumptions and prejudice.

In a sense, there have been disabled heroes since the Golden Age, blind heroes and heroes on crutches. But superheroes tend be be dramatically disabled, by vengeful robots or errant rays of radioactivity, and their way of coping with their disability tend to be a superpower all to itself, like bionic arms or turning into Norse Gods, which renders their disability moot.

Daredevil is the classic example of being dramatically disabled. He wasn’t born blind. He was blinded when a canister of radioactive goo smacked him in the eyes, and in exchange for his sight his other senses were superhumanly heightened, giving him “radar” sense. Now, I’m not saying this exchange of senses isn’t interesting—the current Daredevil series by Mark Waid does a fantastic job of showing you in a visual medium how someone who cannot see senses the world—but Daredevil is not blind in a way that a reader who is blind can really identify with.

What I’d like are more heroes with ordinary disabilities, and ordinary means of overcoming their disability, separate and apart from what makes them superheroes. For those, like me, who are near-sighted, it’d be nice to see a superhero who wears glasses not to hide their true identity, or to contain the power of their optic blasts (or as shorthand for being smart, I’m looking at you, Beast) but because they want to read road signs. 

Heroes like Professor X, or Chief of the Doom Patrol, or Barbara Gordon, are good examples of what I’m talking about. People with paralysis who overcome their disability with nothing more extraordinary than a wheelchair (Professor X’s Jim Lee designed hoverchair to the contrary). Smart, capable leaders who change the world.

Gordon is an especially good example, because unlike others, she did not originate as a character with a disability. She was Batgirl, until, in maybe the worst example of the Women-in-Refrigerators phenomenon, she was crippled and sexually assaulted in a story where she was maybe the fourth lead. She could have had her career as a character ended there, but thanks to a series of writers, notably John Ostrander, Chuck Dixon, Grant Morrison, and Gail Simone, she transformed herself into Oracle, the research librarian for the Justice League, the source of all information for superheroes, and possibly the most powerful person in the DC Universe. All without having her disability undone by synthetic spines, magic potions, time travel, or any other dramatic solution. The message was clear: a wheelchair was no obstacle to becoming the person Batman relied on. 

To understand how important that is, you should read Jill Pantozzi’s editorial on the news that, thanks to the latest reboot, Gordon can walk and be Batgirl again. Pantozzi uses a wheelchair herself, and Oracle had been her personal hero. Taking Gordon out of her chair gave Pantozzi the opposite message than before, that you can’t be in a wheelchair and be a superhero. When you read her editorial, you can see how hurtful and ableist that message is.

I think it would be good for DC Comics and Marvel to show that anyone, regardless of race, creed, sex, orientation, or physical capability, could be a superhero, both for the audience to be able to identify with their characters, and also for readers to feel better about themselves. 

For example, last May, Christina D’Allesandro wrote to Marvel asking if they knew of any superheroes with hearing disabilities. Not deaf, just with some hearing loss that required them to use a hearing aid. Her four year old son Anthony Smith refused to wear his hearing aid, and she wanted to show him that one can have a disability and still be super. Well, not only did the Marvel editorial staff answer her that Hawkeye uses hearing aids after losing 80% of his hearing, they also created a new superhero that uses his hearing aid to fight crime and named him after Anthony and his hearing aid, the Blue Ear.

We need more heroes like Oracle and Hawkeye. We need more heroes with extraordinary abilities and ordinary disabilities. We need more heroes that the Jill Pantozzis and Anthony Smiths of the world can see themselves in, and in turn see those heroes in themselves. Everybody has the ability to be a hero, to be brave and kind and change the world. It would be good if the world of superheroes reflected that.


Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at

Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
I have always been impressed that Song of Ice & Fire not only has gender parity in the narrators, but that it includes both Bran & Tyrion, both of whom are differently abled. Then I get bummed because Hodor is sort of a joke character. Hrm.
Hedgehog Dan
2. Hedgehog Dan
My younger brother is diabetic, so, go figure, we would like to see a diabetic superhero. However, I shall also add, that his favourite is Gambit, and he has no hard time to relate him.

However, when it occured that he has diabetes, the kindergarden originally did not intend to let him go back to the same institute, because of the responsibility and nuisance a diabetic child means. It was settled in one month, since only the principal acted like an asshole, there were responsible and understanding kindergarden teachers (however, he was not allowed to go to the robotic Giant Insect Exhibiton, which happened in that month).

Anyway, I think these heroes are important. Not because "that the Jill Pantozzis and Anthony Smiths of the world can see themselves in, and in turn see those heroes in themselves", but more people see the heroes in Jill Pantozzis and Anthony Smiths. My younger brother actually has more self-esteem, than me, and this is totally okay... but there are still many assholes who think that he is solely responsible for his blood sugar level, and if it is high, then it is because he does not keep his diet properly. We even had to change his doctor one, because the previous one kept insisting, that the problem was that my brother did not keep his diet (even if we told that this was not the case, but who were we to say such things - only his family...), and would not have changed his insulin prescription (which was actually a key for his better condition).

So, these heroes could give a better insight of people with health-issues for other people.

Anyway, it would be cool to see a diabetic hero. And please, no jokes regarding who would be his or her enemy.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. Hedgehog Dan

I dunno how he has faired in the finals, but there is an American Ninja Warrior competitor with diabetes who is almost superheroically talented.
Hedgehog Dan
4. Katiekatiebobatie
Hedgehog Dan
5. Hedgehog Dan
mordicai: Thank You very much, we will check it!
Hedgehog Dan
6. Mark A. Rivera
I apologize for the self promotion here, but my book The Final Arbiter deals directly with issues related to the disabled, disenfranchised, homeless and chronically unemployed. Part of the many inspirations came from working with the disabled, mentally ill, and single mothers who were on public assistance as a job developer, vocational rehabilitation counselor's assistant and customer service rep on an hourly wage basis at state and city civil service centers. That is why I think those familiar with such agencies find my book chillingly realistic and even scary. After grad school I needed to job and did what I did, but you know what they say, write about what you know and I know how places like this work from first hand experience. I also was born with a palsey in my right arm so I have direct personal experience too.

The Final Arbiter also came in at #6 in the novel category in the 2011 Readers' Choice Awards earlier this year.

Mark Rivera
The Final Arbiter
Binyamin Weinreich
7. Imitorar
The problem is that disabled heroes, are, well... disabled. It's kind of hard to run around and fight if you're blind, unless your entire power is NOT being blind (like it is for Daredevil and Doctor Mid-Nite). Sure, Oracle, and Xavier and the Chief are good characters, but they're also support characters who make their contributions by guiding others. You rarely see them in the field, because they'd be next to useless.

You want a superhero with glasses? You know how awkward that would be? What if they got smashed in a fight, or fell while he was climbing a building? I mean, sure, maybe the Atom could wear contacts. But what does it matter? What does that detail contribute to his stories, other than to make a granfalloon of readers who wear glasses?

This is why I don't get people who insist on superheroes being representational figures. It's just impractical or irrelevant most of the time. Characters should be appreciated for who they are, not for how similar they are to the reader. I find a reader's need for characters who "look like me" to be childish, because it says, in effect, that the only person such a reader wants to read about is himself.
Hedgehog Dan
8. Galadriel
THANK YOU FOR THIS!!!!!! From someone with disabilities who, as a child, pretended she was Batgirl (oh, the irony). I refer anyone who thinks differently-abled superheroes can't be great action characters to the "Avatar: The Last Airbender" animated series for several examples... and NOT to James Cameron's coincidentally-titled "Avatar" film, since his message was: if you're disabled, you can be "fixed"--then you'll be happy. Grrrrr!!! Of course, not surprisingly, some of the best examples of differently-abled characters come from the Star Trek universe.

I'm waiting for the day the Doctor takes a companion into the TARDIS who isn't able to "Run!" the same way as all the other companions. Come on Who writers, you can do it! And it's about time you did!!
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
7. Imitorar

First off "superheroes with disabilities are implausible except for the ones that I will discount for arbitrary reasons" is a pretty...hard angle to take. Okay, so Oracle was behind a computer, so she was (predominantly) support rather than what? Professor X? Is one of the most powerful people on the planet. Who cares if he is in a chair, he can astrally project! Etc. Sweeping the examples that disagree with your argument under the rug isn't strong logic.

Freddy Freeman's bad legs heal when he transforms to Captain Marvel-- so should he be Captain Marvel all the time? Blam, conflict, character, narrative. Did Babs do more overall good as Oracle, as a leader of a team, than she does punching people as Batgirl? Boom, more questions, character development, storyline. These aren't flaws, they are features. Being able to tell new stories that are meaningful to the real world is a good thing in fiction.
Hedgehog Dan
10. mercury
Doesn't Peter Parker wear glasses when he's not fighting crime? Anyway, I'm not sure it makes sense to lump being nearsighted in with disabilities. While yes, it is technically a disability, it is generally easily corrected with glasses, and people who wear glasses do not face the same degree of inaccessibility (if there isn't an elevator in a building, a person with a wheelchair may literally be unable to get to where they want to go) or social stigma (yes, people with glasses are sometimes teased, but they don't have to deal with people asking them why they're using a walker/wanting to kno how they became blind/judging them for needing help/etc.) as people with more serious disabilities. Needing glasses is not treated as a disability in our society, and I'm not sure that you should talk about it as though it is.
Michael M Jones
11. MichaelMJones
Peter Parker wore glasses when he first started out. However, the need for glasses was quickly phased out in issue #8 of his own title. There are conflicting stories given: either he never actually needed them but Aunt May thought he did, or the spider bite which gave him his powers corrected his vision along with everything else.

Clark Kent's glasses are, of course, entirely unnecessary.

When it comes to superheroes with disabilities, it's hard to reconcile the disabilty with a world where super-science or radioactive materials or magic can fix almost anything. Lose an arm? Get a bionic arm. Lose your sight? You probably get radar sense or blackout vision. Lose your hearing? Bionic implants. Lame in your civilian ID? Magic gives you an intact body!

As far as I know, there are only a few examples of characters where a disability really stuck. Hawkeye's deafness is one example, but for all I know that was fixed during the last time he came back from the dead. Professor X has alternated between wheelchair and full mobility depending on how recently he's come back from the dead. The Doom Patrol's Chief... (mumble mumble, again with coming back from the dead.)

When you get right down to it, it's extremely hard to justify a superhero who is in any way less abled than their peers. Barbara Gordon actually fought for years to remain in the wheelchair, when she had access to dozens of potential miracle cures and workarounds. She did so because A) she was a much more versatile and interesting and beloved character as Oracle, and B) she either didn't feel like she'd earned a cure, or she didn't think it fair she recieve special treatment when so many others did not. The point is, she remained in a wheelchair like a realistic person, while being part of an entirely unrealistic setting, and a certain incongruity set in. (I honestly preferred her as Oracle, and as a disabled heroine, and was not happy to see her status changed.)

In a truly progressive comic book setting, we'd see bionic limbs made available for everyone who'd lost part of their body. Mutant healers would work around the clock to cure birth defects and genetic disorders. Nanobots would fix spines and restore senses. And so on, and so on. Cures and treatments would be available for everyone, not just a tiny fraction of the population.

What's my point? That we may be hoping too much, asking for disabled superheroes out of a genre that is built around showcasing men and women in peak athletic condition locked in constant life-or-death struggles. Disabilities are for their supporting cast, or the general populace, or -possibly- their secret identity. The only "acceptable" disabilities are either those which can be countered by available technology (see again bionic arms: Misty Knight, Lightning Lad, Roy Harper), superpowers (Blindness: All three Drs Midnight, Daredevil) or magic (Crippled: Freddy Freeman, Donald Blake). (Wheelchair-bound heroes are invariably leaders or support with appropriate abilities, as mentioned above. No one rockets into battle in their Action Chair unless they're Quincy Harker from Marvel's Dracula series. Or that Elseworlds where the Flash lost the use of his legs.)

I would absolutely, positively, one-hundred-percent LOVE to see a comic book setting that allowed for disabled heroes, but at this point, it seems like the only way to actually make it happen would be to build a universe from the ground up, and write the rules specifically to allow for such things to still make sense when people can also fly, shoot lasers, and punch through walls. Because until then, the best you can hope for is someone like Oracle, whose status quo stuck for as long as it did through fan and writer popularity.

Because y'know? There's always cloning. Cloning fixes everything.
(And after all this, I would love to be proven wrong!)
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
11. MichaelMJones

The problem with your argument is that-- in a post-singularity world, EVERYTHING would be different. Reed Richards would have invented...I don't know, potato chips that function as an internet that you eat. The Flash would spend fifteen minutes each morning giving free electricity to everyone in the world by sprinting on a treadmill. Professor X would end wars by making everyone feel the pain of those they kill. We'd be in contact with alien species on other worlds & engage in interstellar trade via Zeta Beam.

Nobody minds that we keep the world recognizable...because fiction is about making stories that are relatable, & superheroes aren't (most of the time) a science-fiction epic or high fantasy.
Michael M Jones
13. MichaelMJones
@12 That's pretty much my underlying point: when you're dealing with a comic book setting, everything breaks down under a simple application of logic and common sense. Super-villains rob banks rather than make billions for their wrist-mounted plot device cannons, and a thousand excuses exist for why Misty Knight can have a bionic arm yet they can't be rushed into mass production.

One regrettable side-effect is that magic cures and quick fixes are available only to a special group of people, and super-heroes, by and large, fall into that special group by sheer virtue of existing.

Super-villains are a whole different story, and another long essay at that, but bottom line: people don't usually want to identify with them.

(Oh, I just thought of someone who did rocket into battle in an Action Chair: Sparks from the Steel live action movie. Um... yay?)

I'll be over here, frantically racking my brain to come up with some decent exceptions to my argument, because I'd love to disprove myself. :)
Hedgehog Dan
14. Hedgehog Dan
Regarding the glasses question, I constantly wear glasses. That said, I do not consider this as such a serious drawback - like being in a wheelchair -, the only real inconvenience is if I lost them. But I grew fond of them.

As a guy with glasses, I am perfectly content with Clark Kent being bespectacled in his own way you have mentioned. Mind you, unlike Batman, for whom Bruce Wayne is the secondary, 'necessary' personality, for Superman, the opposite applies. Yes, yes, he has the Fortress of Solitude, but most of the time, he stays in his appartment in Metropolis, hangs with people like Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane, and has a relatively humble day-time job. What I wish to say that he does not keep his Clark Kent alterego out of need - he is a physical god after all -, but because he views himself first and foremost as Clark Kent, and the secondary, 'necessary' personality is Superman. (And that is why he is a perfect foil for Lex Luthor, who views himself better than everybody else on Earth.)

Which also means that he does not judge disabilities like many people, because for him, even a perfectly fit person is disabled. Superman do not judge people from his physical prowess, but rather from their personality, and even in that matter he is not that judgemental (he realized, that most people act out of need, and they have more physical need than him).

That is why I always considered himself as a bespectacled hero, even, if in his Superman-mode he does not need it... but in his Superman-mode, he is way above us in every way, like strength, speed, etc. Yeah, he is a wishfulfilment, and if we fancy having great physical attributes, then we will honestly wish the whole set, with better senses as well. But Clark still wears glasses out of need (you know, to hide his other personality), he still viewed as a glassy person, and if they break, he still has to buy a new one.

Regarding Barbara Gordon, yeah, I also wondered, that in the world of magic and technology, why not one superhuman - i.e. Zatanna - decided to heal her. But of course, this has the unfortunate message that these problems can be fixed that easily, while currently, it is not.

On the other hand, I hope that our medical technology will evolve in the near-future. As for my diabetic brother, I do not wish to have a cure or a better solution for his illness than having have to inject himself with insulin a few times a day, because what ignorant people would think about him (i.e. he is a burden for others). Fuck them, they can do me a favour... but I wish, because this illness makes his life harder. Not incomparably harder, he can and do live a whole life, he has a totally healthy personality... but he still relies on prescribed insulin, he still has to care more about his diet, than most people. I do not wish to have a cure for diabetes, out of social pressure - hey, family is more important after all, than the rest of the society -, but because it would make his life easier, if he should not always be concerned about his dose of insulin. The same goes for anybody with a disability in my opinion. I wish them the best they can get, whether that best is a cure or people who does not act like selfish, ignorant assholes.
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
13. MichaelMJones

The best exception I can think of it...crumb, what was it from? I guess the death of Martian Manhunter? Where at the funeral Superman is like "He's dead, but I hope he returns soon" or something.
Michael M Jones
16. MichaelMJones
@15 You know it's bad when even the superheroes acknowledge that death among their brethren is really just a temporary thing. Peter David lampooned this in X-Factor some years back when, after the death of her father Banshee, Theresa "Siryn" Cassidy laughed it off, knowing he'd be back sooner or later. Not only is death a reversible thing for any character deemed desirable, it's the ultimate catch-all for "fixing" any traits that don't suit the new vision.

I'd love to see a hero who actually needed glasses and who actually had to cope with that need by using corrective lenses in their hero gear-- aha! Heather "Vindicator/Guardian" Hudson from Alpha Flight had that issue, as far as I know. I'm not sure if we could count Scott Summers, since his vision's great, it's just also extremely destructive.

Mark Millar, of all people, came up with an interesting spin on things with his recent series, Superior, which featured a young man with multiple sclerosis, who gets the ability to turn into a Superman-like character. While yes, a magic transformation from disabled character to godlike being was involved, the story had much more going for it.

The short-lived series Kinetic had a main character living with diabetes, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy and more, who gained temporary strength and invulnerability, but the series was cancelled before it could go very far with whatever story it wanted to tell.

I guess the challenge still remains: create a superhero who lives with disabilities, who doesn't have access to the usual comic book solutions, and whose superpowers don't essentially counter it out. (No blind telepaths who see through other peoples' eyes!)

I'd buy it.
Mordicai Knode
17. mordicai
16. MichaelMJones

Isn't there an indie comic called like...Silver Scorpion about something like that, some New Blue Beetle knock-off?
Michael M Jones
18. MichaelMJones
@17 You're right! Good call. I'd never heard of it before, but now I'll have to see if I can get my hands on a copy.

I did think of two heroes who do fit into the paremeters of this discussion. Both from Marvel. Echo (aka Ronin) is a deaf superheroine who actually relies on lip-reading and visual cues to understand people. She's been sadly under-utilized in the past few years, and... she's apparently dead at the moment. Grrrrrrrrrrr, dammit, I almost got my hopes up there. I hope she recovers from death quickly, but maintains her status as a competent deaf hero.

Sihlouette was one of the New Warriors, who was partially paralyzed sometime in the past. Every time we saw her, she used crutches and leg braces to get around, and had incorporated them into her fighting style. Although a teleporter, this didn't reduce her reliance on the crutches for everyday mobility. Okay, the crutches were apparently tricked out with gadgets, which is kinda cool.
Hedgehog Dan
19. jvince03
It's not a comic book, but it is about superheroes and supervillains.

The main character needs to wear glasses or contacts at all times, and talks about how annoying it is to incorporate them into a costume. Another side character is paralyzed from the waist down, but is still described as being one of the most confident people in the setting, as well as a holding her own against some of the most powerful characters. To go to the sort of supernatural metaphorical extreme, many of the characters are so physically warped by their powers that they are ostracized from society. They're also some of the most heroic characters in the setting.

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