A recent trend that I’ve noticed and welcomed in popular media is the treatment of disabilities not as terrible burdens to born bravely by a noble sidekick to the more typically abled hero, but instead as the source of the hero’s superpowers.
Let’s look at Sherlock Holmes, for example. In the two modern portrayals of him, both the big screen treatment with Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes, and the BBC re-imagining of a modern day Holmes, give us a Holmes with all the signs of Asperger’s syndrome. This disorder is characterized by poor social skills, keen attention to detail and trivia that seem inconsequential to most and high intelligence and devotion to rationality. Holmes’s obsession with crime solving matches the obsessions of many of my students with Asperger’s, which have ranged from memorizing personal information of the people they meet, to drawing detailed sketches of Roman soldiers, to creating technical manuals to spaceships that don’t exist.
As far as society is concerned, Holmes has a disorder. He can’t socialize easily with his neighbors. He exasperates his roommate. He engages in bizarre behaviors in public. But the source of his oddness is also the source of his strength. Holmes would not, could not be Holmes without his talent for observation and reasoning. And these would not exist in him so strongly if he was neurotypical. It’s not a disability, it’s a super power.
This is even more explicitly done with another TV dectective, Monk. I’ve never watched the show myself, but I know that its about a man with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who solves mysteries. Again, it’s the attention to detail, to noticing what others don’t that makes Monk such a great dectective.
But it’s not just detectives that get into the act. A slightly more fantastical version occurs in the Percy Jackson series of books. All the young demigods have dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder. This is explained by the characters being fundamentally different. They are meant to be heroes from Greek mythology, so their minds are hardwired to read ancient Greek, not English. They fidget and twitch and react quickly to stimuli because they have superior battle reflexes. In regular schools, they are disabled, but at Camp Halfblood they are heroes because of their differences, not in spite of them.
The being a hero “because of” instead of “in spite of” a disability is what makes these characters so attractive. It celebrates difference, rather than treats it like an obstacle to be over come. Think of how much poorer the world might be if Sherlock Holmes had spent his formative years treating his strength as a weakness and trying to become good at something he simply isn’t wired for.
Jennifer Liang is an administrator and co-webmaster of www.DRAGONMOUNT.com, the largest Wheel of Time fan site. She is the director of Wheel of Time programing for Dragon*Con and the chair of JordanCon, a Wheel of Time themed convention. Recently, she became the host of Tor.com’s Wheel of Time Facebook and Twitter Portals. When not obsessing over who killed Asmodean, Jennifer is pursuing a Master’s in Special Education and works part time as a middle school teacher and blogs about recipes, restaurants and gardening at northsidefood.blogspot.com.