Portrayals of Physical Disabilities in Literature Analysis

Historical Identities

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Literature has always included characters with physical disabilities; literature reflects the societies in which they were created. Laura, for example, in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1944), is pitiful and pathetic. She is not only impaired by her lame leg but also by an oppressive mother whose pity denies her any opportunity to develop. False impressions may be created by characters such as the deaf mother in Elmer Harris’ Johnny Belinda (1940), which perpetuates the myth that deaf people are unable to speak. Blind and crippled characters, in various literatures, are often beggars. Dwarfs and midgets are often circus freaks or clowns. A disability may be presented as metaphor, as when the mother of the blind son in Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies Are Free (1969) pontificates that “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” The blind heroine fending off a violent attack in Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark (1966) was originally said to depict a disabled person capable of fending for herself, but is now criticized as a depiction of a handicapped, dependent woman who is an easy victim. Classic portraits of the disabled, such as Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Helen Keller (both in her autobiography The Story of My Life, 1903, and in William Gibson’s dramatic retelling of her discovery of language in The Miracle Worker, 1959), are said to need other balancing portrayals, in order to present disabled people as full members of society, not necessarily obsessives or wild children.

Literary Trends

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Recent attention to the identity of the disabled in society is reflected in an increasing number of books depicting a wider array of physically disabled characters in a greater variety of circumstances. Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God (1979) depicts a variety of deaf and hard-of-hearing people grappling not only with issues of love, but of politics. This mirrors the emergence of hearing impaired people as visible, contributing members of the American society who demand the right to maintain their own culture. Literature that depicts war-disabled veterans as heroic examples of the individual triumphing over personal adversity, such as Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), in which a soldier successfully adapts to the loss of his legs, have all but disappeared, unless one considers such works as Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (1976), an autobiographical account of a disabled, protesting veteran of the Vietnam War, as belonging to the same inspirational genre. Some advocates of the disabled have accepted negative portrayals of disabled Vietnam veterans because the identity of the veteran may be deemed secondary to laudable antiwar themes: Examples in literature include Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country (1985). Other negative stereotypes are more universally attacked, such as the disfigured villains in the films Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1991), and Batman Forever (1995).

Literature is portraying people with physical disabilities in a variety of more accurate, plausible, and reflective situations. Hearing impaired communities have begun to create their own literature. Books, and videos such as ASL Poetry: Selected Works of Clayton Valli (1995), which reflect the deaf’s own experiences and their own culture, are appearing regularly. Regardless of the disability, people are demonstrating their ability to participate in all facets of public life—jobs, education, and recreation—as well as private life. They are no longer objects of pity, metaphors for evil, or inspiring heroes, but rather representatives of every facet of life.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Disabled. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1984.

Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Disabled. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1977.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Pity and Fear: Myths and Images of the Disabled in Literature Old and New. New York: International Center for the Disabled, 1984.

Friedberg, Joan Brest, June B. Mullins, and Adelaide Weir Sukiennik. Portraying Persons with Disabilities: An Annotated Bibliography of Nonfiction for Children and Teenagers. 2d ed. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1992.

Miller, Vassar, ed. Despite This Flesh: The Disabled in Stories and Poems. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Quicke, John. Disability in Modern Children’s Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Brookline, 1985.

Robertson, Debra. Portraying Persons with Disabilities: An Annotated Bibliography of Fiction for Children and Teenagers. 3d ed. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1992.

Zola, Irving Kenneth, ed. Ordinary Lives: Voices of Disability and Disease. Cambridge, Mass.: Applewood Books, 1982.