Throughout this series, I hope to bring to light some of the tropes around disability in order to (1) improve the representation of disabled people and (2) provide writing tips for those of you who want to include disabled people in your stories.
Today’s lesson is about The Crippled Sidekick. This is a common trope of disability, but one that really came info focus for me when reading the manga, A Silent Voice. In A Silent Voice, although the narrative is about a young Deaf girl, it really is about a hearing boy who grows up with the girl in his classes. He spends most of his youth harassing and being violent toward her because she is Deaf. The hearing character is then shown years later trying to apologize to the girl he bullied, and the story ends up actually being about his transformation from a bully into someone who “accepts” Deaf people.
This sharply defines The Crippled Sidekick trope, where the disabled character is only present to prop up the narrative of the able-bodied characters in a story. It can vary from the presence of a disabled character as a way of indicating the beneficent and kind nature of the able-bodied person, the presence of a disabled character who dies so that the able-bodied character can take vengeance on the killer (a trope that often crosses over with the trope of the “disabled mentor”), to the disabled person who used to be a hero and now only provides advice to the hero (often played out by former war veterans who are seen by able-bodied writers as incapable of having their own narrative arcs).
Like most tropes, The Crippled Sidekick reduces the disabled character to a plot device whose sole role is to benefit the plot of the main able-bodied character. The plot doesn’t advance the disabled character and he or she or they become a floating signifier, reduced to the role of being an object of pity, or a victim.
Not only does this trope remove agency from the disabled character, it often makes this character uninteresting, hollow, and undeveloped. In having disabled characters’ narratives solely about the able-bodied characters around them, these narratives reinforce the centrality of able-bodied people in our society, suggesting that disabled people only exist as a foil for ability, a warning of what could happen, or as a receiver of charity. There are social repercussions to the idea of centring narratives around people without disabilities because narratives like this reinforce the idea that disabled people are secondary concerns and second-class citizens.
Derek Newman-Stille is the seven-time Prix Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada. He is completing his PhD at Trent University, researching representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. Derek is the editor of the upcoming anthologies: Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From the Margins and We Shall Be Monsters: Frankenstein Two Centuries On. Derek has published in fora like Quill & Quire, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Misfit Children: An Inquiry into Childhood Belongings, The Playground of Lost Toys, and Accessing the Future.