I recently finished watching Season 2 of Dirk Gently and have been reflecting on the huge number of problematic disability tropes in the show, particularly around the invented disability “Pararibulitis,” but for this post, I want to focus on one particular trope that frequently appears in representations of disability, what I call the Karmically Disabled Trope. In the Dirk Gently TV show, the character Todd fakes having a disease called Pararibulitis, an invented nerve disease where the affected person experiences hallucinations that feel completely real to him/her/them. Todd pretended to have the disease throughout his childhood to gain sympathy and money from his parents, but later his sister Amanda actually developed the disability and couldn’t get access to all of the supports she needed because Todd had used up all of his parents’ resources. At the end of the first season of Dirk Gently, Todd gets the disease as a form of punishment for having faked having it for so long.
The “Karmically Disabled” trope is one that surfaces frequently in portrayals of disability. In this trope, the disabled character becomes disabled as a form of punishment. The character is often portrayed as a bad person until they get a disability, then they have a moment of reflection on their actions, gain sympathy for others, and suddenly transform into a good, kind person.
The trope has several problematic aspects. The first is the assumption that a disability is a punishment. This assumes that disabilities are bad things to have and that people with disabilities are defined by their suffering. The trope reduces disabled people to symbols of suffering and victimization. The implications for this in the real world are multifaceted but involve things like presuming that everything a disabled person does is motivated by their disability, assuming that disabled people are better off not existing, and treating disabled people as perpetual victims. Able-bodied people don’t like to see suffering often, and the assumption that disabled people are personifications of suffering often causes the social erasure of disabled people—pretending we don’t exist, ignoring us, or institutionalizing us.
Secondly, the trope assumes that people with disabilities must have done something bad in their lives to become disabled, that all disability is a form of punishment. I have encountered this on a personal level from various people who espouse various beliefs who have suggested that disability is a punishment for those who deserve it. They have frequently asked what I have done to become disabled, suggesting that disability is a punishment for sin, or is baggage from a past life, or is the result of something fundamentally going wrong at a spiritual level.
Thirdly, the trope assumes that having a disability naturally transforms someone into a new and better person. While becoming disabled can be a transformative experience and cause people to have to change many aspects of their lives, it should not be considered to be such a radical change in attitude. It is not a pedagogical tool or a way of teaching someone to be a better person. It is simply a change.
Treating disability as a punishment evokes multiple different assumptions about the life and experiences of disabled people. In disability studies, we frequently use the term Temporarily Able Bodied (TAB) to refer to people who are not yet disabled, to remind people that if they live long enough, they are likely to become disabled at some point in their lives. Disability is not a punishment or karma, it is a fundamental aspect of being human and the “Karmically Disabled” trope tends to ignore the normalcy of disability as part of human life.
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.