Crafting characters / Disability Tropes 101 / Represention

Disability Tropes 101: Overcoming

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One of the most problematic tropes that is projected onto disabled people and our narratives is the trope of Overcoming. In these narratives, disabled people are able to “overcome” their disability (that is, become able-bodied) by working hard and pushing boundaries.

Disability activist Eli Clare observes:

“Overcoming bombards disabled people. It’s everywhere. I think of Whoopi Goldberg. In airports and along freeways, I see her plastered on billboards sponsored by the Foundation for a Better Life (FBL). Head in hands, she furrows her forehead in frustration. Or is it bemusement? She casts her eyes up, looking directly at her viewers. The tagline reads, ‘Overcaem dyslexia,’ coyly misspelling overcame. Underneath those two words brimming with stereotypes sits a red box containing the phrase ‘HARD WORK,’ and below that, the command ‘Pass It On.’… That disabled people can only succeed by overcoming disability is an ableist cliche…. To pose individual hard work rather than broad-based disability access, as the key to success for people with dyslexia is absurd and ableist” (Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, 8-9).

A large number of our narratives, whether advertising as Eli Clare has indicated or the fiction stories that we are surrounded with, make assumptions that we are only disabled because we haven’t tried hard enough to be able-bodied. We are surrounded with tales that suggest if we try harder and work harder, suddenly our disability will be erased. These narratives assume that disability is something to be overcome, to be conquered by hard work. They put the onus on the disabled person to adapt to a society that doesn’t want to include disabled bodies rather than on the society to change to include disabled bodies and imagine bodily existence as something that includes disability.

In these narratives, often the ‘heroic’ character is able to suddenly throw off their disability in a dramatic act of throwing away their crutches, standing out of their wheelchair, throwing away their hearing aid, or other rejections of accommodation technology. They are portrayed as being able to suddenly reverse their disability as an act of heroism, instantly becoming able-bodied at a time when they need to assist another person. Authors often use this trope because they have difficulty imagining disability or disabled bodies as heroic on their own, so therefore assume that the only way that a disabled person can become heroic is a sudden rejection and reversal of their disability.

We are frequently bombarded with ableist images that say “The only disability in life is a bad attitude,” which disregard the barriers that disabled people are faced with in our society. As Disability activist, Stella Young reminds us:

“And that quote, The only disability in life is a bad attitude, the reason that’s bullshit is because it’s just not true, because of the social model of disability. You know, no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Never. Smiling at a television screen isn’t going to make closed captions appear for people who are deaf. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshop and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into Braille. It’s just not going to happen.” (https://www.thecut.com/2014/12/a-bad-attitude-is-not-the-disability.html

Stella Young also reminds us that disability is not something located in the person with disabilities, but, rather, in the society that we live in that doesn’t provide access for diverse bodies. She reminds us we can’t change aspects of our society just by having a “positive outlook,” but rather by challenging the things that prevent us from having access.

Phrases like “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” carry baggage and assumptions about disability that disavow a need for inclusion. They assume that disabled people will simply adapt rather than needing society to change to include disabled bodies and identities. They also make the assumption that someone is only disabled because they haven’t tried hard enough to be able-bodied. When we use this ideology in our fiction writing or in our advertising, we reinforce the belief that ableist people have that disabled people are incomplete and that we are lazy or too negative to imagine ourselves as able bodied.

Eli Clare observes:

“Overcoming is a peculiar and puzzling concept. It means transcending, disavowing, rising above, conquering” (Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, 9).

So, the trope of overcoming, by its very nature, attempts to portray disability as something that needs to be risen above. It assumes that disability is something to be rejected and that living with a disability isn’t sufficient.

When we write about disability, we don’t need to be stuck in the idea that disability is something meant to be overcome. Disability can convey a wholeness for our characters, a completeness that doesn’t need to be rejected or conquered. We can write about disability as a person’s identity, something that adds a dimension to their character, a nuance to the way that they encounter their world. We can disrupt the Overcoming trope and suggest something more powerful, a literary mode that doesn’t assume that disability is incomplete, but rather is a part of our characters. Disability doesn’t need to be “defeated” because it is part of us. It is something that can be experienced.


Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille

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. 

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