Myths of disability

myths of disability.

Order Description

this presentation should do the following:
1.connect spoken word, written text, and visuals in interesting ways
2.explain your artifact and your interest in it

3.connect your artifact with ideas about disability discussed myth in class (I will upload latter)

Types of artifacts(plz choosing a short and easy to understanding artifacts)
Objects (white cane, hearing aid, medication)
News article
Found artistic work (poem, story, painting, song, cartoon, photograph)
Video or online document (website, blog post)
talk about how your artifact represents or tells a story of disability.
• In ter c h a pter
An Archive and Anatomy
of Disability Myths
As Ro sema r i e Ga r l a n d-Th omso n writes, “Seeing disability as a representational
system engages several premises of current critical theory:
that representation structures reality, that the margins constitute the center,
that human identity is multiple and unstable, and that all analysis
and evaluation has political implications” (1997b, 19). With this in mind,
I will pause here to create a quick overview of some of the myths of disability
that are ubiquitous across cultures and eras and that condition our
understanding of disability (and thus of all identity and all bodies). This
investigation of disability myths is an extension of my interrogation of the
logics of normativity. Each of these myths works to mark and construct
disability as surplus, improper, lesser, or otherwise other—and none of
them actually directly defi nes what “normal” is, except via an excessive
exnomination. In this way, these myths reach into all bodies, yet they also
very particularly structure roles for people with disabilities.
I call these myths, but I also situate them also as stereotypes and
tropes. These may not be fully “mythological,” in the rich rhetorical sense
of myth I will try to put forward throughout this book. But these are myths
in the manner of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies: meanings are attached to
these images, and they become routinized and easily consumed (1972, 92).
Each one of these myths is also a misplacement of meaning. These are stereotypes
because they are often narrow and infl exible and render simple
understandings. They are tropes because they shape stories and emplot.
They are rhetorical because they provide material for a wide range of
expressions, whether through compressed analogies or longer narratives.
32 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
Regardless, these fi gures shape both stories and lives. As Joseph Shapiro
has shown, “Disabled people have become sensitized to depictions of disability
in popular culture, religion, and history. There they fi nd constant
descriptions of a disabled person’s proper role as either an object of pity
or a source of inspiration. These images are internalized by disabled and
nondisabled people alike and build social stereotypes, create artifi cial
limitations, and contribute to discrimination” (1993, 30).
I borrow for my taxonomy from several sources, including Shapiro.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson looks carefully and systematically at disability
in literature, and Ato Quayson (2007) similarly offers a “typology”
of representations.1 Michael Norden, Paul Longmore, and Leonard Kriegel
also look at disability stereotypes in fi lm, television, and literature.2
The chart is greatly indebted to Mitchell and Snyder’s “Body Genres,”
which maps out an “anatomy” of the common characteristics found in
disability portrayals across genres of fi lm (2006, 188).3 Disability studies
scholar G. Thomas Couser describes the “preferred plots and rhetorical
schemes” of disability in nonfi ction or memoir (2001, 79). These rhetorical
schemes or myths tell familiar stories about disability from an ableist
perspective. The use of all of these myths in discourse, then, both borrows
from and shapes cultural beliefs about disability in the everyday.4
Of course, this book will mainly focus on the ways disability can
be positively and expansively represented and not on simple, negative
dismissals. Yet sometimes these two polarities need to engage with one
1. In addition to her literary analyses, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2002) also suggests
that there are four dominant visual rhetorics of disability: the wondrous, the sentimental,
the exotic, and the ordinary or realistic.
2. See Norden 1994; Longmore 1985, 2005; and Kriegel 1987; among other surveys and
sources for the analysis of disability stereotypes.
3. In turn, Mitchell and Snyder borrowed and revised this anatomy from Linda Williams’s
infl uential essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” (1991).
4. Importantly, echoing all of the other disability studies scholars who have surveyed
these ideas, Couser suggests that these schemes appeal to audiences because they reaffi rm
commonly held ideas about disability. “What characterizes these preferred rhetorics,” he
writes, “is that they rarely challenge stigma and marginalization directly or effectively”
(2001, 79).
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 33
another. In the fi eld of disability studies, an understanding of these negative
myths offers shorthand for the ways that disability is narrowly represented
or depicted. These myths offer evidence of some of the most basic
and omnipresent ways that disability is rhetorically shaped. I will work
through many of these myths here to further illustrate how disability
studies and rhetorical theory should intersect. It is worth noting that most
if not all of these myths interact with others in the chart.
Also, it is important to state that although these myths engage in what
might be called “negative critique”—the act of saying that disability is
“not this, not this, and not this”—and though this litany may feel a bit
rote to many disability studies scholars and students, or a bit trenchant to
those who are new to the fi eld, laying out these disability wrongs generates
a range of possible awarenesses, critical tools, and disruptions.5 The fact
that disability is so naturally and habitually associated with negativity in
our society means that we cannot neglect to question these natural habits,
and we cannot forget that the pause, refl ection, and reconsideration
we might engender will themselves be critical and creative opportunities.6
5. I borrow from Elizabeth Povinelli’s Economies of Abandonment for this description.
Povinelli defends “negative critique” against the claims that such critique “lacks a direction
around which a practical politics could be built . . . is parasitical on a given normative
world [and] refl ects the precritical political positions of the author” (2011, 189). In response,
she suggests that proposing a not this “makes a difference even if it does not produce a
propositional otherwise” because it “makes the world unready-at-hand for those for whom
it has worked smoothly” (ibid., 191–92). This should serve as an excellent model for the critical
work of disability studies, even when a focus is on “policing” ableism and normativity
by arguing that disability is “not this” or that stigma, “not this” or that degraded position.
6. Tobin Siebers also suggests that a legacy of poststructuralism is what he calls “absolute
critique, one in which the ability to run critique against itself is valued above all others”—
the more radical the critique, the more emancipatory it must be, and this has resulted
in the banishment of experience (Theory 293). But Siebers argues against this, suggesting
that disability studies can be one place where bodily experience can augment a critique in
service of emancipatory goals. Povinelli’s “negative critique,” in disability studies, manifests
itself in the absolute triumph of experience: disability is “not this” way that normate
culture represents it, because its lived experience is different; or, disability is “not this,”
because this representation or social structure is felt quite sharply and negatively within a
34 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
Fiona Kumari-Campbell and others might suggest that listing these disability
myths characterizes the strategic position of examining disablism—
which is “limited” to challenging negative attitudes and offering
corrections that would only assimilate disability into normative culture
(2009, 4).7 But my suggestion, and my aim, in discussing each of these
myths, is to relate them more broadly to logics of normativity and ableism,
moving beyond cultural representations that are right or wrong, and
linking these narratives to “genealogies of knowledge” (ibid., 5). I will fi rst
present the myths in brief form in a chart, then expand on each myth, and
then undertake a lengthier “test” for these myths to end this interchapter.
Myth Description Example
Disability as
People with disabilities have
been historically labeled,
sorted, and arrayed on scales
according to their deviation
from standardized norms. In
this way, perhaps the most
prominent disability rhetoric
is the medical model.
There is almost always a
moment in a narrative in
which the disabled character
is “explained” by a doctor or
nurse, who provides a sort
of WebMD overview of their
pathology. Disability rarely
circulates in popular culture
without a medicalized explanation
and defi nition.
Kill-or-Cure Just as a loaded gun shown
in the opening scenes of a
movie will eventually be
fi red, a disabled character
Lennie from Of Mice and
Men is a large man with an
assumed mental disability.
Throughout the novel, death
particular body or set of bodies. Somewhere between “negative critique” and “absolute critique,”
then, disability rhetoric does its work, from upon a material but malleable substrate
between the triumph of a body and the triumph of a theory.
7. Kumari Campbell suggests that disability studies approaches that only challenge
disablism “produce scholarship that contains serious distortions, gaps, and omissions concerning
the production of disability” because they essentially only try to reform attitudes
or compensate, and fail to recognize the more nuanced and pervasive ways that disability
is constructed (2009, 4).
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 35
Myth Description Example
will either have to be “killed
or cured” by the end of any
movie or novel in which they
follows the character: a dead
mouse, not one but two dead
dogs, all foreshadowing his
eventual tragic death.
Overcoming or
The person with a disability
overcomes their impairment
through hard work or
has some special talent that
offsets their defi ciencies.
Shapiro calls this fi gure the
“super crip.”
In Homer himself, we are to
recognize a blind man who
is a “gifted” poet and seer,
his great memory and his
story-weaving capabilities
making up for his defect.
Disability as
Object of Pity
and/or Charity
People with disabilities
are represented as sad and
impotent, a problem that can
be solved via charity.
Dickens’s Tiny Tim is the
prototypical example from
Deformity as
Sign of Internal
Describing the body of an
individual and accentuating
its foreignness, abnormality,
or exoticness allow for
insinuations of internal deviance
or lack.
Leonard Kriegel argues that
Captain Ahab from Moby Dick
“is not merely crippled—his
leg torn from his body by the
white whale—he is crippled
in the deepest metaphysical
sense. His injury became his
self-hood” (1987, 18).
Disability as
Isolating and
The “emphasis on individual
isolation as the overriding
component of a disabled
life” (Mitchell and Snyder
2001c, 198).
People with disabilities in
fi lm and literature most
often live in hospitals and
institutions, as though these
are their natural habitats—
they rarely have romantic
relationships or enduring
friendships and often are left
alone at the end of the narrative,
as Raymond Babbitt is
in Rain Man.
36 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
Myth Description Example
Disability as
Sign of Social Ill
Disability is symptomatic of
a deviant society.
Perhaps the most abhorrent
example of this myth was
put forward by televangelist
Jerry Falwell, who
suggested that “AIDS is not
just God’s punishment for
homosexuals, it is God’s
punishment for the society
that tolerates homosexuals”
(Press 2007, n.p).
Disability Is a
Sign from Above
Disability can be “taken as
a signifi er of sacred or ritual
processes” (Quayson 2007,
This is one of the key tropes
of the Bible and other religious
literatures, as well as
Greek myth. Note that in
Falwell’s attribution above,
it is God who is punishing
Disability as
Symptom of
Human Abuse
of Nature
As with the idea that disability
is a punishment for
an individual or social evil,
disability is often used to
refl ect, even more “causally,”
humankind’s degradation
and neglect of the natural
world and the environment.
We recognize this myth
often in superhero comic
books: looking just at the
villains in Batman, there is a
long list of baddies who have
been disfi gured because they
have treated the environment
poorly: Clayface, Two-
Face, the Joker, Mr. Freeze.
Disability Drift
and the Disability
Physical disabilities are
equated with mental disabilities
and vice versa.
For instance, a person in a
wheelchair is also treated as
cognitively or even psychologically
Disability Drop This myth interacts with the
push to cure disability, overcoming,
and the idea that
people with disabilities
In the fi lm The Usual Suspects,
Verbal Kint (played by
Kevin Spacey) has a physical
disability—he is labeled a
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 37
Myth Description Example
are “faking” or embellishing
their disabilities. Characters
with disabilities “drop” the
act of being disabled as part
of the climax of a narrative.
“gimp.” It turns out, however,
that he is faking this
disability and taking advantage
of people’s perceptions
of his weakness. The fi lm
ends with a tracking shot
of Kint walking away from
a police station, scot-free,
and his limp gradually
Disability as Pathology
People with disabilities have been historically labeled, sorted, and arrayed
on scales according to their deviation from standardized norms. As a
result of this, it became easier to justify their institutionalization and erasure,
and this contributed to the medicalizing of disability through an
array of scientifi c terms. In this way, perhaps the most prominent disability
rhetoric is the medical model—abnormal bodies undergo a rhetorical
accretion toward synecdoche, and an abnormal body becomes the sum of
its dysfunctional parts. Through its sustained critique of the medicalization
of bodies, disability studies allows the student of rhetoric to better
understand the social construction of any body as—always, in part—a
scientifi c or medical artifact.
Disability is then “owned” and controlled by the doctor or scientist; it
is no longer a personal experience or a generative aspect of one’s subject
position. Science, medicine, therapeutic, and even pharmacological discourses
and practices cast disability as a personal defi cit or deviance to
be cured. This myth of disability-as-pathology interacts with the trope of
“kill-or-cure” (discussed below) as the only proper medical way to view
disability is as something to be fi xed or eradicated. As pathology, disability
can also never be understood as something positive.
For example, there is almost always a moment in a narrative in which
the disabled character is “explained” by a doctor or nurse, who provides a
sort of WebMD overview of their pathology—if the doctor or nurse does
38 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
not deliver this diagnosis directly, then it is parroted through another
character or a voice-over. In the controversial fi lm Million Dollar Baby, this
happens the very fi rst time we view the protagonist in a hospital bed after
she has been paralyzed. One of the very fi rst things she says is “I’m a C1
and C2 complete, means my spinal cord’s so broke they’re never gonna
be able to fi x it. Gonna be froze like this the rest of my life” (2010, n.p.).
In Rain Man, when we are fi rst introduced to the character of Raymond,
a male nurse is in the room to explain him, pointing out that “he’s an
autistic savant . . . high-functioning. . . . There’s a disability that impairs
the sensory input . . . and how it is processed” (2004, n.p.) Just as it must be
medicalized as soon as it appears in a fi lm, disability rarely circulates in
our culture without a medicalized explanation and defi nition, something
that people also often demand: “What’s wrong with you?”
One important point of interrogation for this myth is the analysis of
shifting diagnoses. Disabilities such as Asperger’s syndrome or bipolar
disorder are relatively new phenomena, medically. Recent changes in
their defi nitions have resulted in drastic changes in the lives of those
diagnosed. These are not “mythical” disabilities by any means, but the
experience of living with them is heavily mediated through discourses
of medicine, psychology, and pharmacology. We also see that many of
the diagnoses and treatments of Western disabilities have begun to shift
to other parts of the world, and the impact that these diagnoses and
their treatments have had on foreign cultures has been notable. Recognizing
this impact allows us to view the ways that disability is culturally
specifi c and culturally constructed through medicine and to understand
how shifting medical markets might export forms of ableism and disablism
across the globe.8
8. Conversely, as Marianne Kastrup, a doctor and the head of the Center of Transcultural
Psychiatry in Denmark, has shown through her research on depression, “culture
infl uences depressive symptomatology, explanatory models, help-seeking behavior,
and societal response” (2011, 119). Just as the movement of the Western medical model
might impact norms across cultures, so too will those cultures reshape the experience of
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 39
Just as a loaded gun shown in the opening scenes of a movie will eventually
be fi red, a disabled character will either have to be “killed or cured”
by the end of any movie or novel in which they appear. This death or cure
will often seem to “redeem” a protagonist—the death will be sacrifi cial,
or the cure will be credited to the hero. Adding some nuance to this formula,
Mitchell and Snyder suggest that the “resolution” of disability in
a comedy fi lm will be humiliation, in a horror fi lm obliteration, and in a
melodrama compensation (2006, 188). Lennie’s death in Of Mice and Men
offers a canonical example.
Norden has also written about the “magical cure” theme in fi lms—
for instance, in the rock opera Tommy, the “deaf, dumb, and blind” lead
character regains all of his abilities. In Heidi, the hero’s friend Clara sheds
her disability and jumps up and dances around at the end of the fi lm. The
“kill-or-cure” myth also infl ects current abortion and euthanasia debates
and contemporary genetic science: society views disability as something
that must be eradicated in one of these two ways. Recall Maggie’s medicalized
explanation of her paralysis from Million Dollar Baby, cited above:
she eventually concludes that because she cannot be cured, she should
kill herself.
Of course, the tenuousness and expendability of the disabled body
are not just mythological. As a recent article in the Lancet showed, disabled
adults are four times more likely to be victims of violence than nondisabled
adults (Hughes et al. 2012, 1621).
Overcoming or Compensation
In this myth, the person with a disability overcomes their impairment
through hard work or has some special talent that offsets their defi ciencies.
Shapiro calls this fi gure the “super crip.” In this myth, the connection
between disability and compensatory ability is intentional and required.
The audience does not have to focus on the disability, or challenge the
stigma that this disability entails, but instead refocuses attention toward
the “gift.” This works as a management of the fears of the temporarily ablebodied
(if and when I become disabled, I will compensate or overcome),
40 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
and it acts as a demand placed upon disabled bodies (you had better be
very good at something).
For example, in Homer himself, we are to recognize a blind man who
is a “gifted” poet and seer, his great memory and his story-weaving capabilities
making up for his defect. Dustin Hoffman’s depiction of Raymond
Babbitt in the movie Rain Man provides another analogue: Raymond is
autistic, but is capable of remarkable mathematical calculations and feats
of memory. I will discuss both of these examples in chapter 2.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal also writes about the trope of “creativity
mystique,” wherein mood disorders are correlated with creativity. This
trope is “a product of the era of modern psychiatry, suggests not only that
mood disorders are sources of creative genius, but also that medical treatment
should take patient creativity into account” (2011, n.p.). Pryal shows
how conservative scientifi c literature has begun to draw that correlation,
but also how more fringe scientifi c and pop-scientifi c publications have
begun to go so far as to suggest a causal link between mood disorders and
creativity, or even “inverse-causation” wherein creativity causes mood
disorders (ibid.). This research may greatly impact treatment options, but
it also constructs mood disorders as phenomena that had better connect
to genius. Emily Martin, in Bipolar Expeditions, also suggests that as we
begin to see manic depression as an “asset,” we may be constructing two
kinds of mania: a “good” kind characterized by successful celebrities like
Robin Williams and a “bad” variety “to which most sufferers of manic
depression are relegated.” The consequence is that “even if the value given
to the irrational experience of mania increases, validity would yet again
be denied to the “mentally ill,” and in fact their stigmatization might
increase” (2007, 220).
Disability as Object of Pity and/or Charity
Much of the language of disability relies on a semiotics of pity: myths of
powerlessness that demand to be answered with charity. As Rosemarie
Garland-Thomson shows, one of the key visual rhetorics of disability is
“the sentimental.” This visual rhetoric “produces the sentimental victim
or helpless sufferer needing protection or succor and invoking pity, inspiration,
and frequent contributions” (2002, 63). People with disabilities are
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 41
represented as sad and impotent, a problem that can be solved via charity.
The donator also extracts value from this exchange, feeling better about
him- or herself, and more “able,” through giving (see Shapiro 1993). Dickens’s
Tiny Tim is the prototypical example from literature. The Jerry Lewis
telethon is one contemporary vehicle that most strongly reinforces this position,
though Lewis was recently ousted from his spot at the helm. In the
article “Infantilizing Autism,” Jennifer L. Stevenson, Bev Harp, and Morton
Ann Gernsbacher also show how highly visible and “successful” autism
organizations currently rely on images of autistic children to evoke pity and
inspire charity and this charitable giving is focused on a “cure” (2011, n.p.).
Physical Deformity as Sign of Internal Flaw
Describing the body of an individual and accentuating its foreignness,
abnormality, or exoticness allow for insinuations of internal deviance or
lack. As Longmore writes, “Physical handicaps are made the emblem of
evil” (1987, 66). Leonard Kriegel argues that Captain Ahab from Moby Dick
“is not merely crippled—his leg torn from his body by the white whale—
he is crippled in the deepest metaphysical sense. His injury became his
self-hood” (1987, 34). This “internal fl aw” also often explains why a character
behaves badly (see “Disability as Evil” also, immediately below).
Whereas, traditionally, a “stigma” was a mark branded onto the skin (as
was the custom with Greek slaves), or a mark indicating a history of disease
or abnormality (according to the medical defi nition), more often we
see physical signs of disability as indicative of mental or psychological
problems, the outward “stigma” the product of an almost-hysterical transubstantiation
from interior to exterior.
Disability as Evil
Often, in fi ction, a character with a disability is evil because he or she is
“mad at the world.” In many cases, the evil or lack of the disabled fi gure is
a way to establish the virtue and character of the nondisabled protagonist.
The disabled character can be a repository of evil or can be a trick mirror
that reveals weakness or strength in a more central character.
Shakespeare’s Richard III is perhaps the best example of this trope,
and we also recognize this stereotype working across nearly the entire
42 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
canon of children’s literature, which bulges with disfi gured pirates and
witches, outfi tted with the requisite crutches and eye patches. Children
are then encouraged to fear people with disabilities. For further discussion
of Richard III, see my fi nal chapter.
Disability as Good
Just as disability can be read as evil, disability can also be represented as
pure goodness, through the creation of an equal but inverse one-dimensional
character. Rhetorics of infantilization and paternalism often power
this myth. The result of this myth is that people with disabilities are disallowed
from being bad or fallible, and thus they cannot really be fully
human—or if they somehow fail to live up to this standard, their failure
is particularly pronounced.
Tiny Tim is an example of a character rendered as pure good. This
allows him to serve as a litmus test for the good of other characters and
also allows him to be an object of pity and charity. Another entailment of
this myth is that disability has to be profi table—Raymond in Rain Man has
a “good” disability because his brother can capitalize upon it (through
There is a binary relationship between disability-as-good and disability-
as-evil as well: as soon as a disability is no longer profi table, curable,
rehabilitable, infantile, and/or unassuming, it can be quickly made evil.
“Good” disabled characters who grow up or make demands can quickly
become evil. As Colin Cameron writes, “Resisting categorisation in terms
of one stereotype (passive, uncomplaining victim) simply leads to being
identifi ed in terms of another (bitter and twisted)” (2009, 385).
Disability as Ethical Test
Both Couser and Quayson recognize that disability often “acts as some
form of ethical background to the actions of other characters, or as a
means of testing or enhancing their moral standing” (Quayson 2007, 36).
How a protagonist treats these disabled fi gures then establishes the hero’s
ethos. Pat Thomson recognizes this as an “infuriating genre which might
be deemed a ‘second fi ddle’ book. In these, there is indeed a disabled
character but they exist only to promote the personal development of the
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 43
main, able-bodied character” (1992, 24). The role of the Beast in Beauty and
the Beast is central to the plot of the story in that we can gauge Beauty’s
development of morality based upon her acceptance of the Beast. Circe in
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird
are also examples of this trope.
Disability as Isolating and Individuated
Mitchell and Snyder argue that an “emphasis on individual isolation as
the overriding component of a disabled life” has “artifi cially extracted the
experience of disability from its necessary social contexts” (2001c, 198).
The result is that disability can be rendered as a personal tragedy, or even
a punishment delivered to one individual, and not the product of either
chance or of social processes. The impact of this trope on all of our lives is
apparent—when we each inevitably experience pain or debilitation, even
temporarily, we are expected to keep it to ourselves, lest we become a
burden upon others. As Tanya Titchkosky puts it, even though more than
one billion people worldwide have disabilities, the impulse for isolation
mandates that they be seen tautologically as “a huge number of the unfortunate
few” (2011, n.p).
People with disabilities in fi lm and literature most often live in hospitals
and institutions, as though these are their natural habitats—they
rarely have romantic relationships or enduring friendships, and often
are left alone at the end of the narrative, as Raymond Babbitt is in Rain
Man. This belief that disability should be isolating is reinforced by, and
also justifi es, the “warehousing” of people with disabilities in institutions,
segregated classrooms, sheltered workshops, and so on. The individuated
approach, in education, stresses that an individual with a disability can
receive accommodations that are both specifi c and temporary—accommodating
students one by one also means that the entire educational paradigm
resists widespread change.
Disability as Sign of Social Ill
In this myth, disability is viewed as symptomatic of a deviant society. In
this case, the external evidence of difference is used as an analogue for an
ill or evil that is not isolated to the individual, but refl ects a social problem.
44 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
As Nicole Markotic suggests, “A character presented as ‘less’ than able is
not only a moral marker of social ill but is also a physical embodiment of
cultural blunders” (2003, n.p.). Perhaps the most abhorrent example of this
myth was put forward by televangelist Jerry Falwell, who suggested that
“AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment
for the society that tolerates homosexuals” (Press 2007, n.p.).
Disability Is a Sign from Above
Disability can be “taken as a signifi er of sacred or ritual processes” (Quayson
2007, 46). This is one of the key tropes of the Bible and other religious
literatures, as well as Greek myth, as I will explore in my discussion of
Tiresias and Hephaestus in other parts of the book. Note that in Falwell’s
attribution above, it is God who is punishing society.
As a “sign,” disability can also be connected to traditions of scapegoating
or, in ancient Greece, the pharmakon. In this Greek rite, after a disaster
(a famine, an invasion, a plague), a “cripple” was supposedly selected
and expelled from the community. The disabled individual may not have
necessarily been situated as the cause of the disaster, yet the death of this
individual was seen as a way for the community to appease the gods, as
a form of atonement or expiation. This tradition has been written about
extensively by Burkert (1985) and Girard (1986), as well as Derrida (1981).
Disability as Symptom of Human Abuse of Nature
As with the idea that disability is a punishment for an individual or social
evil, disability is often used to refl ect, even more “causally,” humankind’s
degradation and neglect of the natural world and the environment. That
is, the disability stands not just as a symbol, but also as a real supposed
consequence: cancer and other diseases can be viewed as a consequence
of certain forms of pollution, as are some “deformities.” Sometimes the
causal relationship is “real”—but this often does not have to be proven for
the disability to signify.
We are offered this myth often in superhero comic books: looking
just at the villains in Superman and Batman, there is a long list of baddies
who have been disfi gured because they have treated the environment
poorly: Clayface, Two-Face, the Joker, Mr. Freeze (in Batman); Lex Luthor,
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 45
Metallo, Parasite, Solomon Grundy (in Superman).9 Of course, it is important
to remember that these villains, in addition to their disabilities and
disfi gurements, also receive some superpowers as well. And although it
is easy to look just at the ways environmental degradation leads to the
disfi gurement of the villains, the heroes’ abilities and disabilities are also
often connected to a debased physical world, and their superpowers very
often mean they can control nature fantastically (or can build prostheses
to allow them to do so).
As Franny Howes writes, “Disability is prevalent in comics but at the
same time persistently erased, denied, and made invisible.” Indeed, even
when the arguments are not explicit, disability appears in comics in ways
that argue against oppression, question narratives of cure, and locate the
tension and the continuum between disability and ability (2013, 24). This
tension also often tightly fuses the physical body and mind of both heroes
and villains to the (equally susceptible and mutable) natural world. One
other argument that this myth can make is that, in the words of Lawrence
Buell, “all Americans [are] not . . . being poisoned equally”—or, in
more inclusive terms, all humans are not being poisoned equally (2001, 5).
(And then, maybe even more inclusively, all beings are not being poisoned
equally.) We know that exposure to pollution is not evenly distributed in
our world and often breaks down along class and race lines—and those
who pollute are not always those who “suffer” from the effects of their
polluting. In this way, the “myth” of environmentally caused disability
can be a way to hold up certain bodies as ecocritical evidence, and/or we
can take this myth and convert it into a powerful rhetoric to interrogate
the manner in which discourses of the earth’s defi lement can mitigate or
vitiate its contamination, but also how both discourse and disease enter
real bodies. More simply, we need to recognize and understand disability
myth and rhetoric as they operate in our relationships with the physical
9. Thanks to Franny Howes for sharing her considerable expertise on this subject and
making all of these suggestions to me. Thanks also to Trevor Holmes, Lindsey Joyce, William
Lakeman, Joe Gooden, Sarah York, Dale Jacobs, and Eir-Anne Edgar for their incisive
thoughts on this issue.
46 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
world, how we talk about this world, what we do to it, and what it does to
us. See Stacy Alaimo’s excellent Bodily Natures (2010) or Mel Chen’s Animacies
(2012) for more on this.
Disability Drift and the Disability Hierarchy
In this myth, physical disabilities are equated with mental disabilities, and
vice versa. For instance, a person in a wheelchair is also treated as cognitively
or even psychologically disabled. Within the disability community,
this has sometimes led to a problematic hierarchy of disability—wherein
physical disabilities are situated as less stigmatizing than cognitive disabilities,
and people are encouraged to make downward comparisons to
others with supposedly more severe impairments. Disability “drift” also
works to make the disability overpower all other facets of an individual’s
People often hold up Stephen Hawking as a positive representation
of disability, as evidence that physical disability does not equate with
diminished intellectual capacity. Hawking as a “super crip” proves this.10
But this narrative, which argues against disability drift, also reinforces
a disability hierarchy: physical disability is more desirable than mental
or psychological disability. Mark Deal has written extensively about this
hierarchy, looking at the attitudes of disabled people themselves toward
other “impairment groups” (2003, 897). For this same reason, if we do see
characters with disabilities in popular media, these people often are most
acceptable if they come from further up the hierarchy—wheelchair users
seem to be the most “acceptable” fi gures with disabilities. Yet these same
people may often be infantilized and treated as though their disabilities
are more than physical, creating a catch-22.
Disability Drop
This myth interacts with the push to cure disability, overcoming, and the
idea that people with disabilities are “faking” or embellishing their disabilities.
Characters with disabilities “drop” the act of being disabled as
10. See, for example, Helene Mialet’s Hawking, Incorporated (2012).
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 47
part of the climax of a narrative. Ellen Jean Samuels (2006) has looked
extensively at this phenomenon in fi lm, literature, and culture, labeling
it the “disability con” and linking it to persistent backlash against social
assistance and entitlements for people with disabilities. Samuels examines
the “disability con” primarily within Melville’s work The Confi dence-
Man but also through nineteenth-century racial masquerade.
In the fi lm The Usual Suspects, Verbal Kint (played by Kevin Spacey)
has a physical disability—he is labeled a “gimp.” It turns out, however,
that he is faking this disability and taking advantage of people’s perceptions
of his weakness. The fi lm ends with a tracking shot of Kint walking
away from a police station, scot-free, and his limp gradually disappears.
The viewer realizes that his disability has been an act and that he is actually
the evil criminal ringleader Keyser Söze. Edward Norton plays a
similar character in the movie The Score, pretending to be an intellectually
disabled janitor. Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame also fakes a mental disability
in the movie The Ringer. In all of these examples, the character with
a “fake” disability actually draws out and takes advantage of the stereotypical
attitudes of other characters. But when the disability is “dropped,”
the idea that disability is in part “fake” is reinforced, and the challenge to
the stigma around the disability loses much of its power.
The concept of “malingering” also infers that people might fake disability
to get out of military service or criminal sentences or to gain something
else, like welfare. It is important to note that the concept of “faking”
disability or “malingering” is a key shaping myth in the creation and
implementation of social services: “Policy makers have historically sought
to forestall fakery by making both the process of determining eligibility
and the experience of receiving benefi ts—so to speak—arduous. They
fashioned what amounted to ceremonies of social degradation for persons
seeking or getting assistance” (Longmore 2003, 240).11
11. In fi lm we also see disability “drop” happening across an actor’s career. After an
actor has played a character with a disability, the next major role seems to be very notably
able, as a form of “rehabilitation.” In the fi lm Tropic Thunder, this propensity becomes the
basis for a joke—after Ben Stiller’s character takes on a role that is seen as too disabled, his
next role is as a Stallone-style action hero in the movie Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown.
48 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
The Disability Myth “Test”
The “Bechdel Test” was developed by graphic novelist and zine author
Alison Bechdel (2008) in her series Dykes to Watch Out For, as a way to
quickly determine how female characters are positioned in a movie. The
premise is relatively simple, and thus the results are often particularly
upsetting. Simply, there are three criteria: ask whether there is more than
one major female character in a movie, then ask whether these female
characters talk to one another, and then ask if they talk to one another
about something other than a man. The fi rst question is designed to investigate
whether the fi lm actually has a signifi cant female presence, the second
question furthers this fi rst question, and the third interrogates the
nature of the female characters’ roles; together, they reveal whether the
women in the movie are fully developed or just foils or love interests for
the men. Do the women think for themselves? Is there an actual female
community or social structure in the fi lm? Are women subordinated or
What happens when we begin to interrogate the depiction and rhetorical
construction of disability in cultural texts in a similar way? The disability
myths listed on the last few pages can all, in some way or another,
be incorporated into this test. Without necessarily using the tripartite
structure of Bechdel’s test, we can instead try to identify as many disability
myths as possible in a given text.12 We might apply this rubric to
12. A disability test might also ask whether there is more than one character with a
disability in the fi lm—most often, the answer is no, because disability is seen as isolating
and is also most often supplementary. Then we might ask if the characters with disabilities
talk about more than their “problems” or “affl ictions”? Do they talk at all? Are they seen as
capable of forming romantic relationships, acting independently from the protagonists (in
ways that do not cause tragedy), growing and changing as characters? We also might say
that, in general, in fi lms with more than one character with a disability, all of the characters
with disabilities are together and rarely talk to other characters who are nondisabled. This
is a way to reinforce the isolation of people with disabilities. So let me try another iteration:
1. Is there more than one character with a disability in the fi lm?
2. If the answer to the fi rst question is yes, do the characters with disabilities interact
with nondisabled people?
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 49
a few popular movies and cable TV series from the past few years, just to
try this out.
For instance, the 2011 fi lm The Iron Lady immediately passes the
Bechdel Test: in fact, the major male characters, after the fi rst half hour
or so of the movie, exist purely in relation to Margaret Thatcher, played
uncannily by Meryl Streep (who won an Oscar for the role). Yet beyond
these rather unconventional gender dynamics, this seems like a rather
conventional disability story. Thatcher has dementia, and the fi lm chronicles
a “descent” further into this disease, mainly through her hallucinated
conversations with her deceased husband.13 The dementia defi nitely isolates
her—and the dementia also subsumes any of the other reasons she
may be isolated. She is neither killed nor cured—in fact, the dementia
gets worse. The disease “explains” why she is so cold and critical toward
3. In this interaction, do the nondisabled people do more than care for the people with
disabilities? And do the characters with disabilities do more than explain their symptoms
and impairments to the nondisabled characters?
I am thinking here of documentaries like Murderball, or fi lms such as Girl, Interrupted
and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which each in some way collect people with disabilities
“outside” of society, in exceptional circumstances and microcultures. Such fi lms do answer
the question “Is there more than one character with a disability?” but then go in the other
direction. This may create some possibilities for valuing crip community, but also serve as
ways of abjecting and justifying segregation.
Or another way to set up such a quiz that gets at the simple kill-or-cure logic would be:
1. Is there a character with a disability in the fi lm?
2. Is the character still alive at the end of the fi lm?
3. If the character is alive, is she or he still disabled in the same way she or he was at
the beginning of the fi lm, or has this character been cured, has their condition been ameliorated
or overcome, or has it deteriorated signifi cantly?
Another key question: are the characters with disabilities in a fi lm or television show
played by actors with disabilities? Almost all the time, the answer to this last question is no.
13. The fact that Thatcher is so reliant on her husband’s advice and approval, even after
he has died, can be read as undermining her agency. If the third question in the Bechdel
Test is actually designed to determine whether the female character has an autonomous
role that is not subordinated to her relationship with a man, then The Iron Lady functionally
fails this part of the test.
50 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
her doting daughter (even though there could be myriad other reasons
for the degeneration of this relationship that preclude her dementia). It
also seems to explain why she is disaffected and aloof toward all she
meets (even if this might simply be her general affect). In this way, by
narrating the fi lm through her dementia, disability drifts back into the
entire character study and life narrative, and we can begin to understand
it more critically.14 The dementia could be seen as either a symptom of a
social ill or a sign that Thatcher is being repaid for her political sins. Yet
the dementia also humanizes her, softens this iron lady so that the audience
may fi nd it diffi cult to retain their previous attitudes toward her.
Although her conservative politics essentially wiped out state support
systems in England, this character invites a charitable rereading. For some
audiences. Certainly, many would resist this softening. But because the
fi lm fi lters its retrospective lens through her dementia, the audience is at
least strongly invited to let pity drift back across Thatcher’s entire life and
political career.15 Applying a disability rhetoric “test” to the fi lm, then, we
recognize disability being mythologized through pity/charity, isolation,
and evil.16 We recognize disability being used as the sign of a social ill,
14. The Iron Lady is also a “biopic”—in chapter 3 I will examine the biopolitical dimensions
of recent iterations of this genre, and I will also analyze them as forms of epideictic
15. It might be suggested that certain parts of her political career, particularly her rise
to power and her popular “success” in the Falklands War—elements of her career that lend
themselves to heroic montages in the fi lm—are not overwritten by her dementia in ways
that other, later, parts of her career are in the fi lm. This allows her heroism to “stand alone”
and to be “reliably” narrated. This, however, also allows the fi lm to conform to the genre
rules of the tragedy, the falling action triggered by her disability. There may be an (intentional
or unintentional) selection of which parts of her career can be unambivalently narrated
and which need the fi lter of her dementia to be viewed charitably.
16. It is particularly interesting and ironic that Thatcher is shown having access to quite a
bit of private care. This lies in direct opposition to the cuts to public supports for people with
disabilities that she authored. Thus, the fi lm suggests not only that disability is isolating, but
also that the individual is responsible for her or his own “care”—which is not a social concern.
The opening scene from the fi lm also shows Thatcher out on the streets, trying to buy
groceries. The scene suggests that she herself is tremendously vulnerable out in the public,
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 51
and we witness the ways that disability can drift across other facets of a
person’s personality—the “pure goodness” of disability as a concept or
myth infl ects the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, allowing us to at least partially
forget who she really was as a politician.17
Of course, The Iron Lady both is exemplary of the usefulness of a disability
rhetoric “test” and also extracts and displays its limits. Using the
test and its tools can get us quickly to the representational heart of the
fi lm, allowing us to recognize a range of rhetorical possibilities that rely
on disability. Yet, on the other hand, texts always exceed our desire to
solve them. Another way to say this: even if a text actually does want to
represent disability in a purely negative, simplistic manner or use disability
as a tool of dissimulation, in many ways it will fail.
Aside from this acknowledgment, and through it, I will continue to
try to apply the test. One of the foremost critical successes of the past
fi ve years has been the TV series Breaking Bad. There were ostensibly four
major characters with disabilities in the show. Moreover, these characters
are neither seen as automatically bonded together by their experiences
nor seen as isolated from one another. The fi rst and most “obvious” disabled
character is Walter White Jr., the son of the series’ “hero.” The show’s
website identifi es him as being “born with cerebral palsy” but also, in the
same sentence, as a “typical high school kid” (2011). Walt Jr.’s character is
in modern England. This too is ironic—it suggests that she should be locked up for her own
safety, but it also totally reverses the idea that Thatcherism has been and continues to be a
tremendous threat to the public, perhaps especially to the immigrants that she thought were
“swamping” England, and with whom she now must communicate to buy her milk.
17. Of course, Robert McRuer (2013) and many others would strongly challenge this
tendency to forget Thatcher’s political legacy, particularly in this current era of austerity
measures and neo-Thatcherism in the UK and elsewhere. Yet at the same time, we would
not necessarily want to see a fi lm that uses disability to render her purely evil, nor would
we necessarily want to see a fi lm that elides the fact that Margaret Thatcher truly does
suffer from dementia, nor would we really want this dementia to render her as a heroic,
overcoming, fi gure—which The Iron Lady seems to resist doing. In many ways, The Iron Lady
is a terrifi c intertext for the fi nal chapter of this book, which examines The King’s Speech, and
I will refer back to The Iron Lady in that section of the book.
52 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
indeed quite well rounded, and instead of traffi cking many stereotypical
disability myths, he twists them. He creates a website to raise donations
for his father, who has cancer, making his dad extremely uncomfortable,
as the last thing Walt Sr. wants is to be viewed as an object of pity and
charity—but then he does not want any attention at all, really, considering
that he is moonlighting as a large-scale drug manufacturer. It is worth noting
that R. J. Mitte, who plays Walt Jr., has cerebral palsy himself, which is
notable mainly because there are almost no actors with disabilities on TV
or in the movies.18
We also see that Walt Sr.’s cancer disables him at different times
throughout the series.19 Walt Sr.’s disability, because it is a persistent presence,
though his level of actual “impairment” oscillates, troubles traditional
representations of illness as disability. Illness is most often narrated
clearly in the direction of either kill-or-cure, and much less frequently
through the ambivalent and unpredictable, temporary polarities of debility
and recovery that Walt experiences. Further, though Walt might seem
to be “bitter” about his cancer, this bitterness translates into a sustained
anger and into planned and deliberate action—the “bitterness” is not disabling,
but rather it shakes him out of his routine and onto another radical
path. And it is worth noting that this action is in part a necessity: he also
18. The series creator, Vince Gilligan, has said that he intended for Walt Jr. to be a
strong character, one who does not follow the common disability trope of inviting pity from
others or of pitying himself. Gilligan supposedly based the character on a college friend
who had CP. (Mabe 2011, n.p.). This said, Walt Jr. does function as narrative prosthesis in a
few connected ways. He is an “ethical test” for his father, and thus propels the plot. When
Walt Sr. believes he is going to die from cancer, he justifi es starting a lucrative career making
meth through the belief that he needs to provide for his son’s care after he himself is
gone. This reasoning makes the entire plot not just believable, but much more appealing
than if Walt Sr. were just greedy. This said, as the series has developed, the question of
Walt’s ethics has become much more nuanced, and we are invited to question what his
true priorities and motivations are; the simple story of a man-gone-bad to provide for his
disabled son sublimates into a range of other more diffi cult possibilities.
19. You could also suggest that Walt Sr.’s meth-cooking sidekick Jesse Pinkman’s crystal
addiction is also a disability in a similar way, impermanently impairing but persistent.
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 53
needs to fi nd a way to pay for his cancer treatments. The provenance and
morality of Walt’s actions are openly in question, but Walt’s character is
not subordinated to his illness, cancer does not make him bitter and withdrawn
or bitter and purely evil, nor does cancer make him a better person,
a medicalized “warrior,” or a refl ective philosopher.
The third major character with a disability is Walt Sr.’s brother-in-law
Hank, the Drug Enforcement Administration agent who has also been
pursuing him (though Hank does not know that the drug kingpin he pursues
is his own brother-in-law until halfway through the fi nal season. In
season 4, Hank has been shot and can no longer walk. Here it is worth
quoting disability media critic S. E. Smith at some length, as she writes
about a key episode:
We’re seeing Hank after the shooting, Hank in recovery, Hank at home.
We’re not quite sure what is going to happen with Hank and where they
are going to take his character, although I have high hopes, because
Breaking Bad seems the most willing to actually do its homework with
disability, and to try and do a good job with it. Whether this is a temporary
disability, or a permanent one, right now, we are seeing Hank
in a very vulnerable place. Hank is in the adjustment period. Acquired
disabilities can bring up some strong emotions as people transition
between different bodily states, identities, beliefs about their own worth
and value. . . . We are uncomfortable in solidarity with Hank, who is
clearly trying to navigate this new situation and to, yes, adjust to the
changes he’s experiencing, to his new body, to a radically different life
than the one he knows. . . . The ways that people deal with the adjustment
period are immensely variable, and I’m looking forward to seeing
how it’s handled here. One of the problems with limited depictions of
disability on television is that any appearance is taken as an authoritative
one, which puts shows like Breaking Bad in a tough position because
their decisions for characters may be mistaken by viewers and critics
as defi nitive statements on disability. . . . If Hank is depressed, which
he appears to be, that’s clearly because of the character, not because the
writers and creators think that disability is depressing, or even that the
adjustment period is depressing for all people, although depression is
54 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
not uncommon. What they’re depicting here is true to many lived experiences,
and I hope that their record of careful research and thoughtful
handling of disability carries through, and that Hank’s journey continues
to be true to the actual experiences of people who share that disability,
or who have experienced similar injuries. (2011, n.p)
Clearly, Breaking Bad is a space for genuine rhetorical negotiations of
Hank is at times represented as desexualized by his disability—
but in the episode “Half Measures” he loses a bet to his wife when she
suggests she can get him aroused in a minute and he believes she can’t.
He does seem depressed to be disabled and fi nds physical therapy tremendously
diffi cult, but, as Smith argues, his “bitterness” seems to be a
genuine aspect of his personality, not something that his disability has
introduced. The disability sometimes seems to dissuade him from doing
any further detective work, yet at other times affords him the time and
space to reconsider new angles on open cases. When Hank does want to
do undercover work, he enlists Walt to be his driver, and this irony creates
incredibly tense moments in the series. Further, because Hank’s insurance
will not pay for all of his medical bills (just as Walt’s insurance would
not pay for the best treatment for him), this plot point situates the series
quietly in the very middle of contemporary contradictions of biopower:
there is no shortage of medical and therapeutic interventions available, all
positioned as matters of life or death, yet all marketed out of the reach of
the social support system. Walt begins secretly using his drug money to
pay for Hank’s treatments too. The irony is thick: in this day and age, you
have to sell illegal drugs to be able to pay for the drugs that keep you vital
or alive, to pay for the therapies that ameliorate your suffering or facilitate
your autonomy. To be “successfully” disabled in late capitalism, it helps to
be a meth millionaire.
The other clearly disabled character, however, is less three-dimensional.
Hector “Tio” Salamanca is himself a former drug kingpin and the
uncle of several drug cartel members. He communicates through facilitated
means, ringing a bell when a nurse or assistant points at a letter
of the alphabet. This facilitated communication is a major plot device
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 55
throughout the series, and Tio’s ability to manipulate people’s expectations
of him shows evidence of “strategic ignorance,” a concept I will
explore in more detail in chapter 3. Tio knows what is going on around
him quite well; he just can’t speak in a conventional way. But he also won’t
ever speak to police, and he holds a grudge very well, enabling and authorizing
his nephews to hunt down Walt Sr. and Hank. Later, these nephews
are the ones who shoot and paralyze Hank. By the explosive conclusion
to the very last episode of season 4, Tio is dead. The way that he dies provides
interesting justifi cation for applying something like the Bechdel Test
to disability texts. The simple question we can and probably should ask
of any disability text is, was the character killed or cured?20 Far too many
fi lms—from Dark Victory in 1939 to Million Dollar Baby in 2004—convey
the message that living with a disability is simply not an option and end
not just with the death of a disabled character, but with the message that
this death is a mercy, maybe even a victory.21
20. This is such a prevalent device that when a fi lm like The Station Agent (2004) places
a disabled character played by Peter Dinklage on a set of train tracks at night, wandering
drunkenly, the inevitability of his death feels so palpable that it is experienced by the
viewer before it happens—and when we see he is still alive in the morning, we are left in a
perhaps-ironic yet still deeply disturbing emotional space. It is hard to feel relief, because
the surprise of the character’s survival seems only to highlight so many other fi lmic disability
21. In fact, if you look at Clint Eastwood’s entire oeuvre as a director, you see that disability
almost always plays a role in the end of his movies, not just in Million Dollar Baby,
where Eastwood himself pulls the plug on the hero, who insists she cannot live with a disability.
In Gran Torino, Eastwood plays the hero, a failing old man, who basically commits
a kamikaze suicide at the end of the fi lm to make the world safer for his young neighbors.
In Mystic River, perhaps the most confounding of all of his fi lms, a mystery is solved at
the end of the movie when we are asked to retrospectively understand that the “deaf boy
did it” simply because he was mad at the world because of his deafness—even though the
character (and this motive, which we are expected to accept unquestioningly) has not been
developed at all in the entire movie. Mary Johnson’s excellent book Make Them Go Away:
Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve, and the Case against Disability Rights (2003) further examines
Eastwood’s battle against the Americans with Disabilities Act in his own business life,
linking his fi lmic representations to his personal politics).
56 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
Because when characters with disabilities die, we often see that they
die not in subtle ways, but spectacularly. In Breaking Bad, Tio is used as
a human bomb to kill the show’s villain. This reveals the essentially
instrumental nature of Hector’s disability and of many disabled characters:
he or she can literally be used as a weapon on a villain, as the
“nuclear option” for the text’s plot. Of course, throughout Breaking Bad,
many more “answers” to a disability test are also very much—and very
Dis Ex Machina
This leads me, fi nally, to a concept I will call disability ex machina (or dis ex
machina). Dis ex machina signals one highly prevalent but underexamined
species of disability myth in popular culture, and it leads directly from
the concept of kill-or-cure that I have also been exploring. In this myth,
disability is more than just a central theme or affective presence, more
than just something that is assigned to a character; disability is instead
(or also) a type of plot or narrative device, a structure and an action. I will
offer a slightly more extended analysis of dis ex machina to conclude this
chapter, adding it to my inventory of disability myths, but also linking
it to a broader range of disability signifi cation that I will expand upon
throughout the book.
The original defi nition of deus ex machina in Horace’s Ars Poetica referenced
the “god in the machine,” used in Greek tragedy—gods literally
appeared in a play to resolve the plot artifi cially (1926, 191). The actors who
played the gods in these plays were either lowered or raised onto the stage
mechanically. Horace warned against this plot device, popularized (and
overused) by Euripedes and others. More contemporary examples of deus
ex machina include The Lord of the Flies, resolved when a ship appears on
the horizon to save the deserted boys. The Harry Potter series is lousy
with gods in machines, and one example of this is the saving grace of a
sword in a hat, delivered to Harry by nothing less than a phoenix in The
Chamber of Secrets.
Dis ex machina is a play on this lazy rhetorical convention, because
disability is often used at the end of a fi lm or book to wrap things up.
For instance, Hector in the TV series Breaking Bad literally becomes the
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 57
human bomb that explodes to end a season and a story line, killing the
antagonist. I have already said enough about the dis ex machina of death:
contemporary texts continue to mass-manufacture this plot device. Cure
narratives and “disability drop” also function as forms of dis ex machina—
the cure of the character with a disability, or the revelation that she or he
was faking it, functions to conclude the story, solve the crime, wrap up the
loose ends. Yet at times dis ex machina can be more subtle.
In Julian Barnes’s auspiciously titled The Sense of an Ending, the 2011
Booker Prize–winning novel, when the narrator, Tony, discovers that a
child born to his best friend and his ex-girlfriend’s mother was disabled,
we are somehow supposed to be able to understand exactly why this
best friend committed suicide.22 The novel is most commonly read as a
“mystery,” and the revelation of a disabled child offers one solution to the
mystery. Of course, there is more going on in Barnes’s book than just a
mystery, as you might guess from the title.23 As the narrator’s best friend
says at one point early in the novel, “History is that certainty produced
at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies
of documentation” (2011, 18). This book is all about senses and gestures,
refractions, circular paths through memory. Thus, even the dis ex machina
at the end of the book holds a subversive note. That we are led to believe
that the narrator can now understand his friend’s suicide—he killed
himself because he had an illegitimate child with an older woman, and
this child was disabled—may very well be a mirage or even a critique of
the impulse toward that easy assumption. At every turn, as he tries to
22. At this point, it would be totally fair to ask why I am analyzing so many winners
and front runners and critical darlings. Isn’t it a bit problematic to only look at these highly
“successful” fi lms, thus reifying this canon? Yes, its problematic, and this problem will
continue as I continue to analyze the “heroes,” heroic texts, and heroic spaces of intellectual
history. But this is in part what I feel I have to do: I need to shake the centrality of our placement
and the surety of our interpretations of these texts to make space within them (and in
every direction away from them) for other meanings.
23. As Barnes would be fully aware, the book shares a title with Frank Kermode’s 1967
book of literary criticism, a book that attempted to connect the ways we imagine the end of
fi ctions and the ways we imagine the end of the world (or the ends of our own lives).
58 • Disability Rhetoric
understand his past, Tony is told he does not get it. He even suggests that
this could be written on his grave stone: “Tony Webster—He Never Got
It.” The reader thus cannot trust the narrator’s sense of the ending, and
thus cannot have a solid sense of any ending. The rhetorical power of
this uncertainty then begins to expand: Is Tony suffering from dementia?
Does this dementia exemplify the imperfection of any form of memory?
Does “the sense of an ending” ask us to read back across all of the ways
that we think we ourselves “get it”?
Sometimes dis ex machina is employed bluntly: Heidi’s friend Clara
jumps up and dances around; the disabled character explodes. And dis
ex machina, like other disability myths, not only gives us ways to read
cultural texts, but also structures social institutions and attitudes. As I
have explored elsewhere, one way to view the dis ex machina in a fi lm like
Million Dollar Baby is that it tells people that if they become disabled, they
will want to die—and it tells their caregivers to help them do so. Failing to
question the fl aws in the machine in the conclusion of Million Dollar Baby,
the movie was taken up by the public as an argument for the “right to die,”
or the right to assisted suicide, in the wake of the Terry Schiavo case.24
But also and at other moments, or through other valences, dis ex
machina is imperfect and opens up as many meanings as it closes down.
Alice Hall has written about the open-ended narrative structures in
Faulkner’s fi ction, suggesting that “the representation of physically and
developmentally disabled characters enable [sic] him to explore alternative
narrative spaces and forms of sensory perception in his fi ction but also
to explore what literary techniques can achieve” (2012, 49). In Faulkner,
the “fragmented body disrupts . . . aesthetic closure” (ibid., 45). The openendedness
of Faulkner’s novels or of The Sense of an Ending also speaks
to a trend that we can read also back through the past few years’ worth
of popular fi lms. From Lost in Translation to No Country for Old Men to
Shame to Inception (not to mention the TV series The Sopranos), the “open
24. See Dolmage and DeGenaro (2005). For more on the Schiavo case, see M. Johnson 2006.
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 59 ending” is en vogue. The prevalence of open endings in fi lms and novels
could be understood as a victory for uncertainty, a strike against the neatness of tropes and conventions, a willingness to retain (or even embrace)
subtleties and weaknesses of signifi cation.
Often, the ending is left open because of disability: in Scorcese’s Shutter
Island, or 2011 Oscar-nominated fi lms Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May
Marlene, the ending is left open because we do not know whether the lead
character is “crazy,” and the scenes at the very end of the fi lm accentuate
or introduce this doubt.25 In this way, the very meaning we are to take
away from the fi lm is toggled by the rhetorical construction of disability—
every moment of the fi lm needs to be read backward, critically, to parse
whether the character’s psychological “abnormalcies” add up to a diagnosis
or rule it out, and this diagnosis would then reframe the entire action
of the fi lm.26 This manifestation of dis ex machina is the very opposite of the simple and lazy forms we often see, even if disability is also here used as a plot or narrative device, instrumentally. That is, the simple way to look
at the role of dis ex machina is that disability, when it appears, will readily
and apparently signify, using the language of disability myth. The more
complex role situates disability itself as always a rhetorical process and
allows the machine to manufacture a range of possible meanings instead
25. I use the term crazy here advisedly—the specifi c “mental disability” of the character is undiagnosed in the fi lm, also perhaps intentionally, because the goal seems to be to construct a somewhat stereotypically “crazy” character, and “accuracy” does not matter so much as the gesture toward the character’s supposed unreliability.
26. This is not exactly a new device in fi lm. And it is worth noting that when the device is used, almost always the fi lm’s narrator is rendered unreliable by disability: in Memento the narrator has antiretrograde amnesia, in Fight Club the narrator is schizophrenic, and in Taxi Driver we might consider Robert DeNiro to have post-traumatic stress disorder
(though I should perhaps be more hesitant in diagnosing and labeling). Looking a bit further
back, we see dis ex machina in the canonical Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The epilogue of this
fi lm reveals that the lead character, through whose eyes we see the action of the movie, is
a patient in an insane asylum—the entire plot is thrown into doubt. Joan Crawford, as the
protagonist of Possessed, also narrates the events of the fi lm, and we later fi nd out these are
paranoid hallucinations.
60 • Disa bi l i t y Rh e t or ic
of one simple one. The audience may be placed into the role of diagnostician,
but the audience also recognizes diagnosis for what it is—often
dangerous, subjective, even frustrating.
The key “lesson” here is that disability representation can never really
be narrowed down to a “test” or an inventory of tropes or myths. This
moves us from looking for what is simply noxious in a representation to
looking for what is anxious, from locating straight stigma to feeling for
curved subtlety. We can object to dis ex machina because it explodes the
reality effect of a given representation, or we can celebrate the idea that
disability exposes the rhetoricity of reality, both in the text and in the bodies
of its actors and audiences.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (1999) explains that to read disability
through the “representational system” she references, and that I have
tried to map through my chart of disability myths, is also to recognize the
hegemony of the norm. As I hope I have shown in this chapter, “normal”
is the myth that sublets all other disability myths within its broader real
estate. Subsequently, the myth of the norm is also what renders disability
myths imperfect, faulty. Disability itself is not necessarily mythical—but
because it is read through reference to an invisible and impossible norm,
disability has had a very unsteady representational power. As Tanya
Titchkosky has argued, “Texts never just get it right or get it wrong insofar
as they are also a ‘doing’—right or wrong, texts are always oriented social
action, producing meaning” (2007, 21).
So it is important to view each of my charted myths as more than just
textual features but also as somewhat less than realized and sedimented
attitudes.27 None of these myths of disability “works” transparently or
27. As Garland-Thomson reminds us, even Aristotle understood that literature and
poetry are normative: “Literary representations depend more on probability—what people
take to be accurate—than on reality.” Garland-Thomson accesses Aristotle’s Poetics here to
make a point about the presence of disability stereotypes in literature: how we produce
“perceptual categories that may harden into stereotypes or caricatures when communally
shared or culturally inculcated” But it could also be said that Aristotle was arguing that
MetisArchive and Anatomy of Disability Myths 61
effi ciently. When these myths surface in narratives or in social life, they
most often signal a breakdown in meaning. These fi gures are “shorthand”
in all of the ways that word might metaphorically and ironically describe
them. Hopefully, I have begun to show where meaning multiplies in the
holes and gaps and errors.
In The Sense of an Ending, Tony Webster “never got it.” In this spirit,
then, a fi tting epitaph for this chapter might be this: Disability Rhetoric—
Never Get It.
literature is where we negotiate “what we take to be accurate” and where, just as some stereotypes
“harden,” others crumble or sublimate (1996a, 11).

myths of disability

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