Saint Disability Day: Why are PWDs So Often Portrayed as Saints?

Hello, readers,

I would say top o’ the afternoon, but I hear actual Irish people find that expression silly and offensive. I can’t say I blame them; I guess that’s like non-Southerners assuming that all us people from the South say “howdy” when we mean “hi.” That being said, I do take the opportunity St. Patrick’s Day presents to embrace my Irish heritage. I also took it as an opportunity to go through this blog’s March archives in search of a new idea.

Like the proverbial pot of gold, I found one. I felt it would work as a blog bonus. On this saint’s day, let’s talk about saints. Specifically, let’s talk about the fact that in books, the media, and sometimes in real life, PWDs are portrayed as saints, psychic, or something in that vein.

I’m not saying this is always wrong. For example, if we didn’t have the PWDs featured in Bible stories, we might not know as much about Jesus’ healing capabilities (I’m not touching the implications of those stories because we have before, and that’s just how ancient Israel thought of disability). There are patron Catholic saints of certain disabilities–for example, my research revealed there is a cerebral palsy patron, St. Giles. It’s not even wrong to show a compassionate or spiritual character with a disability in the media. Just as PWDs should not be excluded from anything else, they are not excluded from feeling compassion or loving a God (whatever manifestation that is, although they are often portrayed in Judeo-Christian media).

As we know, the problem comes in when the character or even real-life person is too saintly, too perfect. An example might be Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol. Yeah, it’s Dickens, but in today’s world, would we really expect the kid to be that sweet and forgiving all the time? Personally, if a cruel boss was always taking my dad’s time and I was perpetually ill, I’d be rather ticked off!

I’d like to take this one step further, though. One of my frequent readers once asked the question: if X character with a disability is not saintly or psychic or spiritual, do they even have a place in the story? (Some characters, such as Robert Whitlow’s eponymous Jimmy, talk to angels despite cognitive issues. Some can see or sense what others can’t, and most are considered to have an inroad with God that the rest of the world does not).

Too often, modern books and media fail this litmus test. For instance, I recently read a Christian romance book in which the female protagonist had a sister with cerebral palsy. Mollie, the sister, was blind and could not speak. Fine–some manifestations of CP are severe. However, she was never shown communicating or showing interest in anything, which seems odd in our world of assistive technology. Her one defining trait seemed to be an ability to “heal,” allegedly imbued by God. In other words, just being around this sightless, voiceless woman allegedly made others, including the book’s hero, a Marine with PTSD, feel better and embrace life more.

I had to ask myself, without that healing ability, is Mollie a necessary character? Moreover, why did the author choose to write her this way? I raised those questions in a two-star Amazon review, but they may never be answered.

All I can do is plead once again with the media, especially Christian media, to think about what they’re doing. Stop using Jesus as an excuse to paint PWDs as His poor, pure little lambs. Stop imbuing these characters with psychic ability just so you can tell yourself you’re giving them uniqueness (it’s not unique; it’s all over the place. TV Tropes even calls it the Magical Disabled Person, for crying out loud).

When you expect a person with a disability to be a saint–without the actual Catholic canonization, that is–you’re dumping a lot of pressure on them, as we’ve discussed. You’re also not helping the case for inclusion and normalization. I would instead much rather see characters with disabilities allowed to live rich lives and have real experiences. Are modifications sometimes necessary for that? Yes, and that should be discussed, but not overplayed. And if you’re going to have a character with a superpower, who also happens to have a disability, why not make it unique and fun? Instead of communicating with angels or seeing Jesus in mac and cheese, why not have the character time travel? Use locator spells to find missing persons, a la Once Upon a Time? Use mind control on enemies? Anything but this sugary psychic stuff.

Let’s give PWDs real power today, by showing them that they are valuable in all realms. Then maybe we’ll all feel a little luckier and more light-hearted.


1 Comment

  1. Well said. PWDs with super-powers just like TAB folks would be fun (like professor X!) But PWDs given magical powers solely for the use of TAB people around them and given no other function or character? No thanks.

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