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Representations of disability in fiction

Earlier this month, author T K Roxborough won New Zealand’s Margaret Mahy book award for ‘Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea’. In addition to a well-told narrative that draws on mātauranga Māori and illustrates its world beautifully, Charlie Tangaroa is powerful for another reason. The eponymous Charlie has one leg, marking him as extraordinarily gifted: able to travel between the world of mortals and gods.

Photo: Radio New Zealand 2021 []

Representations of disability in mainstream fiction have changed enormously over the past decades. It’ll surprise few that early cinematic depictions of people with disabilities are problematic. Many chose to caricaturise disabled people, treating these characters as props or comedic foils to advance plots that were dehumanising: versions of victimhood, villainhood and submissiveness without emotional attachment. Visible disabilities were often exaggerated and treated as impediments to a well-rounded and fulfilling life while invisible disabilities were treated as sinister or distorted in attempts at comedy.

While modern depictions of disability are more nuanced, more work is needed to display the myriad identities that fall under the ‘disability’ umbrella. Even in August 2021, protagonists with disabilities are rare in fiction. Dignified portrayals of protagonists with disabilities are even rarer. A study released by Nielsen and US not-for-profit, RespectAbility, found that although depictions of disability have improved – using today’s social and cultural standards – few disabled actors were cast in TV and movie roles. According to RespectAbility vice-president, Lauren Applebaum, of 90,000+ films and TV shows that debuted since 1970, 95% of characters with disabilities have been portrayed by actors without disabilities. The effect? Mainstream representations of disability that are more likely to be inaccurate, undignified and patronising.

So what can people with different abilities but a shared interest in our collective dignity do? For one thing, we can invest our time, attention and resource in narratives that focus on the diverse and nuanced lived experiences of people with disabilities. Narratives that won’t be hijacked by unrealistic tropes around ‘curing’ disability or by compromising a protagonist’s identity and interests because of a disability. We also need more conversation on what it is to be disabled today, led by people with disabilities.

Social media has given powerful platforms to people with different lived experiences and diverse disabilities. Content creators on Instagram and TikTok have created space for conversations that mightn’t have occurred without them. Some content creators have chosen to share their spotlight, creating space for the opinions and identities of other under-represented peoples through their social media stage. Instagrammers, @sophia_malthus, @fpdn_australia, @mia.mingus and @augustusmorning, are examples who use their platform to comment on the world, share humour and amplify the work of other advocates, for example in the disability, indigenous rights and climate justice space.

This brings us back to Charlie Tangaroa. With her portrayal of visible disability, mātauranga Maori and our natural ecosystem, author T K Roxborough compels readers to dive into a world that is familiar and fresh at once. Among the many reasons that this book works so well is that it dignifies the identities, intellect and agency of its central characters, just as it dignifies the identities, intellect and agency of its readers. Perhaps this is one of the many strengths of dignified representations of disability in media: recognising that we are each the heroes of our own story.

Copies of Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea can purchased from HUIA Bookshop using the link below:

20th August 2021


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