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Breaking down barriers

December 3, 2014

Today is the International Day of People with a DisAbility (IDPWD).
Weavers at work  (LOC)

This image is from the Library of Congress on Flickr Commons and features blind women weaving what appears to be rugs. The image is circa 1910-1915.

Recently Martin Mantle (Armidale Library) and Cathy Johnston (Coffs Harbour Libraries) chatted around the theme of disability in reading. Here’s how the conversation went:

Cathy: When you look back across the range of reading there are many characters to choose from who are enabled by their impairment to show strength and inclusion and heroism of spirit and of self. Indeed, it seems almost necessary that the strongest characters are those that must struggle the hardest for their goals.

Martin: And this raises a key question for me when reading, what is the purpose of the impairment? Is it just there to tell me that having an impairment is a bad thing to be struggled against? Is it just a way of invoking an emotional reaction? How is a fictional character with an impairment ever more than just a cypher.  I have been rereading the Fleming Bond novels and in his first Casino Royale, his villain who may have some breathing difficulties (the benzedrine inhaler was marketed for its therapeutic properties, but it also had the added side-effect of inducing a high) was named Le Chiffre which is noted as a variation on the word ‘cypher’. Indeed, villainy and impairment is a common trope in the Bond novels. And clearly a continued alignment of impairment with evil contributes to wider negative beliefs about disability. But equally in the Bond novels the struggle against injury is not about the struggle against the perception and treatment of people with living with impairments, its about valorising the able body – and in Bond’s case the almost superhuman able body (who is also white and male). Bond always recovers from his wounds, the villain is always stuck with the impairment.

C: Yet often it is the frailties of a character that bind the reader to them and to the story. Perhaps it reminds us that despite whatever adversities face us we too can overcome, or make best with what little we may have.

M: I think this is often the case, but this makes me wonder if this doesn’t just place such characters (and by extension the people we meet who are ‘like’ those characters) as outsiders. there is always the risk with making the unusual exceptional that such people are never seen as an integral part of everyday society.

C: Films often make great use of the impairment-to-empowerment theme. Consider Jake Sully (Avatar), Toothless, Hiccup and Gobber (How to train your Dragon), Dr Strangelove (Dr Strangelove), Aron Ralston (127 hours), Professor Charles Xavier (X-men), Lt. Dan (Forrest Gump), John Merrick (The Elephant Man), Zatoichi (Zatoichi, the blind swordsman), Ron Kovic (Born on the 4th of July), and Christy Brown (My Left Foot). Yet this is often balanced with the evil characters also featuring some disability or impairment. Is not Doctor Who’s nemesis, The Master, an insane psychopath? Does not the Bond villain, Scaramanga, feature a third nipple? Darth Vader anyone?

M: I think it is important to separate these films and novels into two groups. The purely fictional and the based in real life. It is interesting to compare the characters of Jake and Professor X. Jake spends most the film out of his wheelchair. Professor X spends all of it in one. In the latest incarnation of the X-Men franchise the films focus on the younger unimpaired version of the character and this shows how the character of  Professor X is a reworking of two classic myths of disability – impairment as punishment and the compensator myth of impairment. The younger Charles is too arrogant and this leads to his impairment. In the latest film Days of Future Past, his impairment and his psychic abilities are paired. He loses his impairment and loses his enhanced mental capacities; he regains his superpower and is consequently impaired again. So we are told, he can either walk and be ‘normal’ or be in a wheelchair and be a superhero. Jake, of course has his heroism rewarded by gaining a new able (super-able?) body. Indeed, early in the film the offer of a repaired body is the reward for this participation in the Avatar program. And as a identical twin, we are adamantly reminded of the value placed on the unimpaired body. His twin was the original participant in the Avatar project, Jake is a second and reluctant choice. The only thing that separates them is Jake’s impaired body which is a damaged version of the body that was wanted (wanted by both the Avatar program leaders and by Jake himself).

C: Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm feature a main character, Cormoran Strike, who is a war veteran who has lost part of his leg. Matthew Reilly’s Scarecrow and Jack West Jr series both feature characters with impairments ranging from deafness and photophobia to titanium limbs. Reilly’s latest novel, The Great Zoo of China features a heroine with a damaged scarred face. In each instance, these characters have moved beyond their injury to continue, if not excel in their chosen field.

John Scalzi’s recent novel Lock In explores where a worldwide pandemic has swept the globe yet only “95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four per cent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in” – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. New technologies emerge to help those who suffer from the condition – a virtual reality network and a system of “riding” in the bodies of other individuals. A facet of the virtual reality network is that the locked-in patient can upload themselves to a carrier robot anywhere – minimising transportation needs. Lock In is a murder mystery set in this post-apocalyptic world and challenges the very core of disability and discrimination. It does so, mind you, with gentle humour and startling wit.

M: There is no doubt that technologies that provide people with disabilities the opportunity to fully participate in society are one of the main focuses of disability advocacy. There are however some issues with the representation of what is dubbed “assistive technology” in novels and films. Firstly, the use of such technology can too easily buy into monster or freak myths about disability. The Cyborg is often used as a symbol of technology’s negative impact on the human body – making the the human less human (the fear of the technology taking over – for example The Terminator franchise). The representation of assistive technologies can also entrench ideas of the disabled as exceptional in the sense of not more than ordinary (extra-ordinary) but not-ordinary. Thus the disabled are continued to be made not a regular part of society but a part that needs special assistance over and above what would be given to other non-disabled. Also, it is important that the disabled be shown not just as recipients of the technological largesse or wisdom of the non-disabled. The disabled are often instigators of and early adopters of technology and this too needs to be represented and recognised. As a counterpoint to the concerns of representing the disabled as not-ordinary is in the comic routines of Adam Hills. Hills, stand-up comedian and the host of the BBC television chat show The Last Leg  makes a very funny and pertinent point when he says that the word “disabled” places people in a less powerful position and that we would take more seriously the problem of parking in a disabled car space if we used the word “mutant” instead to refer to people with disabilities. There is a real issue here that we regard the extraordinariness of a disabled person differently from the extra-ordinariness of say an elite able-bodied athlete. Whilst there has been some move to rectify this governments and society in general has been happy to spend millions of dollars on the assistive technologies for able-bodied athletes (shark skin swimsuits, carbon fibre pole vaults etc) but not on the assistive technologies for the everyday needs of people living with a disability.

C: From a reader’s point of view there have been some wonderful technologies which enrich the enjoyment of and access to reading.

  • eBooks
  • eAudiobooks
  • tablets/ipads/etc
  • eReaders
  • rich metadata enabling the digital reading of a web page

M: I have always argued that these kinds of technologies are very enabling. I believe that the advent of eBooks etc has the potential to extend the reading lives of people. I am though interested (perhaps disturbed?) by the recent work by the esteemed neuroscientist Susan Greenfield who has written about the negative effects of digital technologies. Greenfield is concerned about the effects on the brain from increasing use of digital technologies stating in her latest book Mind Set that she is “fascinated by the potential effects of a screen oriented daily existence on how we think and what we feel…” But as I continue to read this book I wonder who she is referring to when she writes “we think” and “we feel”. Whilst there is a lot of anxiety in the writing about digital technologies in terms of the amount of time spent using the technologies and the immersive quality of that use,  I think it is important to ensure that the potential negative consequences Greenfield highlights is not used to limit or remove from the disabled the use of mediating digital technologies or to make the idea of the use of technologies by the disabled as the exception to an able-bodied rule. When Greenfield quotes from studies of the use of digital technologies I wonder whether those studies ask a question about the disability of the users and whether asking this question would change the way we interpret the results? Commenting on studies about paper use (and here I read a wider concern about physical books versus eBooks) Greenfield highlights two concerns that interaction with the physical interaction (using hands??) when reading paper leads to higher comprehension that accessing information on-screen  and that screen-based reading has higher potential for eye-strain leading to less comprehension. But I think there is an assumption about comparing the use of paper and screen by able-bodied users.

M:  For library staff an excellent tool for raising your awareness of disability is the The Resource for Equitable Access to Libraries (REAL) available at  A project developed the State Library of Victoria, Vision Australia and Public Libraries Victoria Network, there is an excellent online training module that I was pleased to discover that I could enrol to use even though I wasn’t a resident of Victoria. The learning modules have easy-to-use interactive activities that are informative as well as enhance the experience. I recommend you sign up today.


For further reading you may want to explore:

For more information about the UN sanctioned International Day of People with a DisAbility please go to

Thank you Martin and Cathy.

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