Webcast archive: Disability, stereotypes and assisted suicide

This week, we’re looking at disability stereotypes – everything from the object of pity to the overtly “normal.”

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck, Christian Debray and Taylor Hyatt discuss:

  • Disability, stereotypes and assisted suicide

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.


  • This week, we’re exploring stereotypes of disability. We’ll be talking about what stereotypes are, where they come from, their purpose, and how they’ve changed over time.
  • One definition of a stereotype is a “[popular] but fixed and oversimplified” idea about something or someone, often having negative connotations. Since most media are produced by and for the nondisabled majority, disability is shown from the outside looking in. In a 1992 article, Disability scholar Colin Barnes identified the most common and damaging stereotypes of disability from literature, television, music and film:
    • Pitiable and pathetic.  The perfect example of this stereotype is Tim Cratchit from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” better known as Tiny Tim.  This stereotype of the brave and cheerful but incapacitated disabled child was especially used by charities (run by non-disabled people) to raise money to fund research to find cures for disabilities, such as Muscular Dystrophy.
    • Sinister and evil.  In children’s stories, and adult literature, you can always tell who’s the bad guy, he’s the one with the hunchback / eye patch / scar / wooden leg / prosthetic hand, etc.  Not only is disability an outward sign of the villain’s evil and violent nature, it also stands for his bitterness about being disabled, which drives him to commit crimes.  From the Bible to Captain Hook to most of the villains in the James Bond films, evil is represented by disability.  This stereotype has been used throughout history to justify the killing and mistreatment of visibly disabled people.
    • Dependent (and therefore, a burden) on non-disabled people and society.  In this view, “disabled people are helpless and must be ‘cared’ for by non-disabled people.” It focuses on the medical model of disability (disabled people as objects of medical care), where the “fix” is provided by medical professionals, and disabled people have no expertise in managing our own lives.  The social model of disability, where public policies, environmental barriers and attitudes combine with a person’s limitation to disable them, recognizes that with social supports, disabled people can “achieve the same level of autonomy and independence as non-disabled people.” The burden/dependence stereotype was popularized by the eugenics movement and is seen most often in media coverage of the murders of disabled people and is an important driver of the assisted suicide and euthanasia movement.
    • Freak or object of ridicule.  Whether it’s “The Elephant Man” or Mr. Magoo, disabled people are often shown either as freaks of nature, or as inept objects of ridicule.  From Monty Python (Gumby theatre) to Donald Trump, comedians and politicians get laughs by mocking disabled people.  An audience that is gawking or laughing at someone is putting distance between themselves and the object of their amusement.  They are “nothing like” the person, they have no chance or obligation to learn about disability from people who live it firsthand.  Again, the stereotype lets non-disabled people justify treating disabled people poorly.
    • Super-cripple.  When talented disabled people are held up as examples for having “overcome their disabilities” or having “extraordinary abilities” in films such as “The Theory of Everything,” “My Left Foot” or “The Scent of a Woman” this creates the stereotype of the “Super Cripple.” “Inspiration porn” is the related practice of heaping excessive praise on a disabled person for ordinary activities, like going shopping or to work.  The Super Crip stereotype sets up an expectation that all disabled should be able to succeed despite their disabilities; it doesn’t recognize the limiting effects of discrimination and barriers.  Inspiration porn sets up a standard of behaviour for disabled people; that they should always be “brave” and “plucky” and never become discouraged or angry at the discrimination they face.  Otherwise, they might fall into the next stereotype …
    • Bitter, self-pitying, our own worst enemy.  This story begins with a person who is having trouble adjusting to a new disability.  He needs a non-disabled person to set him on the road out of self-pity to acceptance and productivity.  This is shown in films such as “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Passion Fish” and “Coming Home.”  The stereotype gives society an excuse to ignore the frustration expressed by disabled people at barriers and discrimination by chalking it up to the person’s own lack of adjustment.  It also paints the non-disabled person as hero for helping the disabled person see the light.  It’s interesting to note the twist on this plot which has become popular in the past 20 years; salvation through assisted suicide.  The disabled person is no longer required to “get on with his life.”  A heroic disabled person (such as Maggie in “Million Dollar Baby” or Will in “Me Before You” will die rather than give up his non-disabled view of himself.
    • Sexually abnormal.  If you believe the media, disabled people are either asexual, impotent (until helped by a non-disabled person), or sexual predators.  The pathetic disabled person is forever childlike, with no sexual feelings, function or needs.  This stereotype applies more to disabled women than men, who are often shown as bitter and self-pitying because they have lost their masculinity; that is, until a non-disabled woman helps them to get it back by having sex with them.  The other stereotype is applied especially to people with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities, and that is a person who cannot control their sexual feelings and are therefore a danger to the public, such as Erik in the Phantom of the Opera. Creating stereotypes about the sexuality of a minority group is a common practice of oppression, and has been used to justify the killing, jailing and institutionalization of black and disabled people over the centuries.  The asexual stereotype was used to justify the “Ashley treatment” named for a disabled girl who had surgery to prevent her maturing into an adult.
    • Normal.  In TV shows such as “Star Trek, The Next Generation” disability is portrayed as a normal, accepted part of life, as long as the technology keeps working properly.  The disabled character is not looking for a cure, doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, and isn’t freakish.  If disabled people are “just like everyone else,” there is no reason for them to be mistreated or excluded from society. But this line of thinking also means that nothing needs to be done to change attitudes or remove barriers. The denial of disability as an important aspect of identity also has profound social and psychological effects.
  • Since Professor Barnes’ paper was written 25 years ago, there have been important steps toward barrier removal in transit, housing, and other areas of daily life. Although these developments have brought more people with disabilities into the public sphere, they have only caused a shift, not a decrease, in the use of stereotypes.
  • Because we’re steeped in ableist imagery, it’s hard to realize or admit that we carry these images with us. The danger related to assisted suicide arises when a person becomes disabled as an adult, and suddenly applies all of those negative stereotypes about disability to themselves.  It makes the adjustment process that much more difficult.
  • The solution to this ignorance might seem simple at first; if nondisabled storytellers can’t get it right, disabled people should be telling our own stories.  But like women, people of colour, indigenous people and LGBT folks, disabled people face discrimination when looking to take their place in front of, and behind the camera.  As these other groups have discovered, getting rid of stereotypes like “the ditzy blonde,” or “the alcoholic Indian,” is not easy, because they are used to maintain the social order.
  • Next week, we’ll talk more about the connection between stereotypes, violence against disabled people, and medical killing.