This is a repost from my old blog, part of Redefining Disability
One of my favorite examples of a character with a disability is Geordi Laforge from Star Trek: the Next Generation. Geordi was Chief Engineer aboard the Enterprise,and his role as a scientist was a lot more important than the fact that he was blind.
Geordi was created in 1987, and he is still the main example I use when I talk about how I would like
to see characters with disabilities integrated into a television show or movie franchise. Geordi is also the only example I can think of to show a character with a disability who does not have an acquired injury.
Geordi’s blindness is rarely an “issue” on Star Trek, and that’s because the culture of the United Federation of Planets has moved beyond ours in the sense of putting people in special classes based on categories like race, gender, disability, etc.
Geordi is an engineer because he likes engineering, not because his disability forced him to develop an interest in science or skills as an engineer.
Captain Picard and the other members of the crew rely on Geordi’s expertise, but he’s not perceived as the ONLY person who can do what he does, which means that he’s held to the same standard as any other science officer, not a “special” standard for Geordi as the only blind engineer on board.
There are still times when Geordi’s blindness is relevant. Sometimes having a disability allows him to empathize with another character or see a problem from a different angle. Sometimes his VISOR literally gives him the ability to perceive things that the rest of the crew can’t see. The episode Loud As a Whisper, which I talked about a few days ago, deals with some of the less advantageous aspects of his disability.
In that episode, Doctor Pulaski tells Geordi that she may be able to regenerate his optic nerve and create “normal” eyes for him with the help of a replicator. Geordi is surprised because he’s been told before that regenerating his optic nerve is impossible. He needs to think about it and ultimately he decides against the procedure. Doctor Pulaski makes reference to the “constant pain” that the VISOR causes him, and she can’t understand why Geordi wouldn’t want to have the surgery.
There are several other lines in this episode that highlight the ways in which blindness is part of Geordi’s identity, part of his self perception, and not something that he views as a problem or a medical condition that needs to be fixed. He goes to see Doctor Pulaski for her expertise to help him modify the VISOR and make his daily life more comfortable, but he’s not looking for a cure, and when he’s offered one, he doesn’t want it.
I cried the first time I saw this, because it was the first time I had ever seen disability explicitly presented in the media as a characteristic and part of someone’s identity rather than as a medical problem. The medical emphasis was on helping Geordi achieve a better quality of life and on respecting his choices as an individual.
In disability culture, these concepts are commonly understood, but they’re hard to communicate effectively when talking to an able-bodied audience. That’s understandable because it must be hard for an able-bodied person to imagine that a person with a disability wouldn’t want to be cured.
The predominate assumption is that a disability is a bad thing. Disabilities are seen as tragedies, and it’s been my experience that if I say “I don’t need to be fixed” or even “I don’t need to walk like everyone else,” able-bodied people don’t understand, argue with me, or assume that I’m lazy . They seem to think I’ve given up because they perceive that I’ve chosen the “easier” path and let my disability “win.” Struggling to walk better is somehow “heroic,” even though it means that my disability is then pretty much the center of my life. Choosing to live with a disability because I see it as part of who I am is unfathomable at best and lazy at worst.
Able-bodied people usually assume that their experience of the world is “natural” and mine is not. So, it follows in their minds that a person with a disability like me should want to experience the world in a way that’s as close as possible to their “normal.”
Some people want to be “cured.” They want to devote their time and energy to “getting better,” and see their disabilities largely as medical problems. That’s okay. The right to self-determination, or the right to make one’s own life choices, is a fundamental part of the Independent Living and Disability Rights movements. Every person with a disability should be educated about her options and empowered to make her own choices.
Disabilities don’t always need to be viewed as medical problems. Unless the person’s life is in danger or there are other serious medical implications that make curing the disability an imperative, treatments and how a person chooses to live out her daily life needs to be a matter of personal choice.
- Characters with disabilities should not be in token roles. They should have depth, story purpose, and things to do that aren’t “specially designed” and conceived around their disabilities. They shouldn’t be the “only” person who is capable of performing their jobs.
- Adaptive technology can and should be employed to allow a character with a disability to function in a physically active, varied role.
- Adaptive technology should not be employed to make the disability a non-issue.
- Disability can be relevant to the character’s development without being tragedy or the central focus of the character’s life.
- Characters with disabilities need to be held to the same standards of performance and accountability as every other character.
- De-medicalization means that we stop viewing disability as primarily a medical problem and trying to cure it. Medical treatment should needs to emphasize quality of life and personal choice.
- Self-determination means that every person can and should be making his or her own choices in every area of life. People need to be educated about self-care and issues of independence, given options, and (when necessary) provided with assistance and supports. Ultimately, each person is responsible for him or herself and individual choices should be respected.
- Geordi La Forge Contact Lenses Are Actually Happening (toplessrobot.com)
- Laforge Optical debuts its fashionable, prescription smart glasses on Indiegogo (venturebeat.com)