Do you have a secret identity hidden from friends and family? Do you have talents and abilities that seem almost supernatural to others? Do you fight for social justice and dream of a fairer world? If your answer is “yes” to any of those questions, you might be a superhero and not realise it!
In the quest for positive images of disability in culture and the media, one might not think to look in the genre of superhero movies and comic books. Yet here is where we find characters such as Professor Xavier, leader of the X-Men, who is a wheelchair user with extensive mental powers; and Dare-Devil, blind lawyer by day, vigilante crime-fighter by night. It is easy to spot these characters as having visible and recognised disabilities, but there is more to it than that.
The social model of disability (as opposed to the medical model) states that disability arises from the failure of mainstream society to incorporate physical, sensory, neurological and intellectual diversity within its structures. If the structures and institutions of society were designed differently, people who now have disabilities could live as equals in the mainstream without being at a disadvantage. Superheroes live outside of mainstream society because their physical differences – flight, invisibility, telepathy, quick reflexes – are too far from social “norms” to be integrated into the community. For this reason, most superheroes have one “normal” identity with which they interact according to social expectations, and another secret superhero identity, where they can use their talents and skills to benefit society without that self-same society being aware of it.
Many people with disabilities with whom I have spoken feel a division or split in their persona; demonstrating to one part of society their disability and needs for support, while simultaneously demonstrating to others their independence and capabilities. As a visually impaired person, I catch myself sometimes putting on an act of being “blind” – not making eye contact, very deliberately navigating by touch – so that people around me will be aware of my visual impairment without accusing me of “faking it”. At other times, I find myself utterly belittling my disability to demonstrate that I am a capable, talented person; to show to others who I am without them becoming fixated on a white cane or guide dog. The same is true of Dare-Devil (played by Ben Affleck in the movie), who uses a white cane for mobility when he is plain old Matt Murdoch, the lawyer, but who leaps from building to building using touch and hearing to fight crime by night. Despite the cliché of those with sensory disabilities having almost super-human powers in their other senses to compensate, I have to admit that others often find the acuity of my hearing uncanny. As if that weren’t enough, the same genetic condition that reduces my vision and makes me hypersensitive to pain, also gives me a hyperacuity in other senses. Until today, when this subject was raised, I did not think it extraordinary that I can smell cancer. I can see how this ability might seem supernatural to others.
Superhero personae, as well as those of super-villains, are often created through trauma and accident – the Joker’s accident at a chemical factory; Batman’s witnessing his parents’ murder, inspiring a drive for vengeance. However, it can just as often be a genetic mutation – the X-Men are all mutants shunned from mainstream society; the TV series “Heroes” where genetic mutations cause a number of “powers” to manifest. It is particularly interesting to note that a character such as Daphne from “Heroes” develops a superpower (she can run mind-numbingly fast) in contrast to a pre-existing condition of cerebral palsy. The film “Unbreakable” by M. Knight Shyamalan, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis, revolves around Jackson’s character, nicknamed “Mr. Glass”, seeking out and encouraging Willis’ character, who has never been sick a day in his life. Mr. Glass was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, giving him brittle bones and limiting his physical life. Being a fan of comic books, he believes there must be someone out there with an “opposite” condition to his own. He pushes the “unbreakable”, super-strong Willis into taking a super-hero crime-fighting role, allowing Mr. Glass to assume the position of “super-villain”. This film quite clearly shows how the medical model of disability has pushed Mr. Glass’ character into a bitter and resentful pursuit of life: unfortunately, quite a common “super-villain” origin story.
Another aspect of the superhero myth with which people with disabilities can identify is the realm of bionic implants and prosthetics. The X-Men’s Wolverine has an implanted skeleton of adamantium which gives him inbuilt claw-like weapons; Batman’s love for gadgets and gismos is well-known; and Robocop is brought back from the edge of death by being fitted with a range of prosthetics and computerised implants that make him the ultimate crime-fighting machine.
So, does your wheelchair or prosthetic limb enable you to go faster than your flat-footed compadres? Does your ability to interpret sound and have a 360° awareness of your surroundings mean that you know what’s going to happen before everyone else? Does your unique way of understanding and perceiving the world around you enable you to come up with solutions that “normals” would never think of? Your secret identity may be so secret that you don’t even know it yourself…