Cultural (Mis)representations of Disabilities

Lessons learned from the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)

By Michael Abbott

The Tropes Trap:
Cultural (Mis)Representations of Disability

Presented by Margaret Camp – University of South Carolina Upstate

Trope is a stigma, stereotype, pigeonholes, or narrative

  • Media forms public perception
  • Perception affects actions and treatment
  • Media is absorbed and replicated
  • Stereotypes are normalized through repetition
  • Stigma relies upon reinforcement and repetition
  • Media has been a key reinforcer of negative stereotypes about disability


The presenter identified 5 tropes:

  1. Victim Trope
  2. Supercrip Trope
  3. “Freak” Trope
  4. Sinister Trope
  5. Disability superpower Trope


The Victim Trope

Extreme medical model – ‘cure’ focused – obliterate the disability

  • “The Pity Trope”
  • Pity/Plight, “cure” focused
  • Eternal Innocence, angelic
  • The sentimental
  • “Plucky”, courageous, long-suffering


The Supercrip Trope

If the only disability in life is a bad attitude society is relieved from having to worry about tackling issues of inaccessibility and discrimination.

We don’t need to worry about structural barriers – just changing someone’s attitude.

This trope shames and blames the person with a disability – you don’t have a disability, you have a bad attitude.

  • “Supercrip”, the ‘good cripple’
  • Triumph over tragedy/adversity
  • Overcoming disability
  • ‘In spite of’ disability
  • Hero, warrior, inspiration
  • ‘Can-do’ attitude


The Freak Trope

  • Freak
  • Object of Curiosity
  • Medical curiosities
  • Exotic
  • ‘Freak Shows’ to ‘Shock Docs’ (Shocking Documentaries)


The Sinister Trope

  • Sinister/Evil
  • ‘Mad Scientist’, ‘Evil Genius’
  • Angry about being disabled
  • Incapable of love
  • Obsessed with world domination/power/revenge


The Disability Superpower

  • Disability Superpower
  • Superabled
  • Cyborg
  • Border-Crossers
  • Transhumanists
  • Unfair advantage?


Human Enhancement

As an athlete yourself, do you sometimes identify with Pistorius?

I’ve been accused of cheating. I loved the accusation because the day before, I was a cripple, and they were tapping me on top of my head — “Oh, you’re just so courageous.” That’s so demeaning. Then the moment a person with an unusual mind or body becomes competitive, it goes from “Aren’t you courageous?” to “You’re cheating!” The difference is performance.

Hugh Herr – MIT Engineer, Biophysicist, inventor of bionic legs


We are challenging our false binary categories of :

  • abled/disabled
  • natural/unnatural
  • human/inhuman
  • biology/technology
  • advantage/disadvantage

For those interested in the signs’ message above, here is the actual picture:


We should strive to understand people and not stigmatize individuals. Awareness and openness is the best philosophy.

For more information contact Director of Disability Services, Margaret Camp at mcamp@uscupstate.edu

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