Media portrayal of Disability and Martial arts (a personal statement)

I have Cerebral palsy (CP). It is a very mild form. I walk, talk and basically function without the aid of drugs or enhancements (braces, walkers etc). I have had my share of surgeries and I have my technological adaptions (mainly on my car) but for the most part I live off the grid (not under a specialists care) and I realize that I have the martial arts to thank for a lot of it.
When I was 7 years old (almost 22 years ago) I had a difficult time with my balance and equilibrium. My pediatrician suggested to my parents, and to me that I should think about the martial arts specifically Karate. Seeing the glint in my eyes my parents decided to sign me up at the local park district Karate class. It is there of all places that I would meet the man who changed my life; my Master.
Over the 2 decades he taught me how to defend myself, defend others, and the philosophy of the martial arts. We grew to become friends (so much so that he was a groomsman at my wedding) but with the understanding that he deserves my respect ( not that he ever demanded it, just that I feel it necessary to give to him.
In my tenure in the martial arts I have recieved two black belts (one third degree in Isshinryu Karate and a Second degree in Kyosho-jitsu) which just means that I know enough to know I don’t know very much :) It took me longer than most because I have to adapt techniques to my body and be comfortable with how my body moves. As I like to say, my techniques aren’t pretty to look at (aka flashy) but they get the job done.
Yet, since I was a young kid I have yet to see a film or a TV show that shows characters with disabilities who have trained in the martial arts that are just people and not the “Super crip” archetype. Not to mention being played by actual People with disabilities (PWD) who are also martial artists instead of the able bodied pretending to be so.

This “super crip” archetype in disability studies is when a character who has a disability gains a special power, and despite the shortcomings of their disability they achieve a greatness that is beyond the other able-bodied characters. Blindness seems to be the most common physical disability portrayed in the “super crip” archetype.
We have such examples as:
A blind swordsman who has no equal

Master Po (Kung Fu)
Who even though he is blind has unparalleled wisdom and skill

Kenshi (Mortal Kombat)
Who has gained a “second sight” and telekinesis due to his blindness

Even Feminist friendly shows like Avatar: the last airbender (not the James Cameron film which is completely ableist and an epic fail) Has the character Toph Bei Fong who because of her unique form of “sight” she is able to manipulate metal; something that no one else is able to do.

Beyond blindness, we get characters like The One-armed Swordsman and the main character from Chocolate. Both of whom because of their disability gained a power that allows them to surpass all of their enemies.
One armed swordsman


I push for a accurate portrayal of disabled martial artists with characters that are rich in complexity and detail and not just a stereotype and whom are not played by PWD.
Note: I love Avatar: The Last airbender and while I find it progressive it would not be fair if I did not subject it to the same level of critique as everything else.

Join the Conversation

  • Spiffy McBang

    “I push for a accurate portrayal of disabled martial artists with characters that are rich in complexity and detail and not just a stereotype and whom are not played by PWD.”
    So write it. It doesn’t have to be Oscar-worthy, just enough to give an idea of how this would differ from (and, really, be similar to) the average martial arts flick.
    The idea of disability combined with martial arts, especially when the effects of that disability can’t be explained away by use of a sixth sense, is something most people can’t comprehend. Even if someone else was willing to try their hand at a project like this, they would probably not do a very good job because they have no concept of what such a character would be capable of.
    If this is something you’d really like to see happen someday, you might have to get the ball rolling yourself.

  • naomi1978

    This is an awesome post. Thanks!!!

  • Maeve

    While not a martial artist, Daphne from Heroes is an interesting case of a PwD that has a super power. I believe she has cerebral palsy too, and her superpower is that of super speed. Somehow, the power allows her to walk and run without the aid of her crutches and braces once she gains her power, but the fact that she has a disability doesn’t cause the super power at all.
    I don’t think she could exactly be considered a positive role model for PwD though, because on the show they barely even touch on her disability. You don’t even find out about it until 3/4 of the way through the story arch that she’s introduced. A solar eclipse causes all the heroes to lose their powers, and as a result her body goes back to the way it was before she gained her power… until the eclipse ends and then she’s back to “normal” along with everyone else. Then they don’t talk about it ever again.

  • Glauke

    Okay, technically he’s not a martial arts hero. Howevery, as I am very much in love with the series right now, I will plug it anyway. He is a cunning strategist, and an invaluable asset to his emperor’s army. Miles Vorkosigan of Lois Bujold McMasters’ Vorkosigan series.
    [spoiler] His mother -who btw kicks some serious butt in the first two parts of the series- survived a nerve gas attack while she was pregnant with Miles. It interfered with his bone structure.