Folklore and disability interact in many ways, some upholding norms & some challenging them, but I would argue that understanding representations of disability in folklore can yield many insights into identity and power.
I decided to do a unit on disability, trauma, and mental health in fairy tales for my First Year Seminar students in the upcoming semester, and so of course I’m knee-deep in research while trying to decide what to assign and what to teach. I’ve been researching the body in folklore for a while (I gave a keynote on the topic, which you can read here), and so it makes sense for me to also study disability in folklore. However, I didn’t receive any instruction on this in grad school, which is kinda a bummer, so I’m doing what I can to rectify those gaps in my knowledge and get acquainted with disability studies on my own. Here’s a bit of insight into my process.
First, some quick terms: I follow fairy-tale scholar Ann Schmiesing in describing disability as a broad umbrella term to include those with differences from an assumed “norm” (itself an unstable category!). Disabilities may be inborn or acquired, and it’s a good reminder for those of us who are currently able-bodied that disability and trauma will come to us all eventually. Ableism refers to the “centering and dominance of nondisabled views and the marginalizing of disability” (Schmiesing 5) and it includes a bunch of problematic assumptions, such as “that all disabled people aspire to be an able-bodied norm, that disabled people are inferior to nondisabled people, and that disability defines and determines an individual’s characteristics” (5).
We also have to keep in mind that contrasting the “normal” with the “abnormal” is a false dichotomy and a fairly recent game; in his introduction to The Disability Studies Reader Lennard J. Davis traces the intertwined history of industrialization and eugenics to place modern concepts of disability therein. He makes the point that :the association between what we would now call disability and criminal activity, mental incompetence, sexual license, and so on established a legacy that people with disabilities are still having trouble living down” (7). So these abstract categories and identity markers have very real impacts on people’s lives.
Further, it’s crucial to keep in mind that terms like “disability” and “disabled” are not unchanging constants. As the editors of Disability in Different Cultures: Reflections on Local Concepts describe in their introduction to the book:
In exploring the wide variety of local concepts of and different ideas and beliefs about disability, it becomes strikingly clear just how differently a disability may be judged. In this light, disability can no longer be perceived as a physical, psychological or mental characteristic which a person is born with or has acquired in the course of her or his life. On the contrary, it becomes evident to what a large degree the attitudes and the interactions with others that are usual in the respective social context form and influence the nature and extent of a disability and thereby determine the life of the disabled person. This altered consciousness with regard to disabilities makes it possible to perceive a condition formerly held to be natural – where the disability was seen as an inborn physical state, entailing consequences viewed as inevitable – as something which can be both changed and shaped. (10, italics in original)
This is a great reminder that concepts of disability are not universal: yes, there are going to be some biological constants across time and space, but if a cultural frames a different body as one with positive attributes, and moreover easily accommodates those differences, is it really the same as inhabiting a similar body in a culture that looks down on that body and refuses to accommodate its needs? The classic example here is visual impairment, which can technically be considered a disability, but since Western cultures accommodate those impairments with aids like contacts and glasses, would a person who wears glasses identify as disabled? Maybe, maybe not. This is also an issue that benefits from an intersectional gaze, or taking into account how multiple marginalizations might impact each other: a disability might be experienced way differently by someone who is rich vs. poor, white vs. a person of color (especially here in the U.S.), cisgender vs. transgender, and so on.
Also, brief content note: I am going to mention and briefly describe some folklore texts that are potentially offensive, not to endorse them, but to analyze them. This is one of those reminders that folklore isn’t all fairy tales and unicorns and puppies and sunshine; in cataloguing the whole range of traditional human expression and creativity, we’re going to run into some nasty stuff.
One obvious point of overlap between folklore and disability is in the realm of folk speech, or folkloric uses of language that deviate from the official dictionary definitions of things. Slang and regional dialect all count as folk speech, and so you’ll see slang terms for various types of disability. You’ll also see folk similes, such as “as blind as a bat,” to describe experiences of disability.
I actually grew up hyper-aware of folk speech around disability, because my mom taught special education for the bulk of her career. Hence I knew that calling someone a “retard” was a slur and hence off the table. It boggles my mind to know that some people still use the word. Even words that are more generally regarded as not being slurs, such as “idiot” and “imbecile,” have an unpalatable history of being used to describe people with developmental disorders a century ago, which ties into the history of eugenics. I try not to use ableist language, though it can be a struggle to find words to replace common phrases that most people don’t view as problematic.
And – brief detour to a parallel here – of course language being political and/or problematized isn’t universally agreed upon. I’m not heterosexual, and I’m in the camp of LGBTQ+ people who believe in reclaiming the word “queer.” Some of us continue to view it as a slur, however, and choose not to self-identify that way. That’s fine. As I understand it, the word “cripple,” once seen as unfailingly negative, is being reclaimed by people in the disability community, imbuing “crip” with positive and communal associations, such as in the slogan “Crip the Vote” which I saw circulating in the last year. Since I’m not disabled, I’m not going to use that word to refer to someone else unless they say “yes, that’s my preferred identification,” same way as I’m not going to call someone “queer” unless they self-identify that way.
Disability shows up in a lot of folk narrative, too. Schmiesing, whose work I mention above, devotes her whole book to disability in the Grimms’ fairy tales, and she makes use of fascinating analytical frames such as that of “narrative prosthesis,” or the idea that in many narratives, the whole plot hinges around “fixing” the disability. We see this in fairy tales such as ATU 706, “The Maiden Without Hands” (read a bunch of versions here at D.L. Ashliman’s wonderful folktale site). Also, there is a gorgeous French animated film version of this tale, The Girl Without Hands which I cannot recommend highly enough (watch the trailer here on YouTube; I haven’t decided whether to teach it, in part because it’s really really heavy).
Another classic example of disability in folk narrative is ATU 1317, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” You can read some texts here at Ashliman’s site, though it’s another example of a rather disparaging look at disabled people. The edited volume Diagnosing Folklore: Perspectives on Disability, Health, and Trauma also contains some examples of disability in folk narrative, such as the disfigured and deranged serial killers from urban legends in Diane Goldstein’s essay and the personal narratives of traumatized war veterans in Kristiana Willsey’s essay.
Disability is sometimes imbued with tinges of the supernatural, magic, and religion; recall the ancient Greek prophet Tiresias, who was struck blind by Hera (after a snake-induced transgender adventure) but rewarded with the gift of prophecy by Zeus. Or consider the changeling – a fairy child left with human parents, while the fairies raise the human child – which folklorists have argued may well have been a way to use the language of the fantastic to describe developmental disorders that were not yet understood.
However, many of these representations of disability in folklore are quite negative. I make the point in my review of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (while also ranting about how transphobic the book is) that turning a marginalized character (such as a disabled character) into a magical creature or a metaphor for something else is a crappy move:
to read disability as a metaphor for powerlessness is bullshit, in a culture where representation of disabled folks as themselves, as real people, is still lagging terribly.
So, this makes it tricky to simply say, “let’s celebrate any/every instance of disability representation in folklore (or literature, or pop culture).” What if that representation is badly done, or inaccurate, or straight-up harmful? What if we (nondisabled folks) only see the “supercrip” (a.k.a. the overachiever, the person who “overcomes” their disability in an inspiration-porn kind of way) OR the disfigured villain (like Dr. Poison in the 2017 Wonder Woman film)? (side note: this is one reason I love the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, because I think they handle disability really well! Go Toph! also, my colleague Sara Cleto, who also writes about disability and folklore, has a blog post about disability in the show from the same creators, The Dragon Prince)
I believe that folklorists can and should be doing work on disability. As Andrea Kitta and Trevor J. Blank point out in their introduction to Diagnosing Folklore, “One of the most significant problems with the study of stigma is that it tends not to take the lived experience of their affected by stigma into account and gives a voice instead to the medicalized authority and expert over lay knowledge” (7). Because attending to local and lay knowledge and prioritizing the voices of everyday people is basically the point of folklore studies, I am hoping that we can do this work, and do it well, though clearly those of us who are nondisabled need to examine our biases before undertaking such work.
Anyway, this is just a brief introduction to the intersections of disability and folklore; there are many more I haven’t touched on here, in areas like material culture, customs, and more that I’ve heard of or read about but don’t have a good enough command of to feel like I should include them here (for instance, the internet has allowed lots of disabled people to connect in unprecedented ways, so the folklore of the internet and social media would be one future area of study). Plus, as a nondisabled person, no doubt there are aspects to disabled culture(s) that I am missing, so I shouldn’t speculate and risk misrepresenting them. Happy reading and thinking, everyone!
Blank, Trevor J., and Andrea Kitta, eds. Diagnosing Folklore: Perspectives on Disability, Health, and Trauma. University Press of Mississippi, 2015.
Davis, Lennard J., ed. The Disability Studies Reader. Fourth Edition. Routledge, 2013.
Holzer, Brigitte, Arthur Vreede, and Gabriele Weigt, eds. Disability in Different Cultures: Reflections on Local Concepts. Transcript, 1999.
Schmiesing, Ann. Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Wayne State University Press, 2014.