GeekGirlCon ’13 Programming Round-Up: Geeks With Disabilities

Written by Adrienne M. Roehrich, Manager of Editorial Services

Not too many weeks ago, GeekGirlCon ‘13 was held in Seattle, WA. ‘Geeks With Disabilities’ was a late addition to the programming at GeekGirlCon ‘13. Half-blind and half-deaf geek Elsa Sjunneson-Henry led the panel with ally Stevi Costa, a graduate student in literature who’s work focuses on disability in literature.

In case you missed the panel description on the Fresh Sheet: “From cosplay to comics to literature to superheroines, Geeks with Disabilities explores both the real life experiences of persons with disabilities (both visible and invisible) and their fictional media counterparts.”

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry in cosplay at GeekGirlCon ‘13. Image courtesy of Elsa Sjunneson-Henry.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry in cosplay at GeekGirlCon ‘13. Image courtesy of Elsa Sjunneson-Henry.

First up, they tackled, “Why we should be talking about disability in pop culture. Why is it important to us, why is it important to have at a con like this.”

The use of disability in mainstream media is often used as a narrative crutch or as inspiration porn, and is usually something that happens to a character, not as a birth trait (unless the character is supernatural or a superhero.) And then the focus is on overcoming the disability. Stevi points out that an able-bodied viewer then reads that as an inspiration for overcoming obstacles. Elsa says as a person with a disability, she “dreams about things I want to do, not the things I can’t do.”

This led into a discussion about Glee, a show they love to “hate-watch.” Glee was chosen as a place to start because it is promoting a neo-liberal, multi-diversity, body-positive, all-inclusive environment. Critiques included having an able-bodied person play the wheelchair using character, who, in one episode, gets out of his wheelchair and dances. The episode is doubly unfortunate because it completely obliterates the previous effort of the show up until that point of normalizing this situation.

In another episode, an outrageously expensive piece of equipment, the ReWalk, appears. This is an amazing tool that creates an odd juxtaposition that it is never seen in the series again. Elsa says, “If someone gave me a bionic eye for Christmas, you can be sure as hell I’d be wearing it every single day.”

Yet, they later do other things right. For instance, two paralyzed characters get together and crack what Stevi calls “a great joke afterwards that nobody gets unless they were a person with a disability or an ally in that community.”

Elsa points out the episode in The Glee Project where a music video about bullying was being made, and the cane of the blind character was taken away as a bullying moment. This moment was painful to Elsa, who has experienced the same situation where bullies have taken her cane away in order to make fun of her. In addition, the show handled it very poorly by not admonishing the actor who made this decision, which could have hurt his scene partner.

They moved onto the character Becky Jackson, a character with Down Syndrome played by an actor with Downs. Stevi particularly likes her sassiness. Her character was well-developed, and then inexplicably she becomes a school-shooter. Her action and motivation are inconsistent with the character. Her motivation is given as she is afraid to graduate, which implies there is no life for those with disabilities after they leave the support of high school. Elsa points out “I survived, I went to college, I did all of the things I wanted to do, and now I’m sitting in front of you because I actually have a profession.” She clarifies that she was afraid to leave her very supportive high school where she was given tools to excel, but that she went out into the world, and it didn’t require blowing fear out of proportion into harming those around her.

Comics were delved into, with specific mentions of Oracle, a character that had been paralyzed and then was cured in the reboot of her storyline. She is the most high profile woman in comics with a visible disability, and the creators took that away. Not only was she in a wheelchair, she was drawn correctly, which got a thumbs up. Daredevil was well-liked because he was blind and used a cane and was super awesome and had some extra-sensory stuff going on. Unfortunately, he never used his cane while in his superhero costume. Elsa wanted to see a superhero’s cane, so she had someone make her one. Notwithstanding, the movie, with its Braille credits, didn’t even keep Elsa viewing for more than the first couple minutes.

Photo by Tyler Pruitt.

Photo by Tyler Pruitt.


This brought the panel into a discussion of disability and cosplay. “People with disabilities should be able to cosplay. We should be able to cosplay as whoever we want. And I believe we should not be told, ‘you cannot play that character because you are blind’,” says Elsa. When cosplaying, able-bodied people can fall into some issues. One of which is asking those with disabilties where they got their props – such as a cataracted eyeball. Elsa has been asked exactly this about her blind eye which she has from birth as a Rubella baby.

Another issue becomes that of cultural appropriation. While cosplay in cultures involving race and ethnicity has a voice, one that is still silent is that of disability. Disability does have a culture. So, when able-bodied people put on a disability, such as an eye patch, a cane, a wheelchair, as a costume, when they disable themselves for fashion or costuming, it makes Elsa and many of her friends very frustrated. They need legitimacy. They need to be recognized and read as people with disabilities. The more that able-bodied people use disability as a costume and fictionalize it, the more the disabled have to explain themselves. Elsa says, “Also, I really like it when people treat me like a human being and not like a fictional character.”

From there, the discussion moved onto what happens when able-bodied actors play disabled characters and then are rewarded for doing so. It intensifies the fictionalization problem. Examples include Daniel Day Lewis playing Christy Brown in My Left Foot, Al Pacino’s oscar for playing a blind man (badly), and Tom Hanks who is rewarded for both Forrest Gump and Philadelphia.It is pointed out that there are many actors who have the disabilities these able-bodied actors are wearing, that directors could be using. When The Miracle Worker appeared on Broadway a few years ago, a call went out for visually impaired actresses to play Helen Keller. Unfortunately, they were slated to be an understudy for an able-bodied actress. This is problematic. An attendee mentioned that name recognition is a part of that cycle. Stevi says that the ‘cult of personality’ that arises around actors doesn’t happen with disabled actors because it is seen as a limitation.

The panel asks, Can we shift from seeing disability as a limitation to seeing what we can do with people of various bodies?

The panel moved onto discussing conventions (cons) and accessible spaces. GeekGirlCon got some kudos for having Introvert Alley, a place for people to go to relax and find some peace away from the crowds, and also because the community of GeekGirlCon is respectful. Elsa mentions seeing many people with disabilities present who seem pretty comfortable. She relates the story that someone recognized her SteamCane as a White Cane and moved someone out of the way for her, which was a novel experience for her at a con. Other cons were called out for a lack of accessibility. Cons can do well to think about things like how to get around, having ASL interpreters, having the hearing aid link into the sound system available, and including panels that discuss these things.

A question arose about how to read if a disability exists and if the tool that is being used is necessary. This discussion did spark a bit of ire in the attending group. Generally it came down to trust. It’s inappropriate to request someone disclose their disability – visible or invisible. Unfortunately, there is enough stigma surrounding having a disability requiring a tool, such as having a therapy dog present, that people are highly uncomfortable self-identifying with those disabilities. There becomes a line where someone who is trying to be an ally can cross into policing. Again, trusting people to be using a tool to take care of their own (likely invisible) disability, of which there are many, rather than abusing such a tool or putting on the tool as a way to get something they want, is necessary.

This transitioned into the topic of policing. We moved a little out of the realm of geek culture into life in general. Stevi brings up the topic of able-bodied people becoming angry at someone for using a handicap parking space who doesn’t appear to need it, but it isn’t really the place of an able-bodied person to take on that issue. There are those who don’t need their cane every single day. Just because Elsa can wear glasses and read her smart phone does not mean she isn’t blind. She is blind and having an able-bodied person ask her if she is really blind or pick up her white cane because he is curious infringes on her person. She says, “It isn’t okay.” It isn’t okay for any person to investigate her disability and inquire as to how she became disabled. (Disabled cred, anyone?) Generally, socially, people with disabilities are seen as public property, and not as the human beings they are.

Bringing it back into media, Stevi points out that much of the viewpoint of people with disabilities being investigated comes from the narrative of the able-bodied become disabled through some event is the dominant paradigm. So therefore people who are unaware of this cultural conditioning feel free to ask about this life event, regardless of if there is one or if it is appropriate to ask.

About this time, the panel opened the discussion up to the floor. While this post doesn’t cover all of the topics brought up by the floor, here are a few highlights:

  • Covert Affairs” is mentioned, not as a good show, but because the character is blind and has a sexual storyline, which is rare and happens to be done correctly.
  • Yes, people with disabilities are sexy. Yes, they know they are sexy. How? As Stevi points out, Elsa has hands.
  • Recommendations for shows, media, comic series where characters have disabilities but they aren’t focused on as an issue: Switched at Birth, The Michael J. Fox Show,
  • The actor who plays the forensic doctor on CSI gets a mention.
  • Hawkeye having lost 80% of his hearing in a storyline in the 1980s (estimated.) Fan culture embracing it both problematic and also excellent.
  • Flynn/Walt Jr. on Breaking Bad.
  • Back to cosplay – there’s no issue with those who have a disability cosplaying able-bodied characters. However, able-bodied people cosplaying characters with disabilities need to find a way to cosplay without using the character’s assistive devices, says Elsa. While Stevi says that intention and respect is important. She feels that one can use assistive devices in a respectful way, and a way that actually makes the device clearly not real. E.g., Jordi LaForge’s visor gets a pass because it isn’t a real assistive device.
  • Mental illness being married to violence in the media. Some good representations are “The West Wing” with PTSD flashbacks, Ellen Fourney’s Marbles, Mercy, Orange is the New Black wheelchair moment.
  • Elsa does video game reviews from a disability standpoint at Feminist Sonar.
  • The more narratives we see where someone’s physicality is treated like the color of their hair, a t-shirt they are wearing, and just normal, the better.


Did you attend the Geeks with Disabilities panel at GeekGirlCon ’13? Tell us about your experience in the comments here.

What do you want to see at GeekGirlCon ‘14? Subscribe to the Newsletter to find out when programming calls open to put your ideas in.


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Adrienne Roehrich
“Rock On!”

Adrienne Roehrich

Former GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services, current Guest Contributor.

2 responses to “GeekGirlCon ’13 Programming Round-Up: Geeks With Disabilities”

  1. Tracy says:

    Really enjoyed the panel, and also to see that it had such a good turnout. It would be great if GGC did a similar one next year. (Keep the dialogue going!)

    I do think the disabled/cosplay issue is pretty complicated though. I 100% agree that people with disabilities should cosplay as whoever they want. (As someone who is disabled, I should be able to be Superwoman or Ironman. It’s allllll good.)

    I think we run into an issue of who should be allowed to cosplay as a disabled character though. Let’s use Professor X from X-Men as an example, who for much of his character life, uses a wheelchair.

    People who use wheelchairs shouldn’t be forced to cosplay as characters who use wheelchairs. They should be able to cosplay as whoever they want. (If they want to be Prof. X, go for it. If they want to be Shadowcat, go for it.)

    But, if we don’t want those who are abled to cosplay as disabled characters, and those who are disable shouldn’t be forced to cosplay as disabled characters, are we in way helping erase celebrating disabled characters in cosplay by policing who could costume as that character?

    Like, if an abled person wanted to be Prof. X, do we say, “You can only play the pre-paralysis version, like Prof. X in the X-Men: First Class, before the bullet.”? Or does someone play later Prof. X, but wanders around walking? I find it just as odd to have the character, who is often portrayed in his wheelchair, to not be allowed in his wheelchair. Would we be erasing an important part of Prof. X?

    I think it’s a complicated issue, but I wouldn’t want to prevent people from celebrating disabled characters, nor would I want to force cosplayers with disabilities to always play disabled characters. I think it would be good to find some common ground so we don’t end up eliminating disabled characters from the cosplay pool.

  2. […] I have discussed this in regard to the Cherry Darling cosplay from Planet Terror). Here’s a short write-up of the […]

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