Star Trek and Disability

At fifty minutes, it might be a bit longer than most pieces of Youtube fan analysis, but I think Steve Shives needs to be congratulated for this video looking at the portrayal of disability – both physical and mental – in Star Trek. As Shives points out, when you look into it, there have been numerous representations of disability over the franchise’s fifty year history, and broadly speaking it has got it right. He goes through several episodes, ranging across the various incarnations of Star Trek, where disability plays a role: perhaps the most obvious is Geordi and his visor, foregrounded in several episodes of TNG and shown to be both an advantage and disadvantage. As Shives astutely (for a nondisabled person) points out, Geordi’s blindness was part of his character; it helped make him who he was. It is to Star Trek’s enormous credit that it presented a visually impaired man in this way. On the other hand, Trek hasn’t always got it right, sometimes depicting disability as negative, life-limiting, and something to be avoided at all costs.

Broadly speaking, this is a great video, well worth a watch: I’d have been a fool not to flag it up here. I must say, though, that in a way Shives only scratches the surface: he’s an able-bodied, white man, so while he seems to have a reasonable knowledge of things like the Social Model, it occurs to me he has no personal connection with what he’s discussing. To him, this is more or less an academic exercise. To guys like me it was great to see Star Trek presenting us with a vision of the future where everyone worked together to advance humanity, with disabled people playing an active role in that future. The only problem was it didn’t go far enough: as Shives points out, portrayals of disability in Star Trek are usually peripheral or fleeting; none of it’s incarnations has a central, major character whose impairment effects them significantly. There are no characters with cerebral palsy, for example, or characters with alternative ways of communicating. As hard as it tried, it couldn’t shake itself loose of the mindset that disability is always something to be minimised or escaped. Either that or it was something to be mocked or laughed at, as was the case with Reg Berkley, whose odd character traits could be read as a form of autism.

While Shives points this out, the fact remains he has no firsthand experience of what he is discussing, and as such ultimately belongs in the same group of people as the ones who created the programs he is trying to analyse: Trying to make sure a socially marginalised group is represented fairly, but not always getting it right. Inevitably in videos like this, there is an element of people trying to speak for us, ultimately reinforcing the normative ideas Shives is attempting to discuss. With that said, it is great to see people like Shives showing a willingness to engage with issues I had assumed were confined to the disabled community. Programs like Star Trek are ultimately all about the human condition, and the potential we have as a species if we work together while embracing our differences.

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