The Ethics of Disability Metaphors
From the teenage romance between an amputee and an oxygen-tank user in the box-office success The Fault in Our Stars to the conjoined sisters at the circus in the Kennedy Center’s Side Show, representations of disability and difference are prominent as of late. But as Christopher Shinn noted yesterday at The Atlantic, the recent plethora of disabled characters also has another thing in common: they are played by able-bodied actors. Once again, Shinn said, “Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.”
Disability is often used as a metaphor for exclusion and subsequent triumph, themes easier to swallow when an actor twitches sensitively across the stage for two hours only to walk back calmly for the curtain call. So it goes exactly in the production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at London’s National Theatre, currently showing in cinemas worldwide before it heads to Broadway in the fall.
Based on a popular 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, “Curious Incident” is a family drama packaged as a mystery. It is seen from the perspective of a teenager named Christopher with an autistic spectrum disorder that some reviewers have compared to Asperger’s syndrome. The production uses technical elements, from cool blue lighting to projected numerical graphics to dizzying synthesized sound effects, in order to communicate the experience of sensory overload that accompanies neurological conditions like Christopher’s.
Because this manner of presentation merely informs the audience’s experience of a rather simple plot—the titular incident is a quickly resolved mystery, and most of the second act is a train ride—the play, like the book, seems to run counter to the frequent use of disability as plot obstacle and metaphor for triumph. In fact, Christopher remarks that a metaphor “is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. … I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards.”
But in the program note for the stage adaptation of “Curious Incident,” Haddon backtracked. Jane Shilling wrote in her review for The Telegraph, “His 15-year-old protagonist, Christopher, exhibits a constellation of quirks that are recognisably on the autistic spectrum, but his behavioural problems are also a metaphor for the solitariness of the human condition. ‘Curious is not really about Christopher,’ Haddon concludes. ‘It’s about us.’”
In navigating the ethical implications of work like Haddon’s, blogger Mary Maxfield suggested that the problem is not using disability as a metaphor, but using disability as a metaphor for the wrong thing. Christopher, a beloved son integrated into his family and school structures, does not fit Shilling’s metaphor for solitariness. Likewise, Haddon’s editorial “us,” unambiguously separated from people with physical and neurological differences, would have the value of certain lived experiences dependent on their contribution to a grander “human experience.”
As Shinn asserts, the inclusion of disabled actors and artists can bring lived experience rather than distant research to the table and facilitate the kind of responsible art Maxfield imagines. But a willingness to tell stories that are about disabled people for their own sake, rather than about disability per se, would be an even more welcome change.