Crafting characters / Disability Tropes 101 / Represention

Disability Tropes 101: The Outsider

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Scholar Isabel Brittain brings attention to the trope of “The Outsider” in her article on “An Examination into the Portrayal of Deaf Characters and Deaf Issues in Picture Books for Children” (Disability Studies Quarterly 2004, Vol 24, No 1). In this trope, “the character with an impairment is portrayed as a figure of alienation and social isolation” (ibid). This is a common trope of disability where the disabled character lives in a position of irreconcilable Otherness, socially ostracized and viewed as perpetually incapable of belonging. 

This is a complex trope because there are certain aspects of it that speak to the disabled experience, after all, we are socially rejected on the basis of our disability and even our buildings exclude us since they are made for an assumed able body. But this trope contains several problematic aspects as well. Generally the Outsider disabled person is portrayed as having some special knowledge from being outside of the “in crowd.” The trope assumes that disabled people are a personification of alienation, always an uncomfortable fit into any social space. Generally “The Outsider” trope portrays disabled people as craving a sense of belonging and being willing to do anything in their power to feel a sense of inclusion. The character often works hard to be included by able bodied people, seeking their approval, reducing the disabled character to someone who needs external validation.

In “The Outsider” trope, the disabled character loses his/her/their complexity, becoming merely a symbol of the “problems of inclusion” and a symbol of “bullying.” The narrative generally becomes one about social rejection in general rather than about ableist exclusion specifically. In attempting to make their disabled character a symbol of inclusion, the author is perceiving that his/her/their audience is not made up of disabled people, but, rather, able-bodied people who need to learn about inclusion in a way that speaks to their experience, so the oppression of disabled people in the story ends up being divorced from its disability context and speaks instead about general bullying.

“The Outsider” trope also ignores the radical types of inclusion that are available and generally used by disabled people. Often disabled people gravitate to one another, having the shared experience of ableism as a point of connection. Although “The Outsider” trope assumes that there will only be one disabled person amongst a sea of able-bodied people, this is rarely the case and many disabled people will form communities amongst themselves, having a shared understanding and shared experience of the complexities of ability.

The phenomenon of social alienation is one that disabled people experience, but their experiences should not just be limited to being an outsider. Disabled people live complex and multi-faceted lives and so should characters with disabilities. Reducing them to simple tropes is not only damaging to the representation of disabled people, it also makes for a boring character.

Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille is the seven-time Prix Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada. They are completing their PhD at Trent University, researching representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. Derek is the editor of the upcoming anthologies: Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From the Margins and We Shall Be Monsters: Frankenstein Two Centuries On. Derek has published in fora like Quill & Quire, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Misfit Children: An Inquiry into Childhood Belongings, The Playground of Lost Toys, and Accessing the Future. 

13 thoughts on “Disability Tropes 101: The Outsider

  1. I hear you. I’m blind, often the outsider, though i don’t care to be ‘approved’ by people without any disabilities. I’ve been blind for the past 10+ years, and i’ve loved books since i was just a kid. But to be honest, characters with disabilities aren’t always present in fiction books, at least not the ones i read. Most books i read though that feature a person with disability, that person is either on a wheel chair or have some other physical disability. I’ve read about books with blind and deaf characters, but i don’t remember if i ever actually read a book (i mainly read fiction) that featured a deaf or blind character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean! Ever since I started this blog I’ve become more curious about gathering stories that feature main characters who manage disabilities or chronic conditions, but with a diversity of them. I might make it a project to get a reading list together!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Just to clarify, I am not suggesting in this article that any of us with disabilities needs to be approved. We don’t. Able-bodied people DO have to accommodate us. That’s a legal requirement. But also, presenting us always as outsiders is damaging to us because it means that people think that they don’t need to accommodate us because they don’t need to acknowledge that we exist. I think it is important that we change tropes in fiction that present us always as the Other, as the foil for ability -> it’s opposite. We aren’t the opposite of ability. Ability needs to be acknolweged as inherently including of disabled ontologies.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I got that from the post. I worked in an organization for women with disabilities a few years back. I know about the inclusive law, and i admit i both admire and detest it. admire, because it includes people with disabilities as part of society, and detest, because it makes me feel like people are forced to accept us because there are laws.


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