Disability in Popular Media: Game of Thrones Edition

Submitted by Anonymous on Mon, 05/13/2019

This blog is dark and full of spoilers. Please do not read further if you would not like plot details exposed to you before reading the books or watching the show in full.

“Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” – Tyrion Lannister

If you’ve read any of my other blogs, by now you know I’m a nerd. I’ve already delved into my interest in language and my obsession with dogs. Now, there is Game of Thrones. Night gathers, and now our watch of the final season begins. The purpose of the ADA is integration and full participation for people with disabilities. This includes integration into our popular culture and media. Game of Thrones stands out as a show where many of the main characters have disabilities. Many tropes exist in storytelling which stereotype and reduce disabled characters to clichés. In Game of Thrones, characters have meaning and purpose beyond their disability. It does not focus on disability as tragic or inspirational. Disability is an aspect of the character that shapes their choices but does not completely define or limit them. I’m not the only one who noticed: In 2013 the show won a Media Access Award. They were recognized for their efforts in “promoting awareness of the disability experience, accessibility for people with disabilities, and the accurate depiction of characters with disabilities.”

Consider this: can you name another show you enjoy that includes at least five main characters with a disability? This is the type of representation we should be striving for. When people invest themselves into a story and that includes characters with disabilities, they are exposed to important issues. For example, one twitter user asked exactly what I was asking myself on premier night: Is Winterfell ADA compliant, how does Bran get around so much?  

Oftentimes people do not consider the accessibility of buildings until it affects themselves or someone they love. Here are some of the most beloved characters of the books and show, and how disability affects them.

The Lannister Brothers

Tyrion is a perfect example of how attitudes toward people with disabilities act as a barrier to equity. Tyrion breaks many stereotypes, such as seeing people with disabilities as non-sexual or undesirable. He has a fantastic appetite for sex, drinking, and academic pursuits. He utilizes adaptive technology (a custom saddle or a litter) to travel. He even designed a saddle to help Bran ride horses again after he was paralyzed. Tyrion often complains about the physical aspects of his disability, such as experiencing pain and soreness after riding horses for extended periods of time. He spends much more time lamenting how, if he had not been born a Little Person, he would be the heir to his family’s home of Casterly Rock, and the vast wealth of the Lannister family.

When an unknown assailant murdered King Joffery, Tyrion was immediately assumed to be the culprit. Due to societal bias toward Little People in Westeros, Tyrion is considered deviant and untrustworthy. He laments at his trial: “I’m guilty of a far more monstrous crime! I’m guilty … of being a dwarf!” The greatest barrier and limitation is not his size, but rather, how society views and treats Little People.

Tyrion’s older brother Jaime is another excellent depiction of disability. At the start of the story, he is famous through Westeros for his sword-fighting ability and his beauty. Described as a Golden Lion, he betrayed his vows and murdered the King he was sworn to protect. The show also hints that Jaime is dyslexic. His father, Tywin, describes the trouble he had teaching Jaime: “The maester came to me one day, told me he wasn't learning. He couldn't make sense of the letters. He reversed them in his head.” Jaime has also displayed a reluctance to write, preferring instead to dictate his letters (The Lannisters 'proofread' their regards). Jaime also loses his right hand while a captive during the War of the Five Kings. He is completely devastated but brought back to reality by the woman escorting him as prisoner. Brienne of Tarth chastises him for giving up the will to live over one misfortune. Aghast, he clarifies that he lost his sword hand: "I was that hand!" Many people feel the same way when disability substantially limits them. Many people cannot fathom feeling whole and happy as a person with a disability. Jaime proves he is still capable of being a Golden Lion with a disability. Finally, Jaime is not painted as an inspiration for overcoming his disability. He learns how to fight with his left hand, but he reflects on the deeds done with his sword hand, and how to be a better man with only one.

Other Characters

Brandon Stark is another prominent character with a disability, acquired in episode one. Bran witnesses something scandalous about the Lannister family. To protect the secret, Jaime Lannister pushes Bran out of a castle’s window. Bran plummets to the ground, and goes into a coma; he lives, but is paralyzed from the fall. Bran then utilizes adaptive technology such as a special saddle for riding horses and a wheel chair. Hodor also acts as his personal care assistant. Hodor has a cognitive disability that prevents him from speaking, but he is gentle, kind, and devoted to the Stark family. He is important to helping Bran maintain his independence and keeping him safe.

Brienne of Tarth is a woman who fights as well as any knight, breaking gender norms for Westeros. She is approximately six foot six inches tall. The definition of impairment in the ADA does not include physical characteristics, such as left-handedness or normal height or weight deviations. So even at the very end of the bell curve at the top 1% of height for women, she would not be considered as having a disability. Except, of course, for those pesky attitudinal barriers limiting her opportunities in this fictional world.

Sandor Clegane is one of the largest men and fiercest fighters in Westeros. He is called “The Hound” and has very visible burn scars covering half of his face. The Hound isn’t a character of tragedy nor is he seen as motivational. Instead he is a dark, angry man that is also an amazing fighter, and tries to use his skills for good. The story shows how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects The Hound. Despite his courage, fire triggers him to have panic attacks. Although he is regarded as having a disability in Westeros, it has not prevented him from bravely defending the those in need, as a true knight is sworn to do.

Even the noblest and beloved character of the story, Lord Eddard Stark, suffered from PTSD. He watched his sister die, and she begged him, “Promise me, Ned!” The secrets he held to keep that promise haunt him at every turn. But Lord Eddard lived by his word. When asked by his son Bran, “Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?” he said, “That is the only time a man can be brave.” Once more, the story shows how a person can experience a disability without being piteous. A person is not limited nor defined by their disability, but rather, it builds them into their truest self.

For all of its strengths, the story does have some unhelpful tropes. For example, Bran has spent this season brooding around Winterfell. This is a stereotype that people with disabilities have a chip on their shoulder and are bitter toward the world. To his credit, he is a 17-year-old boy and that might not be an unrealistic depiction. Another common trope is acquiring phenomenal superpowers after becoming disabled. This is a trope commonly found in superhero stories. I don’t love the trope of someone experiencing trauma or becoming disabled, and the viewer watches their inspirational transformation from moping to badass. But I’ll wait and see how the story ends before I pass judgment.

It is easy to forget how visible and important disability has been in this show – and that’s the point! Disability does not need to be the one defining feature of a character. It can be one of many facets, and a story need not limit itself to one token character with a disability. Before I go on and write a whole thesis on disability in Game of Thrones, share with us which of your favorite shows, books, podcasts, and other media do a good job representing disability. I'm going to need something else to binge watch after this amazing story is over.

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The Rocky Mountain ADA Center's blog, Access Granted, tackles ADA issues through unique and diverse perspectives. Articles are written by staff of RMADAC and a variety of special guest authors. Some may be educational, others might be personal or thought-provoking. Either way, Access Granted will bring you the ADA of today!

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