Links between superheroes and people with disabilities are nothing new. Plenty of superheroes are people with disabilities themselves, ranging from Daredevil—a blind lawyer (who is also secretly a ninja)—to Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy (whose inability to comprehend metaphors parallels some people with autism spectrum disorders), to various X-Men, including Professor Xavier himself in his iconic wheelchair. And that’s not even counting the odd vulnerabilities of some superheroes, such as Superman’s notable allergy to kryptonite.
Viewing Superheroes Through a Legal Lens
But if we look at superheroes through a legal lens (because lawyers!), another parallel emerges. The fundamental problem with disabilities is not that disabilities themselves are necessarily bad; rather, the issue is that society is only designed and structured to accommodate people within a certain spectrum of ability—and anyone outside that spectrum of “normalcy” is excluded, whether that means people with disabilities or people with superpowers. This doesn’t just apply to what we usually think of as disabilities—for instance, if you’re taller than 6 feet 7 inches, you’re going to have to duck under most American doorways, while any standard-issue short person can tell you about the existential void that is the top shelf at most supermarkets.
This is where disability laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) come in—they help encourage society, where possible, to make adjustments to expand the spectrum of ability to which it caters. Where societal adjustments cannot be made, the laws provide services and supports for people with disabilities so that they can fully participate in, and contribute to, society. This benefits everyone—it brings a different set of perspectives to bear in almost every sphere and allows for a more universal design that helps better anticipate future developments and needs in technology, the workplace, and society in general.
People with Disabilities Aren’t the Only Ones Who Fall Outside the Spectrum of “Normal” Abilities
If a superhero is so strong that every time she opens or closes a door, something breaks or shatters—just look at Jessica Jones’s apartment in her Netflix show—that’s a disability in its own way. By the same token, anyone who can autonomously take flight, shoot lasers out of their head, or turn into a giant green rage monster after some light frustration—cannot be expected to function within everyday society without some adjustments.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has addressed this (as have pretty much all the major comics, but that’s too much material for now) with laws, in this instance through the “Sokovia Accords,” which try to bring the various enhanced individuals under control. This is a clearly imperfect solution, however (as a certain Captain would be quick to remind us)—it helps society, but it still leaves the superheroes themselves in a situation where they would essentially have to surrender their independence and freedom to use their abilities.
Society Must Adjust and Accommodate a Wider Spectrum of Abilities
There is plenty of precedent for forcing people with disabilities into “controllable” facilities, and the history is, to put it mildly, unpleasant.
Some of that was fixed with the Supreme Court case Olmstead v. L.C., which instructed that people with disabilities be included in “mainstream” society to the greatest extent possible through supports and services (which generally refers to programs and systems designed to help people live independently, such as wheelchair-accessible cabs and seeing-eye dogs), but there is still a great deal of work to be done in providing those supports and services.
In this regard, the parallel with superheroes deepens—we still must find some way for society to adjust and accommodate a wider spectrum of abilities without restricting people so much that they are confined to facilities or else forced so far away from their supports that they can’t effectively . . . assemble? (Ahem.)
Maybe when we think about how the law treats people with disabilities, we should consider how best to allow those people to integrate and participate in the most accepting way possible. You never know—maybe someone’s disability will be the key to stopping Thanos. (I’d say, “oh, snap,” but . . . too soon, I suppose.)