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Disabled Means Helpless
Spagna (cutting Pelswick's food): There! All done!
Pelswick: Thanks for doing that, but it's my legs that don't work, not my teeth.
Pelswick, "Hear No Evil, P.C. No Evil"

When some people meet a person with a disability, they automatically assume that the individual is totally incapable of looking after themselves, and treat them as such. Most egregiously, some people even assume that having one disability equals having every disability! These people are the ones who insist on SHOUTING AT THE BLIND, assuming they can't hear, either. These patronizing attitudes often create resentment on the part of people with disabilities.

In fiction, they have little problem telling the offender exactly that.

Learning this is not true is often the point of a Very Special Episode. Contrast this trope to the Handicapped Badass, who everyone can instantly tell is not to be messed with.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Subverted and somewhat Deconstructed in Guilty Crown. Ayase is wheelchair-bound, but she is still the most skilled Endlave pilot in the show. Getting helped because of her disability is her biggest Berserk Button, even if it would be far more convinient for the situation. Defrosting at the hands of Shu eventually gets her over this.
  • Sometimes it seems as though Nunnaly from Code Geass feels this way. She is the one with the disability (she can't walk or open her eyes), and prefers for the entire first season to have Lelouch take care of her, even though they're both teenagers (she gets better about this and finally starts acting on her own in season 2). In Episode 21 of R2, Lelouch says that Nunnally kept smiling because, disabled as she was, it was the only way she knew how to show her gratitude to him.
    • Very decisively zig-zagged in the final episodes. On one hand, Nunnally ruthlessly, though regretfully, used WM Ds against her brother's forces. On the other hand, everything about her in the final episode — from her confrontation with Lelouch to her outfit in the final scene — suggests helplessness and even objectification.
  • In the Kidou Tenshi Angelic Layer anime, this is why Shuuko Suzuhara left her child Misaki under the care of others, since she didn't want people to look down on Misaki for having "a useless mother", which is unfortunately Truth in Television as far as attitudes towards the disabled go in Japan. Elsewhere too of course; it's far from being an exclusively "Japanese" attitude, as discussed in the Real Life section of this page.

    Comedy 
  • Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham in Arguing with Myself. In one of the bits he talks about doing a show and having a signer there for a group of deaf people. Hilarity Ensues. Politically incorrect, but hilarious.
  • The intro to Ricky Gervais Politics Stand-Up show includes him talking extremely patronizingly to a guy in a wheelchair. When the guy protests that just because he's in a wheelchair doesn't mean he's mentally disabled, Gervais turns to the camera and says "so he's leg mental, but he's not head mental..."

    Comic Strips 
  • Cartoonist and artist John Callahan has a lot to say about this subject. One book title is Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot and another is Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up.
  • Cutter John of Bloom County played with this trope from his wheelchair, which was sometimes a hindrance (forgetting the parking breaks on a hill, refusing to be helped up when he's knocked backwards) but was also often used as the "Starchair Enterpoop" by the nerdier meadow-dwellers who never thought of Cutter as anything other than their awesome Captain. He has a harder time convincing people he's not a Shell-Shocked Veteran from Vietnam.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Subverted horribly in the film, Blindness. The men of ward 3 prove not to be harmless, and end up being harmful instead. Their self-appointed leader has a gun and ends up hoarding the food from the other wards. At first, they demand valuables from everyone else in exchange for food. Unfortunately, when they have all of the valuables they then demand the women service them for food.
  • In Mr. Holland's Opus, Mr. Holland is quite aware of this trope and wary of it. When his wife suggests that their deaf son be sent to a special school, he's against the idea, claiming they'll "treat him like he's retarded."

    Folklore 
  • An urban legend tells a tale of a guy who has one of his car's tires deflated while in front of a lunatic asylum. While he changes the tire he puts the bolts on the rim, just as a car goes through, scattering them. The man is unable to find the bolts he needs, so one of the lunatic patients tells him to use one bolt from each other wheel. He does and is surprised that the lunatic had that good idea. The lunatic's response? "I'm crazy, not stupid."

    Literature 
  • Most adults treat Agnes Thatcher, who is deaf, this way in Is That You, Miss Blue? and some girls even set her up with a blind guy at a dance. She especially resents people writing notes to her since she's an expert lipreader, and will write "What?" in reply.
  • In The Baby-Sitters Club spin-off series Little Sister, Karen's class gets a new girl named Addie who has cerebral palsy and so is confined to a wheelchair. Karen takes it upon herself to help Addie — which means she does everything for her, despite both Addie and Ms. Colman telling her that Addie is perfectly capable to doing things for herself (such as sharpening her pencils). She doesn't listen, and both the readers and Addie get seriously ticked off.
  • Elizabeth Bathory's feelings of self-loathing in Count and Countess are a result of this mindset. (She suffers from severe epilepsy throughout the novel.) She later subverts it however, making her more of a Handicapped Badass.
  • In the Codex Alera series, Tavi initially cannot furycraft, an ability everyone else in the world possesses. Even though he is extremely intelligent and otherwise normal, he was treated as disabled and almost helpless when growing up, because of this lack.
  • In the novel Doctors, psychiatric intern Barney is shocked to realize that the man he's been talking to is one of the patients, rather than a fellow doctor, because the man has proven himself to be so intelligent. The same man continues to impress him throughout his time spent on the ward, with his impeccable knowledge of Shakespeare.
  • In the Sweet Valley High novel "That Fatal Night", football star Ken Matthews is blinded in a car accident. Despite initially trying to take care of himself, he comes to believe this trope, to the point where his would-be girlfriend is waiting on him hand and foot and feeling guilty for not being at his beck and call. She finally blows up at him over his ingratitude, at which point he finally realizes that he ISN'T incapable of taking care of himself.

    Live-Action TV 
  • On Degrassi High, Maya's friends neglect to invite her to a movie because the public buses don't have lifts and the theater they're going to doesn't have a wheelchair ramp. She finds out and tells them off for not even asking, when she has a van and knows many place that can accommodate her.
  • Clark went blind in one episode of Smallville, his parents thought that stepping out of his eyeline would be far enough away for him not to hear them talking about him.
  • On One Life to Live, upon meeting his ex-wife's ALS-stricken father, Andrew proceeds to talk to him very loudly. After a while, the man tells him (his throat muscles are paralyzed, but he communicates with a computer) that he can hear him just fine.

    Video Games 
  • Illidan in Warcraft III lampshades this trope if the player clicks him enough times to get him to utter the "annoyed" replies: "I'm blind, not deaf!"
  • Joker in Mass Effect says he got this treatment in flight school when he was younger due to his brittle-bone disease and difficulty walking without leg braces or crutches.

    Visual Novels 
  • Cheerfully averted (possibly even defied) in Katawa Shoujo: Rin has no arms, but is very agile with her feet; Emi has no legs, but runs track using prosthesis; Shizune is deaf-mute, but serves as an effective and ruthless Student Council President (with a Translator Buddy). Indeed most of their real problems are only partially informed by their disabilities, for example Shizune is extremely extroverted and eager to interfere in other peoples lives because her inability to speak makes her isolated and easy to ignore, but also due to the influence of her over combative father.

    On the other hand, Hisao tends to internalise this at times, and realising that this trope isn't true for Hanako is one of the main goals of her arc — after she suffered a panic attack in class, he started thinking of her as someone helpless he needed to protect, instead of an equal romantic partner like Hanako wanted. In the good route, Hisao figures out that while Hanako might need more help in different areas to him, they both need someone to help and support them, and that Hanako can do that for him just as well as he can do it for her. In the bad routes, he either fails to realise this but still earns Hanako's friendship, or pisses her off so bad in his attempts to coddle her that she blows up at him, demanding that he leaves. Ouch.
  • Played With in Little Busters when it comes to Riki's narcolepsy. On the one hand, none of the other characters ever treat him different for it, his friends have known him long enough that when he needs help they give it without having to think about it, and he says early on that he never thanks his friends for taking care of him when he falls asleep because they're all just used to it. He mentions that narcolepsy makes him feel uneasy, but he just doesn't really think about it very often. However, late in Rin's route there's a time when he really needs to earn money, but ends up falling asleep while picking fruit, the only option available to him. The woman he was working for feels terribly sorry for him once he wakes up and offers him money anyway, but that just makes him feel even worse, and he ends up crying as he walks home, thinking that a person with his disability would never be able to do anything but office work and that he's truly helpless right now... but at the time he was going through a hell of a lot of stress, and had many reasons for feeling weak that had nothing to do with his disability, so it's uncertain how much of that was stuff he truly believed and how much was just the depression getting to him. All in all, a pretty damn nuanced and respectful depiction of disability that doesn't try to oversimplify things. And given that Riki has a very complicated arc relating to him realising his strength that only rarely brings up his disability, he's definitely not portrayed as uniformly helpless.

    Web Comics 
  • In Something Positive Dahlia challenged Monette to sit in her wheelchair for one trip (while she can use a wheelchair as a walker). Later Monette remembers Dahlia's dad used to work at a helicopter factory.
    Monette: ... I don't know how Dahlia sat in that chair for ten years without killling someone.
    Dahlia's mom: She did it with patience, friends and a father who helped her calculate the proper ramming speed in an electric wheelchair to correct other people's assumptions.
    Monette: No chair-mounted gun turret? And I thought he was a real Texan.

    Web Original 
  • At the Superhero School Whateley Academy in the Whateley Universe, Greta is a genius inventor who is on a training team and likes to mix it up on the front lines. She's in a wheelchair, and she has real trouble getting her teammates to respect that she doesn't need to be protected constantly. In "Ayla and the Birthday Brawl" we see that some other people have spotted that this is now one of her team's big weaknesses.
  • This story from Not Always Learning has a teacher ask a blind kid to say something in sign language (which he doesn't know) on the first day of school and proclaim him too immature to attend school when he refuses.
    • Also, from the main Not Always Right site: This woman thinks that people in wheelchairs are totally incapable of doing anything on their own.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Arthur episode "Prunella Sees the Light", Prunella invites her blind friend Marina over for a Henry Skreever sleepover. However, she worries that Marina may not see the decoration in her room or may get injured because she is blind. Marina doesn't like the special treatment Prunella is giving her, and Prunella learns to treat Marina just like any other friend, although we also see the tricks and methods that Marina uses in her own house, but here they are her methods and her choices.
  • An episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog has a three-legged dog. Clifford and T-Bone assume the dog needs a lot of help and Cleo believes the dog has, as she put it, "some kind of leg-losing disease" and if they came into contact with him, they too would get it. At the end of the episode, the dog calls them all out on this, explaining that while he appreciates their help, he can do things himself and assuring Cleo he is not at all ill as she thinks.
  • This is also why Toph's parents in Avatar: The Last Airbender kept her so sheltered that even her existence was a secret. This is a particularly interesting example because the exact opposite was true; she's one of the most powerful characters in the series. And even after finding this out, her parents put her on an even harder lockdown than before.
  • This was the villain's explicitly stated intention in one episode of Jackie Chan Adventures, when he kidnapped Uncle and cast a spell that rendered Jackie mute, Jade deaf and Tohru blind so they couldn't rescue him. Needless to say, they did anyway, and a lesson was learned by all.
  • Happens in an episode of Rocket Power. Reggie is in a snowboarding competition with another girl she recently befriended who happens to have a metal prosthetic leg. Reggie lets her win... and gets a What the Hell, Hero? from her dad and everyone else. The remainder of the episode is Reggie trying to figure out how to make it up to her new friend.
  • TheWildThornberrys had an episode where Eliza meets a disabled girl in a wheelchair. Eliza begins to pity her and tries to keep her from doing things that may seem too dangerous for her. The girl calls her out on this and Eliza soon realizes that she was being too overprotective and that if she ever did need help, she wouldn't be afraid to ask.
  • John Callahan's Pelswick deals with this topic regularly, as nearly every adult on the show seems to believe this. The protagonist, while paraplegic, is far from helpless and generally lives a normal teenage boy's life when the adults don't interfere.

    Real Life 
  • People with low vision who can walk without aid sometimes get this. When someone is made aware of the low vision, they will immediately go for that person's arm, as if he/she was incapable of standing on his own, and attempt to guide them along.
  • Deaf actress Marlee Matlin once experienced the "one disability = all disabilities" part of this trope when she was on an overnight flight. The flight attendant was passing out menus for dinner, and Matlin began signing what she wanted to her interpreter. The flight attendant saw her, immediately snatched the menu away, went back to her station, and returned, proudly handing Matlin a menu in Braille. Matlin facepalmed.
  • A common problem for those who are mentally ill in Real Life. Mental and neurological illness can be disabling, sometimes to the point where those who suffer from it cannot work or cannot drive a vehicle, but these "disabilities," while they need support and help — which is why people so disabled often seek financial assistance or learn to use public transportation, for example - do not make someone insane, much less violent, somehow not a capable, reasonable adult in other situations, or similar. Unfortunately, too many people assume that if, for example, someone is so depressed or with severe enough ADHD that they cannot work, or an epileptic unable of driving, that somehow makes them dangerous, violent, and intellectually deficient, rather than someone who is capable of unassisted daily living, relatively normal human social interaction, and so on.
  • The stereotype of developmental, intellectual, and learning disabilities all gets piled into assuming anyone with those disabilities is incapable of independent adult functioning and must be treated as a small child or someone at the severest extreme of those disabilities. Almost all learning disabled people are perfectly capable of independent living as adults, though they may need assistive devices or help with, say, reading or mathematics - dyslexia and dyscalculia, for example, have no impact on intelligence itself, especially if recognized and properly compensated for. Even direct intellectual disability itself doesn't necessarily mean that someone is "stupid" or legally incompetent - it is quite possible for someone with borderline intellectual disability to be "slow but normal," in that there's really not that much difference from an IQ of 75 (that would be at the low end of "normal" but people with this IQ have gotten high school educations, have, in the absence of other disabilities been employable, etc) and one of 70 (which is considered the starting point for intellectual disability)
  • The "invisible" disabilities lend themselves to a cruel irony regarding this: if someone tries to cover up invisible disability to those with no need to know, or if it is one that is only noticeable in aspects most people would not see at first glance (for example, anything from cancer to depression to HIV/AIDS could fall under this), the disabled person gets accused of either faking or lying because they are NOT helpless and stereotypical, or of being "too private" or similar. Unfortunately, if the person reveals that they have cancer/depression/fibromyalgia/HIV/whatever, they then get hit with both this and with speculation and stigma in regard to mental health or HIV or such.
  • There is no hard rule for helping a person with a wheelchair or a scooter with a door, as they are just as different with their feelings as everyone else. Some are quite adept with opening doors on their own and prefer to do so, some ask for help. A generally safe rule is to offer to help and if they say no, then let them do it themselves.


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