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Disabled Means Helpless

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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.


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    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 convenient for the situation. Defrosting at the hands of Shu eventually gets her over this.
  • Sometimes it seems as though Nunnally 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. This is very decisively zig-zagged in the final episodes. On one hand, Nunnally ruthlessly, though regretfully, used WMDs 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.
  • Averted in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's. Hayate is paraplegic and wheelchair bound, but it's never really treated as being important outside of being a sign that the Book of Darkness is slowly killing her. In fact, no one outside of her doctors or family even mentions it. It helps that she's depicted as an incredibly competent homemaker despite being nine years old.

  • 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..."
  • Comedian Mike Mc Connell suffered from muscular dystrophy his entire life (his slogan was "100% comedy, 0% standup"). One of his routines dealt with "helpful" people who would push him and his wheelchair around without first asking or even warning him if it was okay, and blamed the fact that people felt okay doing this on the assumption that because he was in a chair, he was mentally dysfunctional.
    "Look, its pretty simple: treat the handles of a wheelchair like a pair of breasts. Unless they are attached to you, or unless you have permission to do so, keep your damned hands off!"

    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 brakes 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.

    Fan Works 
  • In Twilight Pretty Cure, Kyoya lashes out at Riko, his best friend, because he misinterpreted one of her comments as referring to this. But when her mother explains she has Autism, which makes her unable to figure out when she's using the wrong words or the wrong tone of voice when saying something that can be construed as offensive by others, he regrets his actions and apologizes. However, one of his ex-friends, Daizo, is utterly convinced that one disability = ALL disabilities to the point where he outright abandons Kyoya because he, as he defines it, "became a cripple" and wants to completely disassociate himself from him. Fukiko, another one of Kyoya's old friends, used to agree with him, but after some nudges from Riko, she throws this belief away and tries to reconcile with him.
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfic "Assumptions and the Word All," it is discovered that when Willow activated all of the potential Slayers in the world, one of the potentials so-activated in a 31 year old lawyer whose Cerebral Palsy keeps her wheelchair bound with very little fine control over her body. She is hired by the Reformed Watcher's Council as a researcher and legal counsel, and is given as much combat training as she can physically handle, which admittedly isn't much. But when she overhears one of the younger Slayers talking about how an injured colleague is now a "useless cripple", the lawyer shows the girl why there exists such a thing as a Handicapped Badass in the first place with a punch that knocks the younger girl across the room.
  • In Tsubasa Chronicle: The Abridged Movie, Sakura interprets Princess Tomoyo's inability to speak as a sure sign that she's deaf, despite being explicitly told otherwise. This is much to Tomoyo's consternation.
  • People generally have this opinion about a blind Satsuki in Feel, however, she is anything but (aside from needing some help crossing the streets at times), as she's demonstrated. Along that line, like the Marlee Matlin example below, people also assumed she was deaf because she doesn't speak (we do hear her thoughts and ruminations on some matters being expressed internally). As to be expected, she has expressed annoyance at this concept. A particular case in point about this occurs in chapter four, as Ragyou notes that Satsuki is prone to wandering off, leaving her to be criticized and being called irresponsible by other parents when the latter does, as they believe she is helpless and shouldn't be left without supervision. Like her daughter, Ragyou has expressed annoyance particularly at this trope and, not just this trope, the hypocrisy of the other parents related to this.
  • A Brighter Dark: Subverted with Silas. Despite having his leg crushed very early on, he is still able to use his arms well enough to hold a sword. Though both he and everyone else acknowledges he should stay out of the thick of the fighting, he's still able to defend himself well enough.

    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."
  • In the 1918 film Stella Maris, the titular Stella was born paralyzed. Her wealthy guardians decided to coddle her and keep her sheltered from the outside war. Stella didn't know of murder, starvation, or war until adulthood when she had a surgery so that she could walk.

  • 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."

  • Averted in Dragon Bones: Ward is grabbed by a man who thinks that because Ward seems to be mentally retarded, he can't defend himself. Gentle Giant Ward throws him to the other side of the room, exclaiming that he loves wrestling. Later on, he decides to take his younger sister Ciarra with him when he leaves the castle, as he suspects some men may feel tempted to molest a girl who can't cry for help. (When the heroes later witness an attempted rape, it becomes clear that Ciarra isn't all that helpless ... she wounds one of the rapists so badly that Ward has to finish him off in a Mercy Kill)
  • 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 uses 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 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. He eventually turns that to his advantage during his short but eventful career as a spy, a profession where being underestimated is usually beneficial. Especially when he does get the hang of furycrafting later on.
  • 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.
  • Averted in the novel A Single Shard, with the character of Crane Man, who was born with a bad leg (so, like a crane, he can only ever stand on one). He's used a stick his entire life, and despite some limited mobility and extreme poverty (other people in the village won't hire him for his bad leg, and he has no family to look after him) is able to not only take care of himself but raise a child, Tree-Ear. Tree-Ear even is confident that Crane Man can take up his wood-chopping duties for Ming's household when Tree-Ear is sent on a mission.
  • In Children of the Black Sun, it's discussed with relation to Isidro's crippled arm. He emphatically does not want to be useless or a burden, and doesn't think he is, but believes that a lot of other people will now see him that way. In particular, he resents the fussing of Rhia, the medic Isidro acknowledges that she means well, but still thinks she treats him like a dim-witted child.
  • This is certainly the mindset that Agnes' family and friends have towards her in Run. While there are a few things that Agnes does need help with, such as if she's in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar voices, she's quite independent. It takes befriending Bo to give her the confidence to start striking out on her own.
  • Brightheart from Warrior Cats was mauled by a dog before she could become a warrior. This left her with a scarred face, one missing eye, and heavy emotional trauma. Despite the others suggesting she retire early, Brightheart refuses to abandon her desire to be a warrior and learns how to fight despite her partial blindness.

    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.
  • Subverted (in grotesque fashion, of course) by Hannibal. Peter Bernadone, who spends his days caring for rescue animals, was kicked in the head by a horse and is mentally disabled as a result. He's abused and framed by his social worker, a psychopath and serial killer, who killed a friend of Peter's. When the FBI comes calling, said social worker decides to punish Peter by releasing all his animals and murdering Peter's horse with a hammer. When Will turns up at the barn, however, he finds that Peter doesn't need rescuing... since he's already overpowered his social worker and sewn him inside the corpse of the horse so he'll have an idea of how his victims suffered. Even Hannibal's taken aback at that one.
  • Red Dwarf: This trope is basically the plot of "Nanarchy"; Lister lost an arm at the end of the previous episode, and Kryten treats him like he's totally helpless. Such as trying to feed him, despite Lister still having one perfectly good arm.
  • An interesting version appears in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, "Melora". A scientist named Melora from a race called Elaysian comes to DS9 and because her home planet has much lighter gravity, she has to wear braces on her body and use a wheelchair to get around in any environment with "normal" gravity. Being very sensitive of her condition, she ends up lashing out to anyone who tries to help her, thinking that they're seeing her as helpless or weak. After Bashir calls her out on this, she starts to cool down and the two of them become friends and a little bit later, romantically involved.

  • Subverted with Evelyn Evelyn. They're Conjoined Twins with deeply traumatic pasts but they are also self-taught musicians who just want to be popular.

    Video Games 

    Visual Novels 
  • Cheerfully averted (possibly even defied) in Katawa Shoujo: Rin has no arms and paints with her dextrous feet; Emi has no legs and runs track using prosthesis; Shizune is deaf-mute and 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.
  • The Schetch Pad averts this for the most part. One of the few exceptions is a double subversion: he apparently has trouble with right-side driving.

    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.
  • In Dead West, the Merry Company seems to share this belief when it comes to the Porcelain Doctor. The young doctor only has a very bad limp, and has to use a cane and sometimes Gervas' help to get around, but since he also looks eerily fragile, the Merry Company treats him like a baby. This annoys the hell out of the Porcelain Doctor, since he is perfectly capable of taking care of himself, thankyouverymuch. Gervas manages to avert this trope when they are alone, but since he has to play a role of a devoted lover for the othes, he sometimes engages in this kind of behaviour. Gervas himself hates this attitude, since he knows exactly how much of a Handicapped Badass his friend is, but occasionly, when the doctor is sick, he cannot help himself, courtesy of the Devil's Veil. Which looks very weird, when he helps feeding his friend, just so the others won't do it.
  • Robert "Arrowstar" Schelley, a supehero from the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, was paralyzed from mid-chest down in a car accident. He can breathe on his own, and has some rough control over his arms, but otherwise he's non-mobile. That is, until he's strapped into his Powered Armor, which is effectively just a human-shaped, exo-skeletal, heavily armed and indestructible wheelchair. When he's out of his wheelchair, unfortunately, several of his teammates treat him like his injuries were to his brain and not to his spine.

    Western Animation 
  • Arthur:
    • In the 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 fortunately Prunella learns to treat Marina just like any other friend. We also get see the tricks and methods that Marina uses in her own house, but here they are her methods and her choices.
    • An earlier episode that flashes back to Buster being diagnosed with asthma has all his friends start dusting things off for him, to the point where he skips out on a trip to the nurses office for his inhaler and pretends he's cured so they don't worry about it anymore. After that backfires on him, Buster decided to explain how asthma works to his class as part of his school project so they aren't so scared of it, and they begin to treat him like normal again.
  • 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 (and sometimes does need it), he can do a lot of things himself,and assures Cleo he is not at all ill as she thinks.
  • In an episode of Little Bill, the titular character's friend Monty, who has cerebral palsy, joins his class at school. Little Bill tries to help Monty with everything without being asked, and ultimately pushes him away. Little Bill begins to see sense after getting the same kind of treatment at home.
  • This is also why Toph's parents in Avatar: The Last Airbender kept her so sheltered that even her existence was a secret. Why, their helpless little blind girl would obviously perish if allowed to leave the house for even a moment! When she proved to them that she is more than capable of handling herself, their reaction was to declare that she had been given too much freedom and will now be monitored 24/7. This kind of upbringing presented a whole new set of problems for Toph later on in her life in The Legend of Korra in terms of relationships.
  • 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.
  • The Wild Thornberrys 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.
  • In the Adventures of the Gummi Bears episode "What You See is Me", after Tummi accidentally injures Grammi's leg offscreen, he starts to become too overbearing in helping her. It's only after meeting a blind woman who can perfectly handle herself does he learn that being disabled doesn't automatically mean that you're helpless.
    Tummi: (Tries to stir her tea) Here, let me.
    Grammi: Oh, Tummi, I can do that.
    Tummi: But look, you're an incapable, helpless...
    Grammi: I don't stir tea with my foot you know.
    Tummi: Good thing too.
  • Kim Possible: Kim is initially uncomfortable around Ron's wheelchair-bound friend Felix, and keeps trying to be over-helpful. Fortunately, he finds it amusing rather than annoying:
    Kim: Felix, you go stand watch.
    Felix: You mean, sit watch.
    (Kim claps a hand to her mouth, utterly mortified.)
    Felix: Kim? I'm just playing you.

    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 they're incapable of standing on their 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. People with these disabilities need support and help — which is why they often seek financial assistance or learn to use public transportation, for example. Having a mental or neurological condition does not, by itself, make someone insane, irrational, intellectually deficient, prone to violence, or in any way not a capable, reasonable person.
  • People with epilepsy or similar seizure-inducing disabilities are not legally allowed to drive, or take a wide variety of jobs without undergoing a risk-assessment, in the event that they might have a seizure. It theoretically makes their lives safer, but in practice it severely limits employment options regardless of the severity of their seizures. Also, the less-well-informed sometimes assume that all epileptics should wear protective headgear all the time, and if they don't, they're not 'properly' epileptic.
  • 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 recognised 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)
    • Aside from this, there have been a number of court cases over the years involving the sexual activity of a handicapped person with a healthy one, with the healthy being accused of, essentially, statutory rape. Suffice to say, this is a very hotly-debated topic.
  • 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're not helpless and stereotypical, or of being "too private" or similar. Unfortunately, if the person must reveal 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.