Comics are an amazing medium to explore innately human stories in a fantastical context and sometimes even campy settings. A great comic can balance the realism of human emotions with it’s setting even if it skirts the rules of the physics and the universe. This more or less means that in a world full of magic, alien technology, and a Lazarus Pit, characters are still allowed to be disabled.
Recently, in the current Batgirl run, following the Rebirth and New 52 continuity, Barbara Gordon is back as Batgirl. While I have complicated feelings about Barbara getting the use of her legs back, Simone’s New 52 run handled it fairly gracefully by focusing on the painful rehabilitation process. Now after having the spinal implant shocked by the villain Grotesque, Barabara is suffering from seizures. Consequentially, in the most recent issues of Batgirl (issues #27 and #28), Barbara is told by doctors that she needs to rest or else the chip will completely shut down thus paralyzing her again. In response, Barbara thinks to herself, “Gordon’s don’t give up” and shakily stands from her chair.
Disability is complicated. No disease, limitation, condition or disability is the same even when the diagnosis is the same. Therefore, I cannot speak for everyone but I can speak for myself. Previously, I have spoken about how much Oracle means to me and how disappointing this current run for me, as a disabled woman. I stopped reading Scott’s run at Batgirl #26 when Barbara calls herself broken. It is upsetting to see that mentality has not changed.
I have a variety of conditions and while currently, my stamina is very good, all things considered, that has not always been the case. After being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, I struggled with understanding how it would alter my life. In 2017 I bought a wheelchair and used it on days I knew I would otherwise be on my feet a lot. I struggled with chronic fatigue which was exasperated by the Fibromyalgia as well as other conditions. Deciding to use a chair was not something that was easy. I was worried about feeling useless, weaker, and like a failure. However, the first time I used my chair, I realized how silly my insecurities were. I was able to enjoy Mega-Con Orlando, Disney Parks, and other events as easily as I had before. Like many disabled individuals, mobility devices are an extension of us and help us feel free.
When Barbara Gordon implied that choosing to not be Batgirl and live her life as an auxiliary wheelchair user was “giving up” my heart sunk. I didn’t give up when I started to use my chair and neither do any of individuals who use mobility devices. I adapted and find ways to continue living and loving my life. Barbara Gordon adapted. She spent years running Gotham’s vigilantes from the shadows as Oracle. She adapted to the life she was given and thrived. Being Oracle wasn’t giving up. Accepting help and using a mobility device is never giving up. Being disabled is okay.
Barbara Gordon as Oracle made her first comic book appearance in Suicide Squad #23 in 1989, later becoming a member of the Birds of Prey. Throughout her history as Oracle, Barabara used her computer hacking skills and extremely high intelligence to assist various superheroes and superhero teams. Behind the computer, as a technical advisor, computer expert, and information broker, Barbara Gordon was arguably the most powerful person in Gotham.
Every disabled person decides for themselves what the best treatment is for them, hopefully with the supervision of doctors. That being said, in regards to fiction, it is dangerous to regurgitate ableist language and ideas especially in regards to a character that so many disabled fans have looked up to for years. Ableist language characterizes disabled people by their disability and specifically as inferior to the non-disabled, and this story is filled with it.
Barbara Gordon choosing to stay in her chair and adapt to her surroundings is not giving up. Even in the New 52 run, Barbara undergoing treatment to regain her ability to walk was not ableist. What is ableist, is calling a character broken because they become disabled or heavily implying they are giving up by choosing to use mobility aids.
We also need to talk about another panel which highlight’s the author’s mindset. I am aware I do not speak for all disabled people so some may disagree with me, but in my opinion, calling a character differently abled helps no one. I am not differently abled. There are things I cannot do, therefore, I am disabled. The phrase “differently abled” is often an easy way for able-bodied individuals to feel like they are being sensitive to the subject of disability while ignoring activists’ concerns within language and legislation.
The term “differently abled” downplays a lot of the hardships people with disabilities face and instead reinforces the idea we are different when in actuality, we are all different. When disabled people call themselves disabled, they are not putting themselves down but instead using it as an identifier similar to how someone might identify their sexual orientation or ethnicity.
According to the 2010 US Census, 1 out of 5 people has a disability. Having a disability in the United States is more normal as having blue eyes. So why are we so scared of the word and why are we so set on erasing it from our media representations? I am not scared of my disability. Barbara Gordon was never scared of hers either. I do however fear the continuing erasure of disabled individuals in media, the pressure disabled individuals face from media and society to not be disabled.
Erasing Barbara’s disability whether it is for the sake of a good story or not is still disheartening. There is so little disabled representation in comics and to see Barbara being treated so poorly and endued with such an ableist mindset is disappointing. Most other minority characters are not treated as crassly as disabled characters. Barbara is disabled, and that’s okay.