Teaching Disability Awareness With Disabled Comic Book Characters

by | Aug 21, 2019

One of the great things about school is that, just as students learn about different subjects, they also encounter different types of people from different walks of life. That being said, not every student has the opportunity to attend school with someone who is disabled, which means your students may not learn how to interact with someone who is in a wheelchair, has Down Syndrome, is blind, or is deaf. Not to worry, comic book characters are here to help you teach your class about disability awareness.

There’s no doubting that representation has become a hot-button issue as of late, and comic book creators are certainly answering the call for diverse characters who represent minority readers, and not just those with different skin tones and racial backgrounds. No matter whether you have disabled students in your classroom (or disabled teachers), it’s undoubtedly beneficial for your students to learn about different disabilities, as well the ways that their lives are both different and the same as disabled individuals. Pop Culture Classroom has several lessons and comic book characters to help you get started.

Destiny & Daredevil – Blind

Matt Murdock (aka, Daredevil) and Irene Adler (aka Destiny) are two characters in the Marvel universe who are blind. While Daredevil has heightened senses, and Destiny can see the future, they don’t experience the world the same way as a sighted person.

For this lesson, have your class write down a few of their favorite activities that rely on sight, such as reading, playing video games, or watching movies. Then, have students imagine how someone who is blind could enjoy those same activities.

For instance, Daredevil and Destiny can read Braille, and there are now audio games that focus on musical/audio cues and utilize touchscreen controls. Podcasts have replaced the radio shows of old, where audiences rely on their ears and imagination to weave the story in their own minds, rather than rely more on visuals to keep them engaged. See what other ideas your class can conjure up to give them new ways to engage in their favorite activities whilst experiencing the world in new ways.

Cassandra Cain – Mute

The Classroom Blog - Disability Comics

The Batman family has seen several additions over the decades, including Cassandra Cain, who once took up the mantle of Batgirl. What’s unique about Cassandra is the fact that she was raised without human speech or contact. This left her mute, but fluent in reading body movement and language – a trait that makes her a superior fighter.

Everyone has a favorite movie. Have your students describe the plot of their favorite movie with nothing but images. For those who are less artistically inclined (and to keep the lesson trendy), you can allow students to use GIFs to lay out a plot. This lesson is a great way for your class to tap into their visual creativity, thinking more like artists and directors while strengthening their communication skills.

Charles Xavier – Paraplegic

Charles Xavier is one of the most powerful telepaths in the Marvel universe, capable of projecting mental illusions, controlling the minds of others, and casting himself into the astral realm. Despite the massive scope of his abilities, one of the first things you’d notice about Charles, besides his bald head, is the fact that he’s in a wheelchair.

Anyone in your classroom who has read X-Men comic books can tell you that the X-Mansion is always getting destroyed for one reason or another (I shudder to think of what their insurance premiums are like). For this lesson, give your students the task of coming up with modifications for the newly rebuilt X-Mansion for someone in a wheelchair. For instance, all entrances and exits should have at least one step-free pathway, wide doorways, and easy-open door locks. The kitchen needs space under cooktops and sinks for wheelchairs, appliance controls that are mounted toward the front, and electrical outlets that are at least 18 inches off the floor. Here is a link to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation website, where you can find more information on universal design and home modifications to flesh out the lesson. Besides serving as an intro to architecture, this is a great way to make your class more conscientious of the needs and comforts of the disabled, which is another aspect of being well-mannered.

Superb – Down Syndrome

It’s quite rare to see a character with Down syndrome on TV or in the movies, and both you and your students may struggle to relate to someone who has a full or extra copy of chromosome 21, which is the genetic disorder that causes Down syndrome. In the comic book Superb, one of the main characters is a boy named Jonah Watkins, who has Down syndrome and has gained superpowers from a meteor shower.

With this disability awareness learning opportunity, have students write down words they would use to describe Jonah. For example, instead of the word “normal,” it’s better to use “typical” when comparing a typical person with someone who has Down syndrome. Another example is the word “retarded”, which is a common slur used in a joking matter when describing a person, activity, or object, but those words are also harmful and disrespectful to those who are disabled. When describing someone like Jonah, it’s better to use “intellectual/mental/physical disability.”

Taking this lesson one step further, you can also have your class write down things a superhero like Jonah can teach heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America; things that don’t require superhuman abilities. For example, Jonah can teach Batman how to crack a smile once in a while. He can also instruct superheroes on how to connect with and start discussions about citizens who have disabilities or special needs and how those citizens are a unique type of superhero.

Hawkeye – Partially Deaf

While Jeremy Renner’s portrayal on the big screen makes audiences think otherwise, there were points (three, to be exact) when Marvel’s Hawkeye was either partially or mostly deaf. The character used sign language and read lips to understand people, while using his voice to
communicate. Besides how to become a master archer, there are several other lessons that Hawkeye and others who are partially or completely deaf can teach us.

Smartphones have become quite a distraction when it comes to carrying on a face-to-face conversation with someone. Deaf people have to remain fully present when speaking with someone, either to read lips or understand what the other person is signing with her or his hands.

In a group of deaf individuals who are talking to each other, you’ll notice that only one of them signs at a time, unlike how several hearing people may talk over each other. The deaf community can teach us how to not interrupt and give people the respect they deserve while speaking.

Additional lessons we can learn from Hawkeye and other deaf people include how to be concise when telling a story or describing something (sign language is often rather direct and leaves no room for wordiness) and how to process small shifts in body language and take in details about the world around us. Can your students think of anything else they can learn from the deaf community?

Additionally, you can have your class make note of the ways in which Hawkeye uses these lessons to his advantage to become a better hero. For instance, he can read the lips of people who are out of earshot, anticipate an opponent’s moves by paying attention to body language, and boost his mental focus. Have your class write down ways deaf people can use their disability to their advantage.

Cyborg – Multiple Amputee

Currently, the leading cause of amputation is vascular disease, which includes diabetes and peripheral arterial disease. As with disabilities like being blind or deaf, having a limb amputated can happen at any point during a person’s life, just like it did with Cyborg, who lost multiple
limbs.

Not only did Cyborg have to get used to being an amputee and being half-machine; those closest to him also had to get used to these things. There could be a time when one of your students has a friend or family member who loses a limb, and it’s not always easy knowing what to say to someone in this particular situation.

Below are common phrases (in bold) new amputees often hear that may be considered insensitive or insulting followed by alternatives (in italics). Share these common phases with your students and see if they can identify why someone like Cyborg may feel those words are insensitive or degrading. Then have them try to think of some alternatives on their own before sharing the ones provided.

1. “It could have been worse.” (Dwelling on the hypothetical doesn’t do much help at all when it comes to recovery.)

Alternative: “I’m sorry you have to go through this, but I’m glad you’re still here.”

2. “Let me do it.” (Letting an amputee try something on her/his own first gives that person a sense of independence and control.)

Alternative: “You do the best you can and let me know if you need me to step in.”

3. “It’s time to move on to the next chapter of your life.” (No one can decide when an amputee is ready to move on in life, except the amputee. That time, and the circumstances surrounding it, is different for everyone.)

Alternative: “I don’t want you to feel stuck in your life. What are you up for right now?”

Being sensitive to people from all walks of life is key to becoming a well-rounded and more aware individual. Hopefully, these lessons will get your students thinking and change their perspective of the disabled for the better. We look forward to hearing, reading, and seeing how these lessons work out for you, and be sure to subscribe for more great lesson plans just like this one from Pop Culture Classroom (top right of this window). ‘Til next time!

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