X is for Professor X. For those of you who are not familiar with Marvel comics or movies, Professor X is Prof. Charles Xavier, the leader of the X-Men. In Marvel cannon, he is one of the world’s most powerful telepaths, if not the most powerful. He is also paraplegic, making him one of extremely few mainstream characters with a disability.
I will probably never forget one time early in my former life as a teacher when I was on my way down the primary wing (gr. k-2) of the school where I taught to see another teacher. This wasn’t somewhere I frequented often. I taught in the upper grade wing (gr. 4-6) and was usually on the other end of the school so most of the younger students didn’t know me and some of them had probably never even seen me. A small boy had been sent out of the classroom for some misbehavior or another and was sitting on the floor beside his classroom door. As I went by, he called out to me, “You look like Prof. X.” Now given that the professor is a rather distinguished British gentleman, and I was at the time a twenty-something female schoolteacher, I was pretty confident that the only thing the professor and I could possibly have in common was that we both use wheelchairs.
I turned around and responded, “Thanks. I think he’s a pretty cool character.”
The little boy was shocked. For one, I doubt he expected someone who was both a woman and a teacher to know who he was talking about. Trust me, my students were always shocked when I was familiar with any aspect of popular culture. For another, from the tone of his voice, I’m pretty sure he did not expect me to respond positively.In fact, I’m pretty sure he fully expected me to have a few words to say about addressing people respectfully, but frankly I was flattered by the comparison. He didn’t associate me or my wheelchair with anything weak, broken, helpless or any of the other negative stereotypes I could name. Instead, he associated me and my chair with a superhero. That’s cool, and that’s why positive depictions of the diverse people in our writing is so vitally important.
I’ll be honest. Not everyone in the disability community shares my appreciation for Prof. X as a positive depiction of disability. Some people think his very status as mutant and the leader of the team of superheroes emphasizes his disability as making him somehow other than the norm. I get the point. There does exist another stereotype that persists in making people with disability as somehow heroic, better and stronger morally and emotionally than the average person. That stereotype can be just as damaging as any of the negative ones. By putting people on a pedestal, it isolates them and sets up unfair expectations that don’t allow someone with a disability to be human, to be frustrated, to have bad days and bad attitudes sometimes.
I get it. I just don’t think it applies in this case. For one, the professor’s status as a mutant and a telepath predates his disability. Unlike quite a few other superheroes with accompanying disabilities, his superpower doesn’t develop in relation to his disability. It’s not meant to compensate for some perceived lack that results from his disability. He’s already a mutant before he becomes disabled. Therefore, I don’t think is mutant status is trying to suggest that disability is somehow other. He is other because he is a mutant. That happened long before his disability.
Another reason I think Prof. X is a positive character with a disability is because his mutant status doesn’t in any way fix, correct, or otherwise alter his disability. He’s not paraplegic except when is a superhero. He’s paraplegic all the time. (Okay, occasionally when he is communicating with someone telepathically and is in their mind space depicted as able-bodied, but in the realm of the mind, no one has a body so of course, bodily limitations don’t exist. That isn’t fixing disability that’s just logical.) In fact, the professor’s wheelchair-or hover chair depending on your version-is so much an accepted part of his character that even the Lego version Of Prof. X has one. That to me is inherently positive and normalizes the equipment.
We need to do more of that. Sadly, Prof. X is one of a very few mainstream characters. Maybe someday we can change that.