Corinne Duyvis: The Mystical Disability Trope

Corinne DuyvisA lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Find her on Twitter or Tumblr. Her YA fantasy debut Otherbound released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It has received four starred reviews and is a Junior Library Guild selection. Kirkus Reviews called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while the Bulletin praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.”


The trope of the mystical disabled person is varied, flexible, and very common.

At its core, it’s about a disabled character—frequently mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and/or blind—with some sort of unusual ability. While this trope is related to that of the “disability superpower” and often overlaps, I feel like it has a unique status of its own. Rather than just any superpower, these abilities are often unexplained and mysterious; the characters either hold or are the clue to saving the day, giving them a unique, mystical role in the plot.

A blind girl who’s the only one to see the ghosts haunting the main characters.

A little kid with Down’s syndrome who solves the riddle everyone is struggling with.

A schizophrenic person whose seemingly nonsensical ramblings hold the clue to the mystery.

An autistic boy with world-altering powers beyond anyone’s comprehension.

(And on and on.)

All of these characters are ridiculously easy to imagine because we see them so often. They’re most common in SFF settings, where either they’ll be the only person with a magical ability, or—in a world where these abilities are commonplace—theirs will be the rarest, strongest, or most important. They also appear in settings without any supernatural aspects, in which case the character often has savant-like abilities or unusual insight.

One of the typical things about this trope—although not essential—is that the characters usually aren’t well-rounded, realistic, grounded characters. They’re Othered. They’re ooh-ed and aah-ed over, feared or worshiped, set apart. They’re unusual. They’re mystical. They’re mysterious. They’re different. They’re unexplained.

They’re rarely just a regular person dealing with their own crap alongside the rest of the cast. Instead, their disability and their ability—and the seeming contradiction thereof—are defining aspects of their characters.

Dinah Bellman from The Langoliers.

Little Pete from Gone.

Kazan from The Cube.

Gabriel from FlashForward.

Kevin Blake from Eureka.

(And on and on.)

Writers are often intrigued by the unusual. We see something interesting and our mind starts working overtime, thinking of how to integrate this into a story. This results in seeing a disabled person and thinking of how differently that person must perceive the world, and how that could be used for plot purposes. Or we’ll need a character to perform a certain task, but putting that ability in the hands of a non-disabled character would ruin the plot. Instead, we hand that ability to a disabled character. That way we have a great excuse to only trot out the ability when it’s convenient to the plot. Or maybe we don’t want to explain the reason for the ability, so we just give it to a disabled person. They’re different as is! It’ll be all mysterious and creepy!

There are all kinds of reasons for writers to fall back on this trope, but that doesn’t make it OK. It’s based on existing prejudices and misinformation. Just give disabled characters roles like any other character in the book rather than setting us apart.

John Coffey from The Green Mile.

Jake Bohm from Touch.

Lil’ Bro from NYX.

Duddits from Dreamcatcher.

River Tam from Firefly.

(And on and on.)

I want to encourage writers to start recognizing these characters when they occur, and to steer clear from them in their own fiction. We don’t need some mystical ability to make up for our disabilities. We should not only exist to impart meaningful advice. And we’re not prophets or plot devices.


Otherbound Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea … until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

8 thoughts on “Corinne Duyvis: The Mystical Disability Trope

  1. The thing I hate about the compensatory superpowers or mystical disability trope is that it creates expectations. Most of us are pretty ordinary and trying to deal with life day to day, and don’t need for others to think we can solve unsolvable problems because we’re different. Heck, I’d love to bring about a peaceful solution in Gaza right now, just because I have Aspergers and “see the world differently.” Ain’t gonna happen.

    Wonderful essay, though!

    • That’s an interesting thought, mystical disability as a form of inspiration-porn. I fight to get disability seen as normal and it’s so difficult to get people to realise that putting us up on a plinth is damaging, not helpful.

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  3. It’s unfortunate that you misunderstand the “disabled character” trope. You acknowledge it’s a figure who often sees the action in the fiction story aerially, yet you disfigure, in a sense, their disability by separating the character from reality. Every person on earth shares a neurosis of their own, but few truly capitalize on it unless its done superbly. You, you are not disabled, huh?

    • Hi Jessica, I’m truly sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re saying. Could you perhaps rephrase? Thanks!

      As far as your last statement–I am disabled, actually. All Disability in Kidlit contributors are, as is policy.

  4. I think the funny thing about the mystical disability trope is that while disability can change us, it generally does it in ways that are profoundly non-mystical. Never mind the physical and mental elements, I’ve got a much better understanding of discrimination now than I ever did as a pre-apparent-disability, middle-class, straight, white male, I’m much more assertive about my rights and those of others, and I’ve honed my eloquence campaigning. The mystical disabilities are in many ways the antithesis of actual disability!

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