Characters who incidentally have an illness or disability?
November 17, 2015 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Can anybody give me some examples of characters in film, television, or literature who incidentally have an illness or disability (i.e., their illness or disability does not somehow become a central plot device)?

For instance, Walter White Jr. from Breaking Bad has cerebral palsy, but it isn't a central plot device, and it is not his sole attribute.

Any sort of illness or disability and any character would be a welcome response to this question! Bonus points if you can comment on whether the film/TV show/book was worthwhile as a whole.
posted by gemutlichkeit to Media & Arts (68 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
There was a doctor on ER with a limp, and later one who lost an arm. Though the actual loss of the arm was a plot point, I don't think it was a plot point later that he had no arm.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:17 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Furiosa in Mad Max
posted by phunniemee at 8:20 PM on November 17, 2015 [13 favorites]

In the comic Foxtrot, Steve's girlfriend Denise is blind. It's never used as a plot device to my recall.
posted by bq at 8:26 PM on November 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Nemo in Finding Nemo has a little fin that is mentioned but not a major plot point.
posted by saucysault at 8:30 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nick Andros from The Stand.
posted by lester at 8:30 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Kerry Weaver on ER, Chester Goode on Gunsmoke.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:31 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Criminologist in Rocky Horror is in a wheelchair.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:32 PM on November 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

John Wesley Powell in Beyond The Hundredth Meridian (nonfiction). He's missing an arm and although it's mentioned from time to time it's definitely not a major point of the narrative arc - it's his kickass science awesomeness, his dedication to serving the nation, foresight, and ability to change his mind that is emphasized.
posted by barchan at 8:33 PM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's quite common in children's television where representation is taken seriously ... Shows like Sesame Street have many ensemble actors with various disabilities that simply go unremarked in the narrative in any way (the narrative will be about taking turns or being a good winner or whatever).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:34 PM on November 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

A couple of possibilities that may or may not fit:

Person of Interest: One of the main characters, Harold Finch, has a very noticeable limp and some other related physical limitations. It's the result of an incident that happened in the show's past, and the circumstances that caused the injury are alluded to in certain episodes via flashback, but his mobility issues are never used in the actual plot itself. In fact, it's almost never explicitly discussed or referred to, but it's definitely something that is shown consistently (as in, it's not like there are scenes where you wouldn't be able to recognize that the character has this physical disability).

West Wing: President Jed Bartlett has relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis. It is sometimes used as part of the plot, but mostly the way that it is used as a plot device has to do with his disclosure of the illness. (He was elected without disclosing it publicly.)

I would recommend both of these shows highly.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:34 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Joey Lucas on The West Wing is deaf, without it being too much of a plot device. Many of Marlee Matlin's other roles would qualify as well.
posted by zachlipton at 8:35 PM on November 17, 2015 [13 favorites]

Mercedes Lackey's Oathbreakers has a male lead with rheumatoid arthritis, which affects him but isn't plot-relevant. Daniel Jose Older's Half-Resurrection Blues has a main character who has many problems, of which the bum leg (requiring a cane) is the least of them.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:36 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

People with various disabilities and deaf people on the show Switched at Birth.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:37 PM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Auggie is blind on the show Covert Affairs, and while it's dealt with in his backstory and character development, it's never really a huge plot point. He still does all the cool stuff the other spies do.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:40 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Glee had a major character in a wheelchair.
posted by rw at 8:40 PM on November 17, 2015

She's not the main character but in Notting Hill, friend is in a wheelchair.
posted by ReluctantViking at 8:41 PM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mannie in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress lost an arm at some point in his past. Been a while since I read this one, but I don't think it's really much of a plot device, save maybe that his prosthesis has useful interchangeable attachments or something?
posted by brennen at 8:42 PM on November 17, 2015

Just finished reading Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory. Harrison has a prosthetic leg which is related to the plot, but not a pivotal plot point as such.
posted by ninazer0 at 8:43 PM on November 17, 2015

You might find the TV Tropes article (warning: TV Tropes) Disabled Character, Disabled Actor useful. Some of the listings do include roles where the disability is a key part of their character, but a number are not so blatant.
posted by zachlipton at 8:45 PM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by JimN2TAW at 8:47 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hannibal Lecter, at least in the novels, is described as having an extra finger on his left hand.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:49 PM on November 17, 2015

Oh, Geordi LaForge! I feel like we've nerd-failed here.

Also MacGyver's boss had progressing glaucoma.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:50 PM on November 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

Robert David Hall on CSI
Patrick Stewart in XMen
posted by BoscosMom at 9:03 PM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Cormoran Strike, the protagonist of Robert Galbraith's (J. K. Rowling's nom de plume) series of mysteries, has a prosthetic foot/lower calf from an Afghan war injury. It never really becomes a plot device, but it has apparently never quite healed and intrudes on his investigations and daily life from time to time. I was never a Harry Potter fan, but I've found Strike's character and the books, which are very much written for intelligent grownups, to be rather engaging.
posted by tully_monster at 9:08 PM on November 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Cutter John in Bloom County.
Mori's injury is not particularly central to the plot in Among Others, which is a wonderful book.
Seconding Switched at Birth above. Deaf culture is central to the plot of the series, but it's not a plot device. I love that show.
posted by bibliotropic at 9:09 PM on November 17, 2015

In Pacific Rim one of the scientists, Hermann Gottlieb, uses a cane and has a limp. It is unspecified what his disability is, but it is also not relevant to his role in the film, apart from adding a sense of direness to the conditions in which he must work and the lengths to which he pushes himself to help save the world. I think it's symbolically relevant, because legs and stride are really important framing devices throughout the film, but it's not anything that would change the plot if Hermann didn't have a cane.

It's a plot point in the original, but in the (maybe not so surprisingly great) How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup's prosthetic is a part of his body but not something that creates conflict in the plot. And his dragon, Toothless, has a similar prosthetic which is a plot point, but it's never treated as anything more than a tool/device to get done what needs doing - it's not involved in the moral of the story or the lesson learned or anything like that. Similar to a character losing their glasses at a time when they need badly to be able to see.
posted by Mizu at 9:09 PM on November 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Wheels and the Legman
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:25 PM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Captain Picard in has an artificial heart and a small structural defect in his parietal lobe.
posted by Rob Rockets at 10:07 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I believe Matt Fraction's Hawkeye is partially deaf, and it's only mentioned in passing.
And yes, considering I read the whole thing over a number of times and I want the whole Marvel/DC burn to the ground, it's quite good.
posted by lmfsilva at 10:19 PM on November 17, 2015

There was a TV series back in the 80"s called Wiseguy where the tech guy was in a wheelchair. It was good back then but I'm sure it's really dated now. First place I ever saw Kevin Spacy.
posted by BoscosMom at 10:59 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hmm... maybe Professor Xavier in the X-men series. I haven't seen all the movies / read the comics, but I think at least in the first movie it doesn't give any backstory or really mention his wheelchair at all, right?
posted by losvedir at 11:03 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Robert David Hall played the Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Al Robbins, on the original CSI. Robbins has prosthetic legs and (one?) crutch.

Jimmy Palmer, assistant to Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Duckie Mallard, on NCIS, stated in one episode that he was diabetic. (However, the show mentioned it only the one time and handled it fairly unrealistically.)

Weird that both my examples are morgue dudes.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:05 PM on November 17, 2015

The X-Man Jubilee was revealed to be dyscalculic in I think an issue of Wolverine. I don't think it ever came up again.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:08 PM on November 17, 2015

There's a tech? guy on NCIS New Orleans in a wheelchair.

Michael J Fox is a reoccurring character on The Good Wife and he uses his illness to thwart other lawyers and manipulate judges, okay that sounds bad but it really is pretty funny because he's an evil character.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:14 AM on November 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Geri Jewell from Facts of Life had cerebral palsy, and Allan Dobrescu, who plays Charlie Gerhardt Fargo (the TV show) does, too.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:49 AM on November 18, 2015

I think it's a safe bet that Ignatius Reilly from Confederacy of Dunces was on the autism spectrum.
posted by kinetic at 3:11 AM on November 18, 2015

The narrator on Oz - Augustus Hill - is in a wheelchair.
posted by A hidden well at 3:30 AM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Dick Francis has a recurring character Sid Halley with a prosthetic hand/forearm. The first Sid Halley book probably doesn't count for this question--there's an awful lot of ruminating about the end of his racing career (precipitated by a disabling hand injury) and working through ableism and then culminates in the bad guys injuring his hand further, resulting in the amputation. I can't remember how heavily the second one is focused on the aftermath of the amputation. In the third and fourth books*, it's more just a thing than a focus--maybe he whacks someone over the head with his arm and maybe he takes the prothesis off to escape once.

There's another Dick Francis character in (I think) Knockdown who has a shoulder prone to dislocation due to a racing injury. I seem to recall that mattering somehow in the climax, but I've forgotten how (he dislocates his shoulder to escape? the bad guys dislocate his shoulder to try to incapacitate him?) There are probably some more, but that's the one I remember.

Morse is diagnosed with diabetes in one of the later books.

*Dick Francis's son wrote a fifth Sid Halley book. It veers towards the problematic.
posted by hoyland at 4:58 AM on November 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Stevie from Malcolm in the Middle was in a wheelchair and was always short of breath. It's commented on occasionally in the show, but basically he's a normal kid -- although I think there are a few episodes where he uses his disability to trick other people into thinking he's weak, or get them to give him things.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:00 AM on November 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

Here's a slightly different take: Jamey Sheridan, while playing the captain on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, suffered a bout of Bell's Palsy which was evident in several consecutive episodes. As I recall, they mentioned it briefly in the first episode it was apparent, then the subject never came up again.
posted by DrGail at 6:16 AM on November 18, 2015

Charlie on the current season of Fargo has a disabled hand. It's brought up once when it's doubted he can fire a gun, but other than that it's not really a thing. The season isn't over yet though so maybe it will come up more, I dunno. Totally worth watching the show.

State Delegate Odell Watkins on The Wire is in a wheelchair and it's never brought up. He's a pretty minor character.
posted by bondcliff at 6:38 AM on November 18, 2015

George Dzunda's CIA computer super user uses a wheelchair, never remarked on, in the Kevin Costner thriller 'No Way Out' (1987)
posted by Jesse the K at 6:41 AM on November 18, 2015

Izzy in Coronation Street and Donna in EastEnders.
posted by intensitymultiply at 6:48 AM on November 18, 2015

Peter Dinklage plays Fin McBride in The Station Agent. The writer/director says, "Only later when we were looking around for an actor who could hold up such a complex character did we think of Peter, and we thought, 'I guess he [Fin] will have to be a dwarf then.' "
posted by aimedwander at 7:45 AM on November 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

The comic strip For Better or For Worse had a schoolteacher who used a wheelchair.
posted by JanetLand at 7:46 AM on November 18, 2015

There was a recent two-part episode of Doctor Who (“Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood”) featuring a deaf actress (Sophie Stone) as the leader of an underwater base.
posted by Gortuk at 7:53 AM on November 18, 2015

Walt Jr. in Breaking Bad has CP, which is only occasionally relevant to the plot.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:26 AM on November 18, 2015

House uses a cane in "House." The pain associated with his leg injury -- and his resulting addiction to painkillers -- is certainly a plot point. But in most episodes the disability itself is not.

(I do seem to recall one when he was angry that another character, in a wheelchair, got to park in the handicapped spots, while he didn't. Then he uses a wheelchair for the rest of the episode to make a typically assholish point about how easy wheelchair users have it. I'm thinking this is not quite the kind of plot point you had in mind.)

Leonard on The Big Bang Theory has asthma.
posted by OnceUponATime at 9:05 AM on November 18, 2015

I meant to second John Wesley Powell, btw. With his exploration team, he shot all kinds of rapids along the largely unknown Colorado in a heavy wooden boat--with only one arm. For SCIENCE! Badass by any standard.

Also--Dr. John Watson is a disabled veteran on a pension at the beginning of A Study in Scarlet with an incapacitating shoulder wound and way too much time on his hands. In the current BBC series Sherlock, Martin Freeman's John Watson at first is shown to suffer from PTSD. Both are veterans of Afghan wars more than a century apart.

Further on the subject of "invisible" disabilities, Dorothy Sayers's detective protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey, a WWI veteran whose former batman, Bunter, now serves as his butler, suffers from shellshock and has at least one breakdown during the series that is triggered by plot elements but is not a plot device. Sherlock Holmes has been diagnosed with everything from bipolar disorder to Asperger's, but clearly his intermittent cocaine addiction is a result of self-medicating.
posted by tully_monster at 11:26 AM on November 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

In Joan of Arcadia, Joan's brother (played by a young Jason Ritter) is a former football player who uses a wheelchair because he is paralyzed. The plot does not revolve around this but some episodes it may be focused on more than others. The series was actually very good, entertaining and thought provoking in my opinion. It was nominated for an Emmy and won a People's Choice award but only lasted two seasons.
posted by maxg94 at 12:28 PM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

A few people have mentioned the current season of Fargo, but it's also worth noting that season one had Mr. Wrench, a hitman who happened to be deaf.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:34 PM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I sort of wonder if "Five Flavors of Dumb" by Antony John would count for this. The narrator is deaf, and it comes up here and there, but let's just say that her job as a manager for a rock band isn't super affected by that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:02 PM on November 18, 2015

Duncan MacLeod's Watcher in the Highlander tv series had prosthetic legs and it was never really a plot point. I'm pretty sure that the actor himself was a double amputee?
posted by TwoStride at 4:59 PM on November 18, 2015

"Sneakers" is a truly awesome 1992 movie about spies and hackers with Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, Sidney Potier, Dan Ackroyd, River Phoenix (I am listing this amazing cast to convince everyone they should see it if they haven't) and David Strathairn as Erwin "Whistler" Emery, who incidentally happens to be blind. (Also Mary McDonnell, Stephen Tobolowsky, and James Earl Jones. Seriously, it's a great movie with a fantastic cast, you should see it.)
posted by OnceUponATime at 3:48 AM on November 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

This thread is become a list of really good movies, TV shows, and books (at least the ones here that I'm familiar with). So I also want to mention The Theory of Flight, which does not meet the criteria in the original post -- the disability of one of the characters completely drives the plot and is not at all incidental. But then, her disability is ALS disease, and she is nearly completely paralyzed. Also, it is a comedy. With Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh. It's definitely not just "let's all feel sorry for this disabled person." Her situtation is treated as more... frustrating than anything else. She herself is a fully developed character with a foul mouth and a biting sense of humor. Anyway it's good, and I feel like it should be mentioned in this thread.

Similarly The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a memoir by a man who has such a severe disability (after a stroke, he is paralyzed to the point where he can only communicate by blinking his eye, which is how he dictated the book) that he can't really participate in other "plot" activities. However, he retains an alert and subtle mind and his observations and meditations make him an interesting character with agency, flaws, insights, and relationships he works hard to maintain -- not just an object of pity.
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:09 AM on November 19, 2015

Geri Jewell (mentioned above, who has cerebral palsy) also had a minor role in Deadwood, as a servant of sorts in The Gem saloon. Definitely a worthwhile show!

Joe Swanson in Family Guy is in a wheelchair. I think it was the central plot in one episode but he's in a ton where it's not mentioned at all.

It's been a reeeeally long time since I watched Saved!, but Macauley Caulkin's character is in a wheelchair and I don't remember it being a plot device.
posted by amicamentis at 9:04 AM on November 19, 2015

David Strathairn as Erwin "Whistler" Emery, who incidentally happens to be blind
This. While it's not central to the overall plot it does hinder him (driving) at a certain point. The other times it comes into play are just him noticing sounds better than sighted people normally would. That wouldn't strictly require him being blind though, they could have just as easily made him an audiophile or something.
posted by Green With You at 10:16 AM on November 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hugh Grant's brother in Four Weddings and a Funeral is deaf.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:20 AM on November 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's been a reeeeally long time since I watched Saved!, but Macauley Caulkin's character is in a wheelchair and I don't remember it being a plot device.

I love the movie Saved! and have watched it a lot and recently. The fact that he's in a wheelchair is mentioned a lot, but it's handled really well and isn't part of the plot.
posted by phunniemee at 10:30 AM on November 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this counts, but it's been implied that Abed in Community is on the Autism Spectrum.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:23 PM on November 19, 2015

Cormoran Strike, the protagonist of Robert Galbraith's (J. K. Rowling's nom de plume) series of mysteries, has a prosthetic foot/lower calf from an Afghan war injury. It never really becomes a plot device, but it has apparently never quite healed and intrudes on his investigations and daily life from time to time.

Eh, not quite true in the latest one, Career of Evil, unfortunately.
posted by ODiV at 2:31 PM on November 19, 2015

The main character in Richard Paul Russo's space-based scifi novel "Ship of Fools" describes his very severe physical defects right at the start of the book:
I am not an ugly man, but I am deformed. I was born with hands attached almost directly to my shoulders, on vestigial arms that are, even now, no more than a dozen centimeters in length, though my hands and fingers are almost normal in size and shape, and function quite well. Several vertebrae are missing, but the spinal cord itself is intact. I have a club foot.

Throughout my infancy and childhood I was fitted with a series of prosthetic arms and hands which I could manipulate from within by my own hands and fingers. I was also fitted with special spinal braces to support my body; synthetic vertebrae were devised to protect the spinal cord.

The limbs were made to look like real flesh, muscle, and bone, but when I reached adulthood and full growth—slightly taller than average—and was ready for my permanent prosthetics, I chose to have them constructed of shining metal, plastic, and steelglass. I also had the spinal braces augmented with a metal, cage-like exoskeleton which I attach over my clothing each day after I have dressed. For the club foot I did nothing to compensate. My boot was constructed to fit the twisted shape of my foot.

With the augmentation of the exoskeleton, braces, club foot, and my shining arms, I limp swiftly and magnificently along wherever I go. I have never wished to hide my differences. I prefer to celebrate them.
As you might imagine in a scifi story set on a spaceship, sure, the exoskeleton does come up once or twice later. But the narrator's disabilities are largely incidental to the story.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:02 PM on November 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

This one isn't as obvious, but Peter Falk is completely blind in one eye (and I think actually has a prosthetic) and played, among other characters, the extremely observant and competent detective Columbo on TV.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 7:21 AM on November 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

The description of the "Ship of Fools" character makes me think of another space opera hero: Miles Vorkosigan. But again not sure if his disabilities count as "incidental." He has fragile bones and short stature (4'9"). Early books in the "Vorkosigan series" do put a lot of focus how his physical issues impede or don't impede his military ambitions. By the later books, however, it's no longer relevant. The plots then revolve around mysteries he must solve, romantic relationships, and dramatic rescue operations that he leads. (While other characters have other physical issues as well as post traumatic stress and mental health issues...)

I feel like this could be said for a lot serialized media. For instance, I also thought of mentioning the Laura Ingalls Wilder books earlier, but decided that Mary's blindness does count as a "plot device" (insofar as you can use that for something based on a true story.) However, the series as a whole is certainly not about Mary being blind. So maybe it's not a "central" plot device?

And I'd mentioned "House" -- some episodes are indeed about his leg, but the show as a whole isn't about "doctor with a cane," it's about "brilliant diagnostician who is also an asshole solves medical mysteries" and the cane is incidental to that. Joan of Arcadia was mentioned. Some episodes are about Joan's sports-jock brother trying to adjust to being a in a wheelchair, but the show as a whole is about "Teenage girl can talk to maddeningly ambiguous God," not "sports jock has to adjust to being in a wheelchair."

I find this whole thread kind of fascinating, thinking about the kinds and degrees of disability and how central or incidental they are... in people's lives as well as in fiction. It makes me think of the various people in Oliver Sacks' books. He is writing case histories, so the stories are about their neurological issues, but none of these people is defined by their neurological issues. They are real people. Whole people, with strengths and weaknesses and dreams and histories unrelated to their medical condition. Yet their lives are profoundly shaped, in some cases, by those medical conditions. And I think of the book "Far From the Tree" by Andrew Solomon. He profiles some people with really severe disabilities, mental and physical, and some with differences which aren't disabling as well. It's about how parents relate to children who are different from themselves, and the degree to which those differences do or don't affect the child's identity and the "plot" of their lives seems to vary greatly. (Maybe real life is kind of like serialized media, a few episodes about disability even if the overall "plot" is not?)

I thought of one more but I haven't read the books, so someone else will have to comment on the centrality of the main character's leprosy: The Chronicals of Thomas Covenant.
posted by OnceUponATime at 1:07 PM on November 20, 2015

Leprosy is indeed both thematically central and plot-relevant to the Covenant novels.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:30 PM on November 20, 2015

The new comedy Superstore has a character who's so-far-incidentally in a wheelchair.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:31 PM on November 30, 2015

I just watched the movie Orphan. There's a deaf character whose deafness doesn't contribute to the plot in any way; they just let her be deaf. (Actually, her being deaf and the totally normal family interactions that happened even though she's deaf were easily the best things about the movie, murderous psychopath nothwithstanding.)
posted by phunniemee at 8:27 PM on February 12, 2016

This was a one-off episode ("Into the Mystic"), but Supernatural did recently feature a female hunter who's deaf--played by Shoshanna Stein, who is amazeballs in Jericho.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:02 PM on February 12, 2016

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