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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

July 13, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsPopped Culture

“Avatar” series highlights characters with disabilities

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” has always been praised for its culturally diverse cast of characters. It has also been recognized for approaching heavy material like trauma and genocide in a way that children could understand. However, we should never forget that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was also a pioneer for disability representation.

The critically acclaimed Nickelodeon franchise, which ran from 2005 to 2008, has always boasted a respectably large fanbase, especially among those who grew up with the show. Hordes of dedicated followers have even regarded the series as one of the best television shows of all time. Since Netflix added all three seasons of the show to its platform May 15, there has been a major resurgence in the public interest, and it quickly became Netflix’s No. 1 mostwatched show in the United States.

The series takes place in a world based on various Asian and indigenous cultures like Chinese, Japanese and Inuit. Some people in this world have the ability to manipulate one of the four elements: fire, water, earth and air. This talent is called bending. One person, called the Avatar, is able to bend all four of the elements. The Avatar is ancient and has been reincarnated repeatedly to maintain balance in the world.

In this series, the Avatar is a young airbender named Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen). The story follows Aang as he and his three friends — Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack De Sena), siblings from the Southern Water Tribe, and earthbender Toph Beifong (Jessie Flower) — fight to prevent the Fire Nation from taking over the world.

Toph is undeniably the most well-known character with a disability in the show. She is Aang’s earthbending teacher, regarded as the most skilled and innovative earthbender of her time, and she was born blind. At 12 years old, Toph is within the target age range of the series’ viewers and is an impressively talented example of a fictional character with a disability.

Like countless other fans, the moment I realized the series had been rereleased, I grabbed some snacks and sat down to binge-watch the television show that had defined my childhood. As I watched, I picked up on just how ahead of its time the show was in its portrayal of characters with disabilities. Instead of drawing attention to its characters with disabilities and othering them from the rest of the world because of how different they are, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” integrates their contributions seamlessly. This natural inclusion is a major step away from how we usually see these characters in modern media.

Besides Toph, other characters with disabilities in the show include Teo (Daniel Samonas), a nonbender who was injured as a child during a Fire Nation raid and now uses a wheelchair, and Combustion Man, an assassin who was hired to kill the Avatar and sports a prosthetic leg and arm.

Apart from this series, Nickelodeon cartoons from this time period are not known for their stellar representations of individuals with disabilities. To this day, although 25% of the U.S. population has some sort of disability, a measly 16% of children’s programs feature characters with disabilities, none of whom were main characters. 

Adding to this disappointing reality of underrepresentation, only 2.1% of characters from regular prime-time broadcast shows from 2018 to 2019 had disabilities. On top of all of that, when characters with disabilities do exist, they are often harmful, tokenized caricatures meant to spark drama or comedy — think Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale) from “Glee,” a character who spends most of his time onscreen lamenting the fact that he cannot walk and being pushed around by the able-bodied characters around him. 

But the characters with disabilities in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” are far more than simple tokens. They offer children who watch the show compelling characters they can admire. For example, Toph’s bending is bolstered by her disability. She trained herself to feel vibrations in the ground so she can detect her opponent’s moves before they follow through. While an earthbender with sight might fight reflexively, Toph has the unparalleled ability to dodge, and even counterattack, as soon as she feels her opponent move. This talent gives her a major leg up during duels, making her a formidable fighter. The way she uses the vibrations is reminiscent of the way blind people in real life use tools like canes to feel the texture of the ground or to sense objects in their surroundings. She does not miraculously have the ability to “see,” and the show makes that quite clear.

Teo is similarly known for his fighting skills, although his talents lie in less hands-on combat. Teo’s father, also known as Mechanist (René Auberjonois), is an inventor, and, through his research, he discovered that Aang’s people, the long-thoughtextinct Air Nomads, invented gliders to fly through the sky with the help of airbending. Teo’s father created gliders for nonairbenders to use with the intention of giving his 13-year-old disabled son a way to move. Mechanist also built technologies like elevators so Teo could easily navigate the mountainous location they live in.

The kid is seriously skilled with his glider and even outflies Aang, the actual airbender, within the first few minutes of meeting him. During his introduction episode, “The Northern Air Temple” in season one, he and the other residents of his city take on a small Fire Nation army that is trying to invade the temple. Teo and the other gliders drop stink and flash bombs on the advancing tanks and troops, but, while all of the other gliders can only drop one or two attacks at a time, Teo uses his wheelchair as a vessel to carry more weapons, a tactic that makes him a threat in the sky.

Another important detail of Teo’s story is that it depicts a community in which everything was actually built for people with disabilities. Teo’s story shows that it is entirely possible to create a society in which things are built with disability in mind from the beginning instead of making the minimum number of changes to avoid being sued.

I have seen arguments that accuse Toph, specifically, of falling into the stereotype of “supercrip.” This cliche describes a character with disabilities who can do miraculous things despite the so-called limits of their disability. This stereotype erases the reality of disability and feeds into ableist narratives that suggest people with disabilities are flawed. Although Toph is powerful and excellent at what she does, she is not strong despite her disability. She is just strong.

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” returning to mainstream consciousness is both a testament to the brilliance of the show and a critical reminder that younger generations must see characters like Toph and Teo in action. This show proves that it is not enough to simply write in a character with disabilities. Showrunners have to take the extra steps to make those characters real, well rounded and honest. Seeing as the show appeals to more than just children, parents can be reminded of the benefits of representation in their children’s media.