Books/films and other media reviews of characters and stories involving disability

My thoughts on the blind girl in Avatar The Last Airbender.

I thought I’d do something slightly different today, since I haven’t been able to come up with anything to write, or been inspired by anything. I don’t usually review things on here, or I haven’t done. But perhaps we can have a reviewing section where I talk about my feelings on books, films, shows etc that involve characters with disabilities, or stories that relate to disability somehow perhaps. I really don’t know. But today I will be talking about a character in a cartoon show that I’ve been watching. I thought this would be good since, I did talk a bit about disabled characters in media and how they are written and portrayed in earlier posts, so I thought yeah why not?

A few months or so ago, I started watching a cartoon show on Netflix called Avatar the last airbender, and one of the characters in the show happens to be blind. The story is one of those good verses evil, trying to bring balance back into the world and restoring peace and harmony. There are four nations of people with different magical abilities of the four elements of nature. Who can bend nature to their will, and aid them in different ways. Earth, water, fire and air. The blind girl comes from the earth bending tribe, from a small town, and happens to come from a rich family. She’s an earth bender called Toph, who when we first meet her she goes by the nickname ‘The blind bandit’ when she’s fighting in the ring. Which her parents have no idea of. She seems to live a double life, one of which she has to keep secret.

Toph’s home life is one that some people with disabilities, not all, have most probably experienced while growing up under their parent’s homes. Her parents are over protective and want to wrap her in cotton wool. Never letting her out of their sight, or always having people watch her. Never allowing her to go far, or do anything on her own. Always worrying she’ll hurt herself or something terrible will happen. They see her as something delicate and very vulnerable. And that kind of parenting can either be overbearing and suffocating, or cause a child to become too dependent and lacking in confidence and self esteem. I personally think that Toph’s character was written well, with a good story in itself. She’s learning and developing as a character. I don’t know if other visually impaired and blind people will agree with me, or if they would feel that she wasn’t portrayed properly enough. But I personally think she was written well, and I like most of what I see.

While Toph’s parents are constantly afraid for her safety and think she’s vulnerable and incapable, Toph finds them suffocating and is irritated by her parents. Her relationship with them becomes strained as she fights for her independence and to be given more freedom to do as she pleases. She doesn’t like being confined with restrictions. What Toph’s parents don’t realise is that she is anything but vulnerable, and her blindness don’t stop her from doing many things, or make her weak. She’s quite an independent character, fierce and strong. While her parents have allowed her to have earth bending training, they have most probably advised the trainer to take things slowly and with delicate care. The trainer also thinks she’s incapable, as most sighted people often think of the blind and visually impaired. However Toph is more advanced in her training than her parents and trainer are to believe. She’s had to train herself and has learned advanced techniques in earth bending and happens to be one of the strongest earth benders in her home town. She proves that she is more than her parents think her capable of.

She’s written as a bright and witty character and has a strong personality. At the beginning when she runs away with the avatar and the group, she seems selfish and refuses to help others because she doesn’t want people doing things for her. She refuses help and is afraid of asking for it when she does need it, because she doesn’t want to seem helpless and useless. But as the show progresses, she learns that it’s ok to need help from time to time and there’s no shame in asking for it. But she should also help her friends too. She learns that it goes both ways if she wants respect and friendship. She’s also afraid of seeming vulnerable and most probably feels ashamed of needing help, because she wants to be as independent as she possibly can and wants to prove that she can do things just like everyone else. But not just that she doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone else, nobody wants to be a burden.

This also shows some authenticy because many blind and disabled people, do not like being seen as vulnerable, and are able to do many things independently, and prefer to tell people when they need help; or prefer people to ask before jumping in and forcing help when it is not needed. Some find it embarrassing asking for help even when they need it, and may try to hide it the way Toph does. Because they are normally independent and confident, so when they actually do need a bit of help it can be hard like we see Toph struggle to ask when she needs it. This may be because many people as soon as they see that people needing help even the tiniest bit, they take it the wrong way and presume they need help with everything when they don’t, when in reality it is just the odd few things. So it is always best to ask and not presume.

But that’s not to say that she doesn’t have a vulnerable side, everyone needs help from time to time, and that includes the strongest, and independent ones too. As he character develops and grows, she starts to ask for help when she knows that she is is struggling, which brings me to the next bit that seemed to make it just that bit more authentic in my view. There are several parts in the series where she cannot use her earth bending, which leaves her vulnerable and needing help. In most cases with the bending she can use it to help her navigate her surroundings, and gives her a way to see in the way some blind people use echo location. She is able to feel vibrations through the ground and know what’s coming ahead or under the ground. Which even the sighted earth benders can do. They can feel with their feet and know where things are, that are out of sight. Unlike typical blind characters, her hearing is not super sonic. She does use her hearing to know where things are, but that’s just in her immediate surroundings. Her ability to see is more through the ground, in the way almost all earth benders do. She doesn’t have a cane so still needs someone to guide her every now and then too. Which all make her seem more equal to everyone else, and a bit more realistic to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is how I’ve interpreted that.

Her friends often forget that she is blind, and she is constantly having to remind them when they leave her behind or forget to guide her due to her independence. She seems so independent and capable of many things that her friends seem to forget that there are still some barriers, and struggles that she will need help on. For some blind people, the experience is familiar as family and friends sometimes forget they can’t see things, and may show them pictures without realising what they are doing. They forget because they are so used to them being around, and don’t always look visually impaired or blind and seem independent that, people close to them forget. It seems to be the case for Toph at least. Just to give an example, there was an episode where the group are reading a letter or something, and they forget that Toph can’t read it. She has to remind them before one of them reads it out loud. And like with any earth bender, she cannot use her bending when surrounded by metal and metal bending. She has to use her natural senses, which are not super heightened in any way like the daredevil or other blind characters in the media. Her hearing is just more in tuned and is used and can be of help in a reasonably realistic way.

As I say, I think she is an all rounded well written character. She has been written as a strong, capable, independent character, with inner flaws of insecurities, has her moments of feeling sad and unhappy even when she seems upbeat and confident attitude. She may seem hard and boisterous, but deep down she does have a caring side to her. I definitely liked what I saw and think the writers did a wonderful job with how her character turned out. I’ll be honest with you, I think writing disabled characters is one heck of a hard job. You won’t always please everyone and a lot of research needs to go into doing something like this. Which is probably why I don’t think I could write a character with a disability in my own books, unless it’s my own disability. But saying that, I think even myself as a disabled person even I’d make mistakes and get it wrong. Because we all think and feel differently about many subjects surrounding disability in itself. I have many debates with many people surrounding my own thoughts on different topics, and many don’t always agree with me. As much as I’d like to see more disabled characters in books and films, I do appreciate how hard this can be, and you have to give it to these guys. Either they did the research on this, or just understood visual impairment, either way they really put in a lot of effort in trying to get her character right.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and if you haven’t seen the show I recommend you do. It’s brilliant and not just because of Toph, the story is great too. What are your thoughts on Toph’s character? Do you like how she was written? Do you think there could be improvements made, and if so how could they have written her better?

As always thanks for reading.

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