Game of Thrones: Disability representation in George R.R. Martin’s masterpiece

Game of Thrones: Disability representation in George R.R. Martin’s masterpiece

House Access2Learn

Before I start with this blog, I just want to say that I will try to keep it as spoiler free as possible! On a personal note, I never thought I would be happy to hear the words “Winter is here”!

I know what you’re thinking dear readers – why on Earth is a company like Access2Learn, who supports disabled students at university through Disabled Students Allowances, publishing a blog about Game of Thrones? Well, like the sigil of House Mormont, please bear with us – ok, I’m sorry, that was the worst pun ever.

The Sigil of House Mormont

But my point? There are two reasons to write a blog about George R.R. Martin’s epic creation. One – Martin’s depiction of characters who would by today’s standards be classed as disabled, especially when they interact with the infamously vicious and ableist society depicted in Game of Thrones, are portrayed in incredible fashion when, far from being pushed to the side and forgotten or just there for comic relief as is the unfortunate norm for such characters, they are portrayed as tough, intelligent and adaptive, able to command a huge presence within Westeros and Essos. The second reason – well, I just love Game of Thrones!

Perhaps the most immediately obvious portrayal of disability in Game of Thrones, as well as being my favourite character in the entire series, is Tyrion Lannister – otherwise known as ‘Imp’, ‘Half-man’ and various other insults pertaining to his dwarfism. Yet despite being some 2 feet shorter than most other of the main characters in Westeros (3 if you count ‘The Mountain’ – maybe even 4 if you’ve read the books!), Tyrion casts one of the largest shadows over the fictional world of Game of Thrones, not only surviving against all odds, but thriving, becoming one of the most powerful characters in Westeros and Essos.

Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage

Unfortunately, Tyrion is treated with neglect, scorn and at times even hatred by members of his family, especially by his father, Tywin, who attempts more than once in the show to have his son killed, by ordering him to lead barbarian tribes into battle, making him responsible for the defence of King’s Landing and then sentencing him to death for a crime he didn’t commit – and why? Simple – Tyrion is a dwarf. During an incredible scene at his trial, when the hatred between Tyrion and his father boils over, Tyrion responds to his father’s demands that he confess to his imagined crimes with “I’m guilty of a far more monstrous crime! I’m guilty … of being a dwarf!”

This is only one example of the relentless discrimination that a dwarf faces in the brutal and ableist society of Westeros/Essos. Tyrion is constantly looked down upon, insulted and tormented by his peers; including his sister Cersei, his cousin Lancel (who comes to regret it, more on that later), and many others. As a dwarf, he is seen as being beneath notice or reward, an illegitimate being. As he famously remarks to Jon Snow in Season One, who faces his own discrimination on account of being a ‘bastard’ and therefore unable to claim lands and also treated like an illegitimate being, “All Dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes”.

However, despite the overwhelming prejudice a dwarf faces in Westeros, it doesn’t stop Tyrion from playing the Game of Thrones like a champion. For far from being portrayed in the typical way that a dwarf would be in most films/TV shows, Tyrion is shown to have great charisma, vast intelligence and lightening quick wit, all of which he uses to gain allies, outmanoeuvre his enemies and gain power within Westeros. Tyrion manages to outmanoeuvre Queen Cersei by removing her lackeys from the Game, gain the allegiance of the sellsword Bronn, talk his way out of certain death in the Vale and at the hands of the Hill Tribes, orchestrate the successful defense of King’s Landing and climb the ladder of power almost to the peak on two occasions, becoming Hand of the King/Queen at various stages in the film series. Despite being the shortest player in the Game of Thrones, Tyrion is one of the biggest winners – and easily one of the most beloved characters.

Hodor, carrying Bran Stark

Then there’s characters such as Hodor, the “sweet giant”, the seven-foot tall servant to the Starks who can only utter one word; his name, “Hodor”. While one’s first impression of such a man might be underwhelming, given the unfortunate tendency to judge a person’s intellect by their capacity to speak, Hodor quickly establishes himself as one of the most beloved characters in the series as he tends to Bran Stark, who is left paralysed from the waist down after a tragic fall early in the series. Initially, Bran is distraught by his injury and the realisation that’d he’ll never walk again, and remarks to his brother Robb that he’d rather die than live as ‘a cripple’, much to Robb’s sadness. However, it is not long before he discovers he can still ride on horseback (with a little help from Tyrion), and eventually he discovers within himself the magical powers of a warg and the power of ‘Greensight’.

Perhaps it is poetic justice that the man that caused the fall that crippled Bran, the Kingslayer Jaime Lannister, is himself left handicapped when his hand is cut off (in events that I won’t spoil). Jaime, who was once hailed as one of the finest fighters in Westeros, is convinced that losing his sword-hand is the end of his fighting days, remarking that ‘the Kingslayer can’t even slay a pidgeon’ – an ironic similarity to Bran, whom he crippled. However, also like Bran, Jaime’s loss of his hand turns out to be crucial to his character development, and he transitions from one of the most despised characters to a fan-favourite.

As you can see, there are many examples of disability in Game of Thrones. Many of them are inflicted by injury, such as Bran and Jaime, others by trauma like Hodor. Few known characters in the Game of Thrones world are born with disabilities, such as Tyrion, whose dwarfism was obvious all his life. All of these characters face hostility in the excessive ableism of the Game of Thrones world, where power is the name of the game. But all of these characters demonstrate tremendous power in various ways; Tyrion by his charisma and intelligence, Hodor by his incredible physical strength, Bran with his magic and Jaime by his strength of will and resolve to learn to fight with his other hand, even if it means getting slapped about at first by a certain sellsword.

Some of the many faces of Game of Thrones

Truth be told, all of these characters demonstrate incredible resolve and strength within the unforgiving world of Game of Thrones. The phenomenal storytelling, character development and intrigue that George R.R. Martin creates aside for just a moment, the fact that characters who by modern standards would qualify as disabled are portrayed in such a positive fashion; largely independent, deep, strong characters who aren’t just there to make people laugh, nor are they shunted aside in favour of those who would by conventional wisdom fit the ‘normal’ bill.

Now that Winter Has Come at last in the form of the long awaited 7th season, we at Access2learn thought it appropriate to share this blog celebrating the enlightened, empowering fashion with which disabilities are portrayed in Martin’s masterpiece.

It’s a shame there is no DSA in Game of Thrones … although mind you, if there was, we’d probably end up going the way of Ned Stark before long … you know what, never mind!

Just remember, dear readers … NO SPOILERS!

 

Why every university needs a Disability Society

Why every university needs a Disability Society

Why every university needs a Disability Society

 

Of all the accomplishments that I have to write about on my CV, dear readers, there isn’t a single one I am prouder to talk about than being the founder and first chairman of the Disabled Student’s Society of De Montfort University, a community of friendship and support where all disabled students could feel welcome and meet others like themselves. I kid you not, this even includes my degree itself – although I feel extremely fortunate to have studied at such a supportive environment as DMU, I felt as though I had contributed something that was potentially very valuable to disabled student welfare, a cause that I came to feel deeply passionate about as a result of my time at DMU.

Saints and Scroungers aired on BBC 1

The idea came to me in 2013 during my second year, a year so wonderful for me that I would do just about anything to relive it. That year, after I was interviewed by the BBC and my story of success at university appeared on Saints and Scroungers, and soon after that when I received the honour of being the winner of the Student Choice Award for ‘outstanding achievements’, I was encouraged to run for the position of Disabled Students’ Representative. Despite being honoured by the encouragement, I began to ask myself “what could I bring to the table if I were elected?”. I asked myself this question as a disabled student myself – what were my biggest needs? What general issues needed to be addressed? Most importantly, given the other two, what solutions could I bring to the table?

Well, the answer to my first question – and possibly the second, if you can interpret it that way – was the fact that despite the support already in place at my university, the fantastic disability support team and of course my mentors arranged through DSA – despite all that, I still felt somewhat alone … and lonely. See, I was looking at the aforementioned questions solely as a student with autism, and I know very well that I can hardly speak for all kinds of disabilities, but I did think it was a fairly safe bet that most if not all students with a condition similar to my own always felt frustrated when they couldn’t make others see why they have certain difficulties and felt that almost nobody understood them, which in turn left them feeling lonely. Maybe I was completely wrong about this, but no matter what condition/disability you have; autism, dyslexia, anxiety, depression; all of the above, at least in my experience, have certain difficulties and pains unique to them, but a common theme is the frustration and loneliness of not being understood. Either way, whether I was right or not, I had my answer to question one at least, and as said earlier, possibly for question two as well, by way of touching upon a general issue common to all disabilities/conditions.

Thus, in my manifesto I pledged to create a Disabled Students’ Society, and this turned out to be the thing that won me the election (spoilers: I won the election and became the Disabled Student’s Rep!). That doesn’t really do it justice I know – as I said it was one of the most important accomplishments in my life, but this blog is specifically about the Society and its purpose. I promised students a community where they could meet people in the same boat, so to speak: a group where everyone understood that everyone had their own problems and could seek help and friendship among other students with similar problems. It also served two other purposes; 1) in this way, I could get to meet and be accountable by the students I was to represent, and 2) we could campaign together to increase awareness and raise money for each disability and associated charities. Sadly, because I was now into my 3rd and final year, I wasn’t able to dedicate the amount of time that I wished to the Society, but it did accomplish the thing that I’d most wanted it to; providing disabled students with a place to find friendship and support, which was by far the major thing, and I’m pleased to say that the Disablity Society outlived my time at the university.

So, at last, we arrive to the subject under which this blog is titled; why every university ought to consider having a student’s society like the Disability Society, and why I believe it would be a valuable extension to the support available to students with special needs. Of course, not all ‘disabled’ students feel comfortable with the term ‘disabled’, plus I certainly wouldn’t want

Tom and the DMU Disability Team

to make students with mental health conditions feel unwelcome over a technicality, so it doesn’t need to share a name. However, if all universities had a society similar to mine, it would give students with special needs the opportunity to meet others in the same boat and find friendship and mutual support amongst each other. A society like this would also be good for representation of disabilities and mental health conditions; an important issue indeed as both remain under-represented and somewhat isolated. However, a society made up of these students, represented by a committee and their Student Union’s Representative will be able to voice their needs as a collective to the university, and by holding public events, the community as well. By bringing the creativity of several students with special needs together, and they can produce all kinds of ways to increase the profile of special needs, both in and out of education.

Although I was too into my final year to really give the society the attention it deserved, if the society’s committee can dedicate the time needed and if the university itself encourages the growth of the society, I believe there is a vast amount of potential to do good that can be realised. In the way that a tree will grow and bear fruit if it is watered (I know that’s leaving out a good few details, but unfortunately I know nothing about botany L), encouraging the growth of a society built around the idea of providing support and friendship for students with special needs, I submit to you that such students will feel more comfortable and less alone within the university setting, which naturally will lead to greater success and fewer falling by the wayside. Although disabled students have made their mark in recent decades, in my humble opinion stemming from my own experience there is great potential left untapped. Although the idea for a Disability Society was not exactly revolutionary, I firmly believe that it would enable us to take a big step forward in disabled student welfare.

I hope I have at least shown you, dear reader, why I consider this my most important contribution to my old university, and hope to see similar societies emerging in the future.

 

Pin It on Pinterest