Depictions of Disabilities in Star Trek

In honor of Kenneth Mitchell and how he’s living with his condition, I wanted to take a look at the way Star Trek has addressed special needs throughout the various tv series. The depictions have changed depending upon the prevailing attitude at the times. You can chart the changes in how society has addressed the subject by how the subject has been addressed in Star Trek.

In almost all of the cases where a character possessed some form of physical or mental limitation they have been played by an actor without that specific challenge. Only Mitchell, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking who appears as a holographic simulation of himself, and deaf actor Howie Seago are exceptions to this rule. Interestingly, both Mitchell and Hawking were diagnosed with ALS, the fatal neurodegenerative disease that is sometime’s called Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Seago, who plays the deaf mediator Riva on TNG, was a member of the National Theatre of the Deaf, a collaborator with such experimental theatre artists as directors Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson, as well as Talking Heads musician David Byrne. Also, from the 1990s into the early 2000s Seago frequently acted with tthe Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In TOS, three examples exists. Their treatment reflects different approaches based on gender. Female characters with a disability appear to have been born with it. Examples are Dr. Miranda Jones, the blind telepath who accompanies the Medusa ambassador from “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” or the mute empathic healer Gem from “The Empath.” A major distinction is that Dr. Jones attempts to disguise her blindness by wearing a cloak that enhances her physical awareness of her surroundings giving off the impression she can see. Male characters, on the other hand, are impaired temporarily. The example is Spock, who, in Season One’s “Operation — Annihilate!” is blinded by an intense white light used to cure him the sting of a giant parasite. His blindness is seen as a tragic career-ending injury. The overall impression is that blindness is a life sentence, reflecting a perception that was pronounced in American culture in the 1960s. However, lucky for him, Spock’s blindness lasted for a short period of time.

Spock is blind. “Operation – Annihilate!” Star Trek, Season One, Ep. 29

By the late 1980s attitudes towards people living with a disability had begun to change. The terms like “differently-able” and “special needs” came into fashion highlighting a shift in thinking that one could still lead a fully productive life regardless of whether they were blind, deaf, or wheelchair-bound. The most obvious example of this shift is the character of Geordi LaForge, who is blind but wears a visor that enhances his sight beyond normal human limits. In spite of being blind Geordi achieves the rank of Lieutenant Commander, is considered an excellent pilot, and is promoted to Chief Engineer aboard the flagship of the Federation. With Geordi, Star Trek modeled a more enlightened awareness about disabilities than was shown on TOS.

In spite of the fact that actor Levar Burton is not blind, the character did help to start a dialogue about special needs citizens. In TNG’s second season the show presented E5 “Loud As a Whisper.” The Enterprise was charged to carry mediator Riva to the war-torn planet of Solais V for peace treaty negotiations. Riva is deaf but uses his telepathic powers to communicate through a three person chorus that conveys both his words and their intention to his hearing audience. When he meets Geordi they have this exchange:

Geordi meet Ambassador Riva – “Loud As A Whisper” Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season Two, Ep. 5

At the conclusion of their conversation Riva says “It’s a blessing to understand that we are special, each in his own way.” This was a bold statement in 1992. It presented a progressive point of view about those citizens who were not born with all of their senses intact. It’s also important that such a conversation reflecting a very positive outlook on their lives occurs between two characters with an impairment.

However, later on in the episode, Geordi goes to Dr. Pulaski to see if she can reduce the level of pain he experiences from wearing his visor. As a permanent remedy she offers to attempt regenerating his optic nerves and giving him “normal eyes.” Dr. Pulaski assures him that she’s successfully done this procedure twice before. Although he hesitates in responding to her, Geordi leaves sick bay deciding to give the matter more thought. This idea is posed in a single scene and is never followed up on during the remainder of the show’s seven season run. But it does undercut the clear message of the rest of the episode – that having a disability does not limit one’s aspirations. Still, as with most attempts to liberalize attitudes on social issues, we take two steps forward while taking one step back. Star Trek is no different.

Another example can be found in the TNG episode “Ethics,” where we deal with the less enlightened perspective of the subject. In the A-plot, Worf has his spinal cord crushed and is paralyzed. As a Klingon, he sees his injury – and the burden he would be to others – as a dishonorable way to live. As such, Worf requests that Commander Riker honor his service to Starfleet and kill him. Riker declines telling him he should follow Klingon tradition and ask a family member to honor his wishes to be killed, specifically, his young son, Alexander. Eventually, Crusher comes up with an idea to grow Worf a new spinal cord and transplant it into his back. Eventually, everything is fixed.

Once again, the disability is temporary, but this story introduces a more serious concept into the conversation, that of euthanasia or mercy killing. At the time of “Ethics” original broadcast Michigan’s own Dr. Jack Kevorkian was known for publicly assisting in the suicides of people who suffered with terminal illnesses or who felt their quality of life had diminished.

My final example is from DS9, naturally. In Season 2 the show’s sixth episode featured a new species – the Elaysian. “Melora” introduced us to Ensign Melora Pazlar, the new cartographer assigned to DS9. We learned the reason why she is the first of her kind to join Starfleet. Elaysians are a humanoid species from a low-gravity planet. Their physique and neural motor cortex are adapted to cope with a low gravity. On their homeworld, they can virtually “fly.” So when she is in an Earth-normal gravity environment Melora becomes handicapped. Her body’s weight becomes heavier and her under-developed muscles can’t carry the weight. This condition requires the use of an anti-gravity unit and/or a wheelchair for Melora to get around. Naturally, Melora resents the impression that she is dependent on others. Dr. Bashir offers her an option. She could receive a progressive treatment that would help her muscles get stronger over time. Unfortunately she won’t be able to use the room’s low gravity field or go home for extended period of time because she could risk confusing her body’s motor cortex. Although she initially takes the treatments Melora eventually decides to remain how she is and learn to accept assistance when it is needed. She concludes that if she went through with the treatments she wouldn’t be an Elaysian anymore.

Dr. Bashir (Alexander Siddig) meet Ensign Melora Pazlar (Daphne Ashbrook) with the wheelchair he has built to her specifications. “Melora,” – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season Two, Ep. 6

Melora’s sentiment is echoed in the actions of Kenneth Mitchell. When the actor was diagnosed with ALS he could have abandoned his acting career and fallen into a depressed state. Instead, he has continued to participate in the Star Trek cruises and conventions with wheelchair, and take on acting opportunities. He played Tenavik last season soon after he was originally diagnosed and Aurelio this season as well as did some voice acting on Lower Decks. In many ways, Star Trek, the TV series, has modeled the behavior for a more enlightened culture.

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