I love Star Trek. I love the character of Geordi La Forge, the Enterprise’s chief engineer, who had been blind since birth and used a device called a VISOR to see. And overall, I think his character was more positive than negative. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, La Forge’s disabilities were usually so well accommodated that they almost became non-issues. He could do the job just as well as anyone else, and better sometimes. As a result, a lot of the time his blindness never even came up. Which is awesome!
However, I’ve been rewatching TNG recently and damn, for a show that was often so amazing, and so groundbreaking in many ways, there were also some pretty glaring missteps. So I went down a rabbit-hole to bring you a few ways that Star Trek really messed up when talking about Geordi La Forge’s disabilities.
‘Winning’ at Ableism Bingo With the Official Bio
To begin with: the bio. Though it has been taken down now (score one for Trek), his original bio was baaaaad:
I don’t think I can put it any better today than a Livejournal post called “Geordi La Forge and Ablism Bingo” [sic] put it 10+ years ago. (Yeah, I went down the rabbit-hole all the way to Livejournal.)
I could win at Ablism Bingo just by going through this one paragraph alone:
(B) A life-long disability that could only be “overcome” by the gift of technology.
(I) Living with the painful treatment is better than living with the pain-free disability
(N) “Overcoming” the disability and living with the pain is symbolic of a greater and deeper spiritual strength, and/or intelligence
(G) Being “happy,” (or having ‘satisfaction with life’) even though disabled, makes a person Special
(O) A person’s disability is the first, and most important, factor in the development of that person’s psychology.
…Treating a disability as symbolic of a deeper spiritual or psychological state is another way of “othering” a person: they’re not of this world, they’re a “gift from the angels” (something you often see in television “human interest” stories about families caring for disabled children); they’re not real people — they’re metaphors for the “rest of us.”
One of the comments brought up a particularly interesting point. Although the bio says that the VISOR “saved” Geordi from his disability, wasn’t it really trading one kind of disability for another? It traded blindness for pain, blindness for information overload. “That has to be an intensely personal decision, and frankly I think the factors that led Geordi to choose ‘visor’ over ‘blindness’ would be a far more interesting discussion to find in his psych profile,” said the comment. I emphatically agree.
Read my piece on Murderball to learn about another film that addresses the intersection of disability, technology and the othering (or not) of people with serious disabilities
The VISOR and the myth of perfect tech
All in all, the tech is just too good. The entire panel linked above is great and very worth listening to, but I wanted to pull out this quote:
“As a blind person… I’m kind of conflicted about Geordi LaForge. I like him as a character. But I feel like they seem to show him, in a lot of cases, as being pretty much equal and his disability is mitigated by his fancy headgear. But, I feel it’s not a very nuanced representation, because at the moment anyway, I’m nowhere near being able to actually do that. And I’m not sure, even if I could be in that position, I would want to be. I feel like we lose a little bit of diversity, when we basically give everyone the magic gadget that lets us operate… In other words, they bypassed any real problems by just making the technology super good. It’s magic, boom.”Zack Kline
And as we all know, real life don’t work that way.
Back on Earth (& reality), innovations like this have come from 6 World-Changing Disabled Inventors You’ve Never Heard Of Before
What’s the why behind all the choices regarding La Forge’s disabilities?
This leads to the next way Trek failed: choices. In the first place, some able-bodied people do not understand that even if you could “solve” people’s disabilities, they may not want to. Geordi doesn’t just see as well as humans, he sees better in a lot of ways. He certainly sees differently. And in reality, he may find value in that!
In the first episode of TNG, the ship’s doctor presents him with the option of surgery that would allow him to stop using his VISOR, which he subsequently declines. Why? Who knows! “Better than normal” or not, many people with disabilities are happy as who they are, how they are. Is that why Geordi chose to keep his VISOR when it caused him overall pain? Why did Geordi choose to keep his VISOR even once other types of tech existed? I wanna know!
As a comment on the deleted Livejournal post said, “the fact that the reasons for his choice are not even considered is another example of the ableist attitude that ‘Of course disabled people want to be normal, Just Like Me, more than anything else in the whole wide
world Alpha Quadrant.’ It’s the same attitde that prompts strangers to ask me: ‘Do you ever wish you could walk?’ and then to give me semi-hostile looks when I answer: “not really… I wish this elevator would hurry up, but…”
Speaking of, what about the damn pain?!
This is the one that bugs me the most personally. Beginning in the very first episode, the show establishes that the VISOR causes Geordi constant pain. In that first episode the doctor brings up meds, which he rejects. Surgery, same, finally electing to just deal with it.
So… where is the pain? I don’t see where it is in his life, which would absolutely be affected by constant pain. Where is it in his decision-making? Where is that life-long pain in his demeanor? In the lessons he has learned? In the relationships he has with his peers and coworkers, and in the person he has become?
Furthermore, that’s two disabilities to deal with, not just one. Having constant pain completely changes the decision-making equation… except in Star Trek, it seems. As somebody with chronic pain and migraines, I know very well how much that stuff changes the day to day life. By the same token, it would completely change the equation of “do you want to try meds or surgery?”
I wish they gave more time to delving into some of those issues overall. When I posted about these ideas on a Star Trek board online, someone responded:
La Forge’s Disabilities and the role of the Manic Pixie Blind Guy
A podcast called Women At Warp did an episode on disability and ableism in Trek, and guest Karissa Mehr made a really good point.
KARI: And I think that that’s an aspect where−so I really I love Geordi as a character and I love that he is portrayed as someone that isn’t just, like his life isn’t pathetic and pitiable because he has this disability. But on the other hand I feel like he sort of gets into the zone where he’s sort of the disabled version of a “manic pixie dream girl,” where, I mean just because a disabled person doesn’t want to be seen as broken, incapable and someone to pity, that doesn’t mean that they’re not occasionally going to say to themselves, “This sucks. I’m not having a good time with this.” And I think especially in episodes where he’s made to be completely helpless, where he’s made to be a victim, I think it would be appropriate to have some sort of follow-up episode to give him that humanity, to show that he’s not just here to make all of the people without handicaps feel comfortable and be like, “He’s fine! He’s cool with it.” Like, no. There are going to be days I’m sure that he doesn’t feel good.Karissa Mehr, Women At Warp, “Disability and Ableism in Trek”
In the episode that we mentioned previously, I think it was “Loud as a Whisper,” where Pulaski says, “Hey, I can give you these more normal-looking eyes.” He and her talk about how he has headaches every single day. So not only is there this disabling factor, but there’s also the presence of constant pain. So there are going to be days that he’s not going to be having a good time. There were episodes with Picard, say, where he was−when he was assimilated into the Borg and he had to deal with the emotional ramifications of that in future episodes. I think it would be appropriate for there to be follow-up episodes, at least one after he’s put in a victimizing situation, where he says, “Yo, Troi, I’m feeling pretty bad about this right now. That wasn’t fun.”
This is canon, in terms of being official Star Trek media:
Sigh. They couldn’t redesign the VISOR? They couldn’t figure out how they were accessing it and cut off the connection? Nah, let’s have the military demand that Geordi literally have his head cut open and lose the choice of using the device that he had used his entire life in order to keep his job. Fuck that.
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Dear Star Trek Writers: Pain is a Part of La Forge’s Disability
I love Star Trek, and I truly appreciate their choice to write a character whose disability is just one more factor in their life rather than the main aspect of who they are. But it was a huge mistake to add “constant pain” to the description of La Forge’s disability and then never address it. One of those able-bodied writers would have needed to spend only a couple minutes’ thought to realize what its effect might be on his choices and the person he becomes. The fact that they didn’t bother– for seven seasons!– is emblematic of some people’s ideas of what “disability” is and how those of us with invisible disabilities often have our pain, and its effect on our lives, discounted or ignored.