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Cassandra Cain and the 'learning disabled' rhetoric. 
16th-Jun-2010 04:32 pm
A few weeks ago, I was clicking through a few links and reading about the latest additions to DC comics' spectacular racefail that they're calling Brightest Day. I'm not reading that, and whatever I'd have to say has been said much better by other people. What did strike me, though, was when the conversation turned to characters with learning impairments and someone brought up Cassandra Cain as possibly maybe autistic. It was a week old comment even then, so I refrained from reviving the comment thread, but it, and other such comments I've seen in the past. is still bugging me, so let's get it out here.

Cassandra Cain is not disabled.

She does not have learning difficulties. She is not autistic. She is a linguistic minority, and that's how her character has been written from the start.

Quick fill-in for those not DC nerds: Cass Cain was the 2nd* person to call herself Batgirl, and is the nearest thing the Batfamily comes to having a metahuman among their ranks. Cass was raised by her father, the assassin David Cain, in complete social isolation, with no education other than martial arts and no language other than body language – as Batman put it once: "the language of violence", which left Cass fluent in the physical communication the rest of us are only peripherally aware of, able to predict her opponents' moves before they made them, a fighter of near psychic abilities. [For Firefly fans; she was River Tam three years before Firefly aired].

Cass is a superlative fighter, and because her ability to read bodies gives her an insight into subconscious processes, she is nearly empathic. When she killed her first man at eight years old, she was able to read the pain and fear he went through as he died. Appalled at herself, Cass ran away and leaved by herself on the streets of Gotham until Barbara Gordon found her and she was recruited into the Bat family.

The Batgirl title of 2000-2006 was a fantastic showcase of storytelling, featuring as it did a nearly non-verbal title character and thus requiring the reader to read pictures more than the words. Cassandra and Barbara made an interesting contrast; Cass was friendly, caring, but illiterate and had very limited English vocabulary (and that only after a psychic messed with her head). Babs, on the other hand, is introverted, fiercely defensive of her feelings, and lives in a world of computers and information inaccessible to Cass. Occasionally this disparity led to frustration and conflict; Cass' inability to read, especially, once led Babs to call her 'stupid' out of exasperation, which devastated Batgirl and led her to ask her best friend Stephanie Brown for help.

But here's the thing. Oracle was wrong. Cass isn't stupid, nor disabled, nor does she have learning difficulties. She couldn't read because English isn't her first language.

Now, I don't want anyone to misinterpret this as someone defending a favourite character from accusations of a stigma I don't wish to be attached to that character. I'm not claiming that associating Cass with any neurological condition is an insult in and of itself, but that it's inaccurate, and that inaccuracy is insulting. I'd freaking love to see a well written character who was not cognitively 'normal'. Aside from Gail Simone's character Savant (who I hope to see again in the new Birds of Prey) DC comics play far too heavily into the land of mental illness = Arkham villain, and I'd love to see that subverted.

But it's important to make this distinction because of what Cassandra Cain does represent. English is not her first language, and the difficulty she has in learning to speak and read it reflects nothing but that. She's not 'disabled' because she can't read English; I can't read Mandarin, because I have never learned to. But I can read a language, because my first language is a verbal language that's built around a vocabulary of words and their meanings and the visual symbols that recognise those words. I can recognise writing when I see it and I understand the concept because I was raised with it.

Which brings me to what Cassandra really represents, and why it's such a big mistake to confuse her experience with that of having a learning difficulty. Because Cassandra's experience – as a lone representative of a physical, non-verbal language in a world where everyone else communicates through speech and writing and words – isn't the sole domain of fiction and can, I think, be seen as analogous to the experience of many people in our, 'real' world.

Disclaimer though: I am not talking about my experience here. I'm not even talking about the experience of anyone who has spoken to me directly about this experience. I am, in effect, taking what I do know, expanding on it, and talking out of my privileged arse. So if anyone wants to tell me that I'm wrong in my interpretation, then please do. I don't speak for anyone..


I think the Cassandra Cain, the second Batgirl, represents someone who signs.

I don't know if anyone involved in her creation had this parallel in mind when they created her, but I don't think that matters, because it's there to be seen and maybe a future writer, if they sidestep the dreadful character assassination she's gone through since One Year Later, could explore.

Cassandra Cain couldn't read – this is the biggest direct analogy to deafness. She couldn't read for the same reasons deaf children find it difficult to read; because she didn't share the spoken language which the written words relate to, and didn't have the linguistic basis for grammar and syntax.

More then that though, is Cass' social development. She's a friendly, loving character (which written right), but often awkward and unsure. I'm assuming this is what prompted someone to compare her to the social aspects of autism, but when you're a linguistic minority in a world which depends on language to communicate, social interaction is hindered. It's not unheard of for deaf children in hearing environments (or hearing children with deaf parents, a whole other linguistic minority) to be misdiagnosed with social disorders because lack of communication delays their social development (Cassandra had an abusive childhood on top of linguistic separation, which also wouldn't help her development.)

N.B.: My lack of references here should be telling – I knew what I wanted to say but couldn't back myself up. Most of my knowledge comes from training sessions as an educator, and I'd rather it be taken as food for thought rather than as read. If you can contribute, comments are especially welcome. I may be completely wrong – the oral tidbits I've picked up may be falsifiable. I might actually be so off the mark as to be insulting, and for that I apologise. So as a sincere request – if you think I'm wrong, tell me.

But let's have no more of this “Batgirl is learning impaired / has a mental condition” business, because it's just not backed up with her story.

*Second of three in the Babs-Cass-Steph lineation. I'm excluding Bette Kane (retconned), Helena Bertinelli (temporary, not Bat-sanctioned) and Charlie Gage-Radcliffe (even more temporary, even less Bat-sanctioned). In a comprehensive history, Cass is fourth of six.
This post is also posted at InnerBrat @ Dreamwidth. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.
16th-Jun-2010 03:53 pm (UTC)
One pro creator (whom it would be inappropriate to name given how weird DC can be about this stuff) pitched a Cassandra mini to DC exploring exactly this signing angle, and his expression and body language work is such that he would have been able to do a damn fine job of it. But rather than take a punt on that, they decided to keep making bafflingly poor and frequently offensive comics such as have been their non-Morrison mainstay lo these many years.
16th-Jun-2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
IIRC, when she did learn to speak English, that interfered with her martial arts skill. So rather than make her 'normal,' a speaking language meant she had to go back to first principles and reintegrate everything she knew into an entirely new context before she could return to the level of skill she had before.

Which would be a pretty impressive feat for anyone.
16th-Jun-2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating, thank you. I find Casasandra so interesting, because she really works in her own way.
16th-Jun-2010 04:54 pm (UTC)
I didn't know there was a specific racefail debate over Brightest Day. All I've seen seen is a lot of people accusing it of the more general kind of fail. (I dropped after two issues.)

You know something is amiss when: 1) DC has to keep telling people that Brightest Day is SUPPOSED to be grim, even though everyone was hoping it wouldn't be; and 2) a comic with a script by Judd Winick (Justice League: Generation Lost) is much better than Brightest Day (and it's only good, not great).

Which is also to say that I can see that a comic busy stinking up the room would find a way to offend people, too.
16th-Jun-2010 06:02 pm (UTC) - long comment is long
In Batgirl #67 (incidentally the issue where she apologized for having called Cass stupid), Babs did a scan of Cass's brain while she was trying to read, and found that the language centres of her brain weren't centralized like normal people's, but were all over the place. (I have no idea how accurate or realistic that is when it comes to parts of the brain, though.)

That could possibly translate to autism: "Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood." But I honestly don't know enough about autism to argue that point.

I do, however, believe that it is very likely she has learning disabilities. There is a huge range of learning disabilities, and they can be hereditary, caused by problems during pregnancy/birth, or by incidents after birth. (Source.)

She has the ability to learn, as we saw Barbara was able to teach her to say "Stop!" during NML (long before she met the psychic) and they managed to communicate complex ideas to each other, but it's more difficult for her. It's not the same thing as learning a second verbal/written language IMO, because she previously had no frame of reference for how any verbal/written languages work. I can see where you would see the parallel of deaf children and reading difficulties, but I think there's more to it than that with Cass.

My own view is that a big part of learning skills is simply habit and practice. And the younger you are when you gain those skills/habits and practice them, the more likely they are to stay with you, ingrained into how you approach things, and affect how quickly/easily you're able to learn. For Cass, it means that she never developed some of the most basic learning skills most people take for granted. All her learning skills and habits are based in the physical, and there was no attempt to teach her anything different until she was 17.

The kinds of things communicated via one's body are presumably very different from what is and can be communicated verbally and in written form. It's a whole other range. So while Cass is very intelligent, traditional teaching/learning methods aren't always going to work for her. She's like a kinaesthetic learner to the extreme.

It's interesting you bring up signing, because I've often thought that what would probably work as the best strategy for Cass to learn to read and write is to associate each letter with a movement, like the movement one's hand makes when writing a particular letter/word, and then associate that motion and symbol with it's sound. Almost like a mnemonic device, except not using the verbal aspect as the thing that helps you remember/learn.

As far as the social aspect goes, I don't think that's particularly an issue for Cass. She's extremely empathetic, due in part to her ability to read body language so well, it's just that because she had such an unusual, abusive (and then neglected) childhood, it's almost more of a difference in culture. But over the course of her Batgirl series she certainly picked things up through her various friendships and relationships, though like all the Bats she's not without her issues.

Learning disabilities can be small, specific and easily coped with, and they can be huge, varied and make all sorts of things in life very difficult. But if identified and accommodated, they don't have to be barriers. To use a non-Cass example, I've often wondered if Lois Lane might have some minor learning disabilities, given the running joke that she's a terrible speller despite being educated, skilled and smart.
17th-Jun-2010 07:30 am (UTC) - Re: long comment is long
Thank you so much for this comment. It's incredibly thoughtful and detailed, and brings up a lot of things I hadn't thought of.

It doesn't change my mind, but that's OK too. I just had a look at the 'this is how your brain works' scene and interpreted it as 'because of your language'. Brain processes are shaped by development after all. It's probably a mental block on my part - I'm seeing something I believe caused by language and refucing to slap it with a label I tend to save for conditions acquired pre-infancy. This is a function of my viewpoint, though, I see that. (Because difficulties in reading are difficulties in reading full stop). I'll ponder on it.

HOWEVER thanks so much for your interpretation - there's nothing there I can disagree with. (Especially the last paragraph, I don't know Lois Lane, but I think that statement speaks for itself)
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16th-Jun-2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
Good post and well argued.

When I first started reading about Cass my worries were that people would confuse her physical language with a sign language - because a lot of people still seem to (mistakenly) think that sign languages are mime and mimickry.

I hadn't even considered your perspective, but it makes sense. Cass is in a linguistic minority. This doesn't make her disabled. In the UK, a lot of Deaf people, (by which I mean those who are profoundly Deaf and whose 1st language is British Sign Language), do not tend to view themselves as disabled, they tend to view themselves as part of a linguistic minority. Deafness creates communication barriers, which can be overcome. If everyone in the world signed, Deaf people would not be discriminated against (for example, see Martha's Vineyard: http://deafness.about.com/cs/featurearticles/a/marthasvineyard.htm)

This doesn't mean that Deaf people can't have other disabilities, but that disability is not linked to their hearing levels. The same for Cass - she may be autistic, or have other learning difficulties, but that is not linked to her language skills. Her preferred language does not indicate cognition difficulties.

I can't think of any other direct reference material to back up your arguments, but if you wish to read more BSl and Deafness I suggest you try Forestbooks.com in the UK or http://gupress.gallaudet.edu/ in the States.
17th-Jun-2010 07:36 am (UTC)
Wee, thank you!

While parsimona has pointed out some thigns up thread to me, I think where I was coming from is "she's not disabled, she's a lingusitic minority just like deaf people!" when I started.

Thanks very much for the links. I shall look into them.
17th-Jun-2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
I just remembered I have a post about Deaf resources:

I particularly recommend reading Deafenign and The Raging Quiet if you want fiction. They are really really really good books.
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