Home News ATLA Live Action Disappoints with Disabled Mimicry

ATLA Live Action Disappoints with Disabled Mimicry

by Editor
A screen capture of Avatar the Last Airbender. Aang, a young boy, is riding on a sky bison with friends Katara and Sokka.

CN: Please note that there are spoilers for the live action Avatar the Last Airbender series as well as the animated series it is based upon. Read with caution.

I’ve been a huge fan of Avatar the Last Airbender since the show premiered in 2005. I was a young dad, raising a son who loved animated television and it was a show we watched together and bonded over. One of the things we loved the most since both my son and I are disabled (he is autistic with ADHD and various other neurologically diverse disabilities, and I have spinal muscular atrophy, use a wheelchair, am multiply neurologically diverse with ADHD and hard of hearing) was how inclusive the show was.

The cartoon included multiple disabled characters, most prominently, Toph, an earth bender who is Blind. She trains Aang, and is one of the four human members of Team Avatar. But Toph, who doesn’t show up until the second season of the cartoon (and apparently is not in the first season of this new live animated show) was not the only significant disabled character.

As a wheelchair user, one of my favorite disabled characters in animated television is Teo. Teo is a featured character in the 17th episode of the first season of the animated series, “The Northern Air Temple”. (He had an accident when he was very young, and uses a specially modified wheelchair that allows him to fly in the air and live at the air temple. His father is an inventor and he’s made the air temple accessible.

Despite not ignoring Teo’s disability, there is really no negative focus on it. Teo is not only able to be included thanks to a combination of accessibility and accommodation, but he’s popular and celebrated amongst his community and friends because he’s one of the best flyers at the temple. Aang is, at first, a little childish at wanting to be better than him but he soon realizes that Teo is not competition. He is potentially a really good ally. It’s a really good form of disability representation that teaches children about accessibility, inclusion, and accommodation without preaching any of those things.

When I heard they were making a live-action version of ATLA I was nervous about whether they would cast disabled characters authentically, especially Teo, if he made it to the story, and Toph, when she finally shows up. Well, we still have no idea about casting for Toph. They have not cast the character and there is no decision on whether there will be a second season, at this point. I just hope they cast her authentically, if the second season happens.

Teo does show up in episodes of the live action show. He has a somewhat significant part in the events of the third and fourth episodes. To condense the 22 30-minute episodes into eight 1-hour episodes, some of the stories were combined and reworked into one story. Teo and his father have a nearly identical story although we find them in Omashu, not at the northern air temple.

The most disappointing part though is that they chose to hire a non-disabled actor to play Teo.

This is no diss against Lucian-River Chauhan. He is a competent young actor, but he probably has no idea he was engaging in disabled mimicry or the harm that this causes the disabled community. Still, with a role like Teo, this would have been the perfect opportunity for a wheelchair user to get a chance to actually be in something. He unintentionally took the chance away from a young wheelchair-using actor that doesn’t even get the chance to play themselves, let alone anyone else.

There is nothing a wheelchair user could not do in this role. For the most part, Teo sits around in his chair. The stunts in his flying chair were probably done by either CGI or a double anyway. Not only is this deeply harmful casting to the disabled community, but it is also deeply hurtful.

It makes me and many other disabled people nervous that they will not take the casting of Toph seriously. While I personally believe no disabled character should be played by a non-disabled actor, it would be egregious to cast a character such as Toph with a sighted actor. I’ve had discussions before with stunt coordinator Lexi Alexander about blind fighters she knows and why there is zero reason for not casting someone Blind in any role that requires fighting.

While the story with Teo remains a fairly good representation in terms of storyline, it is heartbreaking to me as a wheelchair user that once again I don’t get to see myself represented accurately or fairly by the characters that are meant to represent me.

While I am enjoying the live-action version of Avatar the Last Airbender, this casting was wrong, and I hope that they do better with Toph. She deserves better. The Blind community deserves better. 

Disabled representation deserves to happen with disabled people. PERIOD.

You may also like

Leave a Comment