‘Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do’: How ‘Lost’ Navigates Disability

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by Brianna Albers |

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When it comes to “Lost,” you either hate it, love it, or don’t get why people feel so strongly about it.

I’m in the second camp, which is to say I feel strongly about the groundbreaking and controversial TV show. The writer in me is obsessed with everything from the character arcs to the wacky world building; the romantic in me will ship Suliet until she dies. Still, I recognize the show’s faults, especially when it comes to the character of John Locke.

We meet Locke — a middle-aged, bald-headed white man — in the premiere. He’s aloof, and largely unaffected by the trauma of surviving a plane crash. He’s levelheaded, knowledgeable, and miraculously adept at hunting wild boar. But we eventually learn that, like everyone on Oceanic Flight 815, Locke has a secret.

Until recently, Locke was paralyzed from the waist down.

Locke was, for lack of a better term, my introduction to disabled characters. I remember watching “Lost” for the first time and feeling a tug of recognition — I wasn’t a middle-aged, bald-headed white man, but I did know what it was like to be “confined” to a wheelchair.

Throughout the course of the show, we learn the truth of Locke’s disability: In short, he was tricked by his biological father into giving him a kidney. It took Locke years to come to terms with the betrayal. Finally, having grieved his naiveté, Locke confronted his father — only to be thrown off an eight-story building.

Thus, paralysis.

I don’t mean to belittle Locke’s trauma, or anyone living with late-onset paralysis. I’m lucky in that, for the most part, disability is all I’ve ever known — I don’t have an able-bodied past to compare it to. The grief of losing an integral aspect of your physical self is valid, and I appreciate the show’s dedication to exploring Locke’s emotions.

What I don’t appreciate is the subsequent devaluation of life in a wheelchair.

Locke’s character arc hinges on his miraculous recovery. When Oceanic Flight 815 crashes on the island, Locke regains use of his lower body. He then spends the next four seasons terrified of returning to his pre-crash state. Again and again, his wheelchair is used to provoke a fear response in Locke: He will do anything to avoid disability.

Locke’s story might ring true for a lot of disabled folks. I don’t want to undermine that connection or invalidate the trauma of late-onset paralysis. But I also wonder if Locke reacts to disability the way he does because the character was written by an able-bodied man.

If I were miraculously healed, I would be terrified of “relapsing.” Faced with freedoms I’ve been deprived of my entire life, I would fight like hell to preserve my new way of being. So, I get it. But I can’t help but wish for a more nuanced representation of disability, one that reflects my own experience.

On one hand, Locke was thrown off an eight-story building by his father, who also happened to steal his kidney. That sucks. But on the other, Locke was thrown off an eight-story building and survived. He was paralyzed from the waist down, yes, but his life didn’t end when he hit the pavement. He was “confined” to a wheelchair, but listen to disabled folks long enough and you’ll realize that many of us see our wheelchairs as a gift. A path to freedom. A way to interact with a world that would see us paralyzed from the waist up.

We learn halfway through season one that Locke is proficient in hunting boar because he’d been preparing for a walkabout in the Australian outback. The only reason he was on Oceanic Flight 815 was because the travel company refused to let him participate. When they offer Locke a return trip to Sydney, free of charge, he pleads his case: “Just put me on the bus right now! I can do this!”

“No,” says the guide. “You can’t.”

Locke erupts with rage. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” he shouts at the guide’s retreating back. “Don’t ever tell me what I can’t do! Ever!”

It’s a brilliant scene. Something that disabled folks have experienced time and again. But as I watch “Lost” for the third time, I wonder how different things would’ve been if the show had taken Locke seriously. Exclusion on the basis of physical or mental ability is realistic. But what if the writers had treated Locke’s disability with nuance? A reason to grieve, absolutely, but also an opportunity to grow, to change, to emerge resilient.

What if Locke wasn’t healed when he crashed on the island? What if, instead of spending four seasons in fear, Locke met every challenge — boars and smoke monsters and a computer that prevented the end of the world every 108 minutes — with gusto, not because he was “special,” but because he knew from experience that he could survive anything?


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