What We Can Learn about Disability from Harry Potter’s Amputee Characters

I listened to the Harry Potter books on Audible this summer as I trained for the Ironman and watched all of the movies recently as well. I had read the books when they first came out, but I realized during this go-round that we can learn a few things about disability by examining the characters who are or who become amputees through the course of the story. What I want to say first and foremost though, is how much I appreciated that the movies stayed true to the books in that these characters are portrayed as amputees even though that fact about them isn’t a main point of the plot. Unlike the Hunger Games movies where the filmmakers decided to ignore the fact that Peeta lost his leg in the books, the Harry Potter movies did not disappoint, and instead took the opportunity I believe was missed in the Hunger Games, which you can read more about here, to show people with disabilities in mainstream media without the disability being the focus of the story.

Peter Pettigrew (“Wormtail”)

photo of wormtail with his silver hand holding a want out in front of him, wearing all black

Peter becomes an amputee when he cuts off his right hand to add it to the potion that would bring Voldemort back to “life” in the 4th book of the Harry Potter series – Goblet of Fire. Voldemort then replaces Peter’s hand with a shiny-silver hand. The main thing I think we can learn from Peter is that not all people with disabilities are good – they are just people, capable of being good or bad, or somewhere in between. It always strikes me when someone dotes over me during a race and tells me I’m an inspiration because to them I am a stranger; they don’t know what kind of person I am at all – all they know about me is that I have one leg and I’m out running. For all they know, I could be an egotistical jerk who treats other people like dirt. Yet there they are, singing my praises without knowing anything about me. I think this may at least partially come from the media’s portrayal of people with disabilities as being good, strong for “overcoming” their disability, and inspirational. Funny enough, there are also quite a few mastermind evil villains with disabilities in the media (Captain Hook and Darth Vader come to mind), but it’s hard to find anyone who falls somewhere in between the inspiration and villain roles. Peter Pettigrew, as an easily-persuaded servant, teaches us that not all people with disabilities are inspirational, but not all are mastermind evil villains either – we are capable of fitting into many different roles, just like people who do not have disabilities.

Alastor Moody (“Mad-Eye”)

Mad-Eye Moody standing and holding his walking stick/wand, wearing brown cloths, showing his prosthetic leg slightly

As with Peter Pettigrew, Professor Moody is neither a source of inspiration or an evil genius. Instead, he is a cranky but brilliant catcher of evil wizards. There are two things I love about Professor Moody’s character – he embraces the nickname “Mad-Eye” and he is a complete badass who doesn’t care that he has a disability and doesn’t complain about it or let it get in his way.

First, the nickname… In high school, my friends called me “Stumpy” in honor of my amputated left leg. Although stump is not the politically correct term (pc = residual limb), and although it would be easy to see why I could have been offended by this now that I’m looking back on it in my adult life, I was in NO way offended by this nickname (nor am I offended by it now). My friends used it in an endearing way because my stump was something that made me unique, gave me a way to connect with people, and allowed me to have the prosthetic leg we used to play so many pranks on people. They were not using it in a negative way, but lovingly because we all embraced who I was and how that was a positive thing. In the same way, “Mad-Eye” Moody is nicknamed for his magical glass eye that assists him in scouting out evil in the world, and his friends use his nickname in a loving way, not as a way to mock or tease him for his disability. Me and “Mad-Eye” are two peas in a pod on this issue because he and those around him embrace and love what makes him unique, and I love that about his character.

The second thing I love about “Mad-Eye” is how he is an above-knee amputee (cause unknown, though I suspect it had to do with hunting evil wizards), yet he is right in the thick of the action and doesn’t complain about his “disadvantage.” (Keep in mind that I’m referring to the real “Mad-Eye” and not the Barty Crouch Junior version of “Mad-Eye” when the real deal was held hostage in a magical trunk.) During books 5, 6, and 7, “Mad-Eye” Moody continues to help lead the charge against the Death Eaters and shows readers and viewers that he is a complete badass who can fight with the best of them. It is only after he is betrayed by another character that “Mad-Eye” finally meets his demise, after a long and hard-fought career fighting against Voldemort and the evil of the wizarding world. He walks with a limp, but never allows his amputated leg to hinder him, never complains about it, and never uses it as an excuse for why he should sit out of any task. In a way, he is an inspiration, but he’s not an “inspirational” character because  sort of grouchy, but I love that he is yet another character in the Harry Potter books who falls somewhere between obvious inspiration and evil villain.

Thank You J.K. Rowling!

In closing, I want to thank J.K. Rowling and everyone who was involved in making the books and the movies come alive for spreading a different message about disability than what we usually see in the media, even if it was unintentional.

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