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Editor's note: Spoilers below for "Game of Thrones" season 6.
Characters on the HBO series "Game of Thrones" often use the phrase “it is known,” to explain (or not) all manner of unsavory behaviors in their society. Its portrayal of people with disabilities, however, "Game of Thrones" shines as a beacon of inclusion. In fact, creator George R.R. Martin won an award in 2013 acknowledging as much.
When I watch movies or television, I look for myself or my loved ones in the characters. Don’t we all? My particular filter is disability because I have a 26-year-old son with severe autism. That kind of intense attribute can overturn everything you know and expect about life, and so it did for me. I hunger for disabled role models, and they are not easy to come by.
"Game of Thrones" features a main character who is a dwarf. Though despised by most of his family for being disabled, Tyrion Lannister (played by Peter Dinklage), lives a full life. He has a sense of humor and a great mind, as well as charisma and sex appeal. Best of all, he passes an important new benchmark created by disability activist Andrew Pulrang and appropriately called the Tyrion Test.
In Pulrang's words: A movie or TV show "passes" the Tyrion Test if:
1) At least one character with disabilities is involved in significant plot developments not centered on their disabilities,
2) Disabilities are depicted realistically, neither less nor more severe than they would be in real life,
3) Disabled characters are givers as well as receivers … supportive of other characters, not just supported by them.
Flawed and human, Tyrion is a character who has continued to grow and evolve, never remaining a static symbol of anything — least of all disability.
I do not see my own beloved son in Tyrion. I have, however, found someone a bit like Nat in Hodor, a gentle giant who can only say his name. Nat, too, rarely talks, preferring to converse quietly with himself in his own singsong language. Like Hodor, Nat is invisible to many and ridiculed by some. Yet those who know him are very much aware of him, and frequently observe that he understands what is going on around him; he just cannot access the words to communicate. Hodor (Kristian Nairn), too seems to comprehend people and situations around him. He is neither mystical nor depraved, he is simply a big guy who can’t talk, but (and?) who is a useful and compelling character.
Hodor also passes the Tyrion test. His life is not magical, or somehow more highly evolved than others because of his disability. He is not gifted because he is mute. Neither is he only about his disability. He is simply Hodor. He is not shut away; rather, he has found a place as young lord Brandon Stark's carrier. Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), it is worth noting, is yet another physically disabled person on the show whose importance is neither diminished nor exalted by his challenges.
This glimpse into Hodor’s experience broke my heart. It made me think of Nat, and wonder, as I so often do, what he understands about his life...
Like Nat, Hodor is constantly underestimated. In one very poignant scene, Lord Bran uses his own supernatural power to trade bodies, or "warg," into another being when he needs to fight (this power has nothing do do with his being disabled, he was simply born with it). But because Bran cannot stand, he wargs into Hodor momentarily in order to escape a dangerous run in with the villainous white walkers. Although we understand that Bran needed Hodor’s physical power in that moment, we are also shown how Hodor suffers by not understanding what is happening to him in those moments. This glimpse into Hodor’s experience broke my heart. It made me think of Nat, and wonder, as I so often do, what he understands about his life — whether he wants to trade places with another, or if he is actually as content as he often seems.
In a recent heart-shattering episode, "The Door," Hodor is (presumably) killed saving Bran’s life. But again, true to the Tyrion standard, his heroism had nothing to do with his disability, rather it is owing to his size that he perseveres. In a clever twist, as he dies we learn how he became disabled.
I will never know how Nat became disabled. No such plot devices occur here in real life. But hope can certainly transcend difficult circumstances in both fiction and fact. In this case, "Game of Thrones" has given me hope that people watching and admiring Hodor just for the guy he is will one day learn to simply see people like Nat and give them a chance — not patronizing, not pitying. Just a chance. Because if a blockbuster mainstream television show can rip apart every convention in traditional programming — from killing main characters to having disabled characters lead the way — maybe there is hope for us here on earth. Why not? Stranger things do happen. It is known.