Through the usage of the characters Tom and Boo Radley, Harper Lee does an excellent job of depicting disability by offering audiences multiple lenses to view disability opposed to only a stereotypical description/characterization (depending on what that means for you or what your mind immediately pictures when someone says the word “disability”). In other words, including these characters in her text allows for readers to not confine or categorize the definition of disability to one box as it has multiple meanings, representations and ultimately there is no one way to “look” or “be diaabled”.
The character Tom represents disability in the sense that he has no use of his left arm and is thus visibly physically disabled. Additionally, it can be argued that being black during this time served as a disability as well. This claim can be justified by the historical context of the story as well as the normalized and vulgar language used to refer to black people throughout this text. Not to mention the fact that Tom is eventually convicted of a vicious crime he did not commit simply because the town refused to believe a black man over a white man, regardless of the fact that the evidence against him would not even allow for it to be him due to his disability. This means that his double identity of having both a physical handicap and being black were both actively working against him to receive fair treatment that nonhanicapped persons experienced on the daily. In short, one might not think of someone like Tom when they think about disability and thus his character in this text allows readers to expand their way of thinking.
On the other hand, Boo Radley also represents disability, but not in the same way that Tom does. Dissimilar to being physically handicapped, Boo Radley’s disability is much more ambiguous and is left for the audience to decide rather than explicitly stated. For instance, Harper Lee never outright says what Boo Radley’s disability is but she drops clues such as: he is a recluse who never comes outside, which could mean his “condition”is “severe”enough for his family to need to care for him full time. Additionally, Lee differentiates the treatment that Scout gives to Jem versus how they both treat Boo. For instance, the children clearly see Boo Radley as an “other” and go out of their way to treat him as such. They treat his house like a forbidden place by daring each other to run up to it and touch it. Without knowing exactly what has happened to Boo to cause him to become a recluse they label him as “scary” and villainize him.
In fact, they even go as far as creating a secret game about him that they at least know deep down is wrong because they do not want to tell Atticus about it knowing they will get in trouble.
And what’s sad is that Boo seems to regard them both as children who he wants to take care of judging by how he neatly hemmed and hung Jem’s pants, and flung a blanket over Scout even though they were always devising schemes and excuses to visit the house and trying to peak at him as if he was a zoo animal.
All and all, these characters show that disability is not constricted to one definition or one set of “symptoms”. Hopefully by contrasting these two characters, audiences are able to empathize more with persons with disabilities and not immediately villainize and further isolate people because they are not the “same”.