Possessing magic is usually an empowering social exception. To use magic is to surpass the laws of the natural world, to be able to do what “normal people” can’t do. However, in the “Harry Potter” series, Harry’s magic is not initially presented as a positive deviation from the norm. Vernon and Petunia Dursley force Harry to hide and suppress his magic in front of other nonmagical people, believing his supernatural qualities will make them more vulnerable to social scrutiny and judgment. The inverted perception of magic as a disabling trait as opposed to an enabling one highlights the heart of disability justice. While the range of an individual’s functions are determined by environmental structures, the designation of “disability” is socially constructed.
Surrounded by neighbors who do not publicly recognize or validate magic, the Dursleys work to maintain Harry’s invisibility to maintain their acceptance in society. They see his scar as a physical disfigurement, a reminder of his abnormal past. They punish his involuntary disruptive behaviors by locking him in the cupboard; Aunt Petunia prohibits Harry from asking questions that would reveal the truth of his biological roots. When he sees how unabashedly and unconditionally his aunt and uncle spoil their biological son, Dudley Dursley, Harry consciously grapples with this extreme incongruence. However, he cannot specify that the difference between Dudley and himself is his magic, nor can he control the expression of his magic.
After Harry receives his letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and enters the world of magic, however, he experiences an overwhelming sense of belonging. His treatment in the magical world as a legendary hero is sharply contrasted by his dehumanized existence in the Dursley household. However, Harry’s magical identity never shifts. He does not become more or less magical by leaving one group of people and joining the next, only the perception of his magic as an “ability” does.
The flipped perception also goes both ways: People lacking magical inheritance in the magical world are often viewed as inferior. To wizards and witches like the pureblood Malfoys and the Death Eaters, people who can’t use magic or come from nonmagical families are the disabled ones, unable to properly navigate and manipulate the natural environment. Magic as an “ability” or “disability” depends on whether the people judging it themselves can utilize magic or not. The identity politics of each society’s government, from the British Parliament to the Ministry of Magic, are fundamentally reversed so that what disabled and oppressed Harry in one society is requisite for civic engagement in the other.
Magical society reflects how our own society essentializes demonstrating functionality with the external world, such as sight, hearing, mobility and social communication, as a prerequisite for social recognition. Nonmagical society reveals how masking dysfunctionality, such as physical deformity or increased sensitivity to mood and stress, is also essentialized for maintaining social legitimacy.
Of course, “magic” is a fictional condition, but its implications are anything but trivial. Disability exposes society’s choice to have humanity proven rather than assumed, and according to its own standards of functionality. As Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore affirms in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Though we cannot choose which traits we have or do not have, we do choose whether to condition human worth, whether to reduce individual value in terms of society’s most common denominators. That said, let us first choose to recognize disability as a cultural marker and social definition, and, in doing so, reinvent it.
Esther Kang is a freshman in the College. Reconstructing Disability appears online every other Tuesday.