There are two facts about me that have been true for almost as long as I can remember: I’m disabled, and I’m a massive Star Wars fan. Thanks to a lot of factors, ableism chief among them, it’s taken me much longer to accept the former than the latter.
Suffering from an invisible disability is a curious thing, something that’s inherently true to the person living with it, but nearly impossible to conceptualize to able-bodied people.
It’s not unlike being Force-sensitive, something you have to learn to be in tune with. If you can keep your own body’s force in balance, your symptoms in check, then no one is any the wiser that you are suffering. If you cut yourself off from the force…you might relapse.
It’s taken me well over 20 years to recognize and embrace my relationship with my disabilities, and is something I’m still grappling with, but I know for a fact if I’d had any kind of positive representation in the media I consumed as a kid, it would have made a big difference.
While disability representation is improving, it’s still lagging far behind. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 2019 saw a record high 8% of family films featuring a disabled lead character.
Yes, 8 percent—only in family films, mind you—is a number worth celebrating, because the previous decade had seen an average of 1% disabled leads.
It’s a stark reminder that while disabilities are extremely common—a quarter of Americans live with some kind of disability—they are vastly underrepresented. Perhaps that’s why many able-bodied people would die rather than become disabled.
It’s also why Star Wars: Rebels, and Kanan Jarrus in particular, are so important. A world as expansive as Star Wars is rife with metaphor and subtextual readings, but the canonical world itself has often been limited to strict representations with its characters.
Oddly enough, disability representation has always been a part of Star Wars, but never really explored thematically. Most famously, Luke and Anakin both lose a hand and gain a robotic prosthesis.
Rogue One introduced a different and seemingly more nuanced disabled character with Chirrut, a blind Force-sensitive character. In these instances, Star Wars seems more interested in disability as a trope than as a tool to explore what it means to their characters’ identities.
However, Star Wars: Rebels gave us our first in-depth look at a disabled character that was more than a plot device or overwrought trope. When we first meet Kanan Jarrus, he’s a pretty stern, isolated character, a Jedi who escaped the temple during Order 66 as a youngling and gradually warms up after taking on Ezra as his padawan.
That all changes in the Season 2 finale “Twilight of the Apprentice: Part 2” when Maul unexpectedly blinds Kanan with his lightsaber. In the immediate aftermath of his injury, Kanan is forced to recover, finding a helmet to wear so he can fight Maul and protect Ezra. However, Rebels takes its time in the following season to explore Kanan’s new disability.
While he is strong with the force, Kanan cannot immediately sense the world around him without his sight. Though Kanan may already have those capabilities as a Jedi, as a person, he has to emotionally process the life-altering injury he’s experienced.
As a result, Kanan uses assistive devices, like a walking stick, visor and his trusty droid Chopper, to help him navigate and heal. As Kanan withdraws from missions to process what has happened, full of self-doubt, the Force leads him to Bendu, a mystical creature who helps Kanan regain his sight by reconnecting to the Force and also heal his relationship with Ezra.
It was always the case on Rebels, but especially after he becomes disabled, that we see Kanan at his most powerful when he fully embraces who he is. This is no more evident than in Kanan’s final moments.
While his visor seemed to provide some sort of pain relief in the early days of his injury, it also seemed to be for the comfort of others in that it hid Kanan’s scars. Kanan sheds the visor for brief moments at a time but discards it completely the season four episode “Jedi Night” as he prepares for battle.
He also cuts his hair, making his eyes more visible and seeming to embrace a new identity as he heads into combat one last time to save Hera.
Whether Kanan should have sacrificed himself is a worthy debate, of course. But the larger message Kanan Jarrus’s story provided is important. Kanan was a loving teacher and father of a found family, a fearless leader and warrior, and a Jedi who became disabled and learned how to use the Force to work with his disability, not fight against it.
At their most basic, the Jedi are seen as awesome fighters with cool lightsabers. When you chip away at that initial concept and dig into the true meaning of the Force, connection with all living beings including yourself, thematic links to disability are clear.
To live as a disabled person requires cultivating a holistic relationship with yourself and the world around you in order to survive, not unlike being force sensitive.
In Kanan’s most powerful moments after his disability, he gives way to fighting what his body can no longer do and instead trusts himself, Ezra and the rest of the Rebels, and the Force to guide him.
In short, Kanan becomes the ultimate Jedi and the best version of himself. It’s a valuable lesson for any viewer, one that I wish I’d when I was much younger, but am beyond happy exists for all the padawans of the future.