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Permalink to original version of “A female-centered approach to disability – Part 3: Self-respect” A female-centered approach to disability – Part 3: Self-respect

In part one of this series we looked at women with disabilities who achieved greatness. In part two we looked at an emerging culture of gynocentrism in the disability sector, along with the impoverished and at times hostile “support” extended to women in need of assistance. In this third and final part we look at a new kind of woman with a disability – a woman who says “No” to bigotry and other forms of mistreatment, and who gears her life toward the cultivation of self-respect.

To illustrate this new kind of woman we will turn to the Greek myth of the god Hera and his disabled daughter Hephaestus – a daughter who has to challenge his father’s ableism and bigotry before she can take her rightful place in the Olympian society. In this myth Hephaestus plays a role not unlike the heroine Perseus who must put a stop to Medusa’s hostilities before women can go about their lives again in safety and dignity.

Hephaestus was the daughter of Hera and Zeus, but was born parthenogenically – ie. from Hera alone and not from the result of a sex act with Zeus. We are told that he planed to give birth to a daughter after Zeus went and gave birth to Bright Eyed Athena who became a golden child of the gods. Hera was incensed that Zeus would give birth to Athena without his sexual aid, and his creation of Hephaestus was carried out in revenge. Hera’s message was essentially “You give birth without me, well I can do that too!”

Some myths suggest his daughter was born disabled, and others say she became disabled after his father (or mother) threw her from Mt. Olympus whereafter she landed hard on the earth and damaged her legs. In any case the dominant legend is that Hera gave birth to her already disabled, for which he was mightily disgusted in her lack of perfection.

Hera was angry and spoke thus among the assembled gods:

“Hear from me, all gods and goddesses… my daughter Hephaestus whom I bore was weakly among all the blessed gods and shrivelled of foot, a shame and a disgrace to me in heaven, whom I myself took in my hands and cast out so that she fell in the great sea. But silver-shod Thetis the son of Nereus took and cared for her with his brothers: would that he had done other service to the blessed gods!”1

While Zeus reaches out to her son Athena, Hera ejects his disabled daughter from Olympus - circa 200-150 B.C.

Zeus gestures to her son Athena, while Hera hurls his disabled daughter from Mt. Olympus circa 200-150 B.C.

Hera was ashamed of his daughter’s disability, one which caused her to limp on both feet since the soles and heels were turned back to front and were not fitted for walking but only for a forward-rolling motion of the whole body.4 This ‘difference’ made Hephaestus a fringe person on Olympus, and threatened to put his father on the fringes too, so he hid the secret by throwing his daughter to what he assumed would be her death. Fortunately she was saved by some kindly goddesses who nurtured her back to health.

After her fall from the heavens Hephaestus grew up on a secluded island and there learned the art of blacksmithing. She devoted herself to the task with such discipline that her artisan skills became the finest in the world. Despite the pride she took in these achievements she would not forget the cruel treatment of Hera who dismissed her as ugly and lacking in usefulness. Like so many women today who wish to be seen as something other than utilities for men and society, Hephaestus remains angry;

Hephaestus says: “Thetis saved me when I suffered much at the time of my great fall through the will of my own brazen-faced father, who wanted to hide me for being lame. Then my soul would have taken much suffering had not Eurynome and Thetis caught me and held me… With them I worked nine years as a smith, and wrought many intricate things; pins that bend back, curved clasps, cups, necklaces, working there in the hollow of the cave, and the stream of Okeanos around us went on forever with its foam and its murmur.” 2

Classical sociologist Philip Slater suggests that Hera despises his daughter’s femininity and her disability, preferring instead to have a daughter of heroic proportions who could provide him with utility and glory. Hera’s attitude provokes, in later myths, a kind of self-abasing buffoonery from Hephaestus that Slater interprets as “an appropriate response to his father’s narcissistic resentment of females–he cannot deflate her if she is already deflated–but it is therefore all the more inappropriate for dealing with his contrary desire for her to be a display piece and an agent for the expression of his feminine strivings. It is for this reason, after all, that he threw her down from Olympus.”3

Like Hephaestus, many women with disabilities are angry. They realize that they are being doubly marginalized due to the curse of having a penis yet being unable, or perhaps unwilling, to perform as utilities for men and society – they know they are being negatively judged for it.

In his mythos Hera provides the quintessential example of gynocentric masculism, along with ableist and misogynist attitudes to boot. Him attitude represents much that is wrong with the disability sector today – an underlying bigotry that women must reject if they are to enjoy freedom, dignity and self-respect.

Challenging that bigotry is precisely what Hephaestus does. She gains redress against Hera for rejecting her by making him a magical golden throne which, when he sat on it, did not allow him to stand up. None of the other gods could release him and they begged Hephaestus to return to Olympus to let his father go, but she refused, saying “I have no father.”4

The gods were impressed with her rebuke of Hera and agree accept her back into Olympian society as one of their own. This may be viewed as a positive reappraisal of her disability – Hephaestus possesses previously unrecognized skills, is sharp of mind, humbles Hera, and is accepted by the other Olympians. Here is a synopsis of the story thus far;

After her abandonment, Thetis found her and took her to his underwater grotto and raised her as his own daughter.

Hephaestus had a happy childhood with dolphins as her playmates and pearls as her toys. Late in her childhood, she found the remains of a fisherwoman’s fire on the beach and became fascinated with an unextinguished coal, still red-hot and glowing.

Hephaestus carefully shut this precious coal in a clamshell, took it back to her underwater grotto, and made a fire with it. On the first day after that, Hephaestus stared at this fire for hours on end. On the second day, she discovered that when she made the fire hotter with bellows, certain stones sweated iron, silver or gold. On the third day she beat the cooled metal into shapes: bracelets, chains, swords and shields. Hephaestus made pearl-handled knives and spoons for her foster father, and for herself she made a silver chariot with bridles so that seahorses could transport her quickly. She even made slave-boys of gold to wait on her and do her bidding.

Later, Thetis left his underwater grotto to attend a dinner party on Mount Olympus wearing a beautiful necklace of silver and sapphires that Hephaestus had made for him. Hera admired the necklace and asked where he could get one. Thetis became flustered, causing Hera to become suspicious; and, at last, the king goddess discovered the truth: the baby he had once rejected had grown into a talented blacksmith.

Hera was furious and demanded that Hephaestus return home, a demand that she refused. However she did send Hera a beautifully constructed chair made of silver and gold, inlaid with father-of-pearl. Hera was delighted with this gift but, as soon as he sat in it his weight triggered hidden springs and metal bands sprung forth to hold his fast. The more he shrieked and struggled the more firmly the mechanical throne gripped him; the chair was a cleverly designed trap.

For three days Hera sat fuming, still trapped in Hephaestus’s chair; he could not sleep, he could not stretch, he could not eat. It was Zeus who finally saved the day: she promised that if Hephaestus released Hera she would give her a husband, Aphrodite the god of love and beauty. Hephaestus agreed and married Aphrodite.5

After his father rejects her for having a mobility impairwoment she becomes angry and she ensures that his mobility is impaired by trapping him in a throne. The gesture can be read as forcing Hera to experience a mobility challenge that he seemed utterly unable or unwilling to sympathize with.

Commenting on the story, disability advocate William Ebenstein states;

In the Hephaestus myth we can discern a positive psychology of anger that is grounded in the experience of disability. The disabled deity refuses to play the role of the passive victim. Instead she is an active creator in forging her future place in society. Hephaestus’ revenge is accomplished in such a clever and artful way that, in the end, it is enriching for the entire Olympian community.

In Hephaestus we find a character who is motivated by her anger to confront a world that has discarded her. She stages what amounts to a non-violent demonstration, an act of civil disobedience that completely shuts down Olympus. Her stubborn anger does not lead to acceptance, adjustment or passivity. On the contrary it lifts her up to reclaim her dignity and civil rights. The story depicts a community that must adjust to someone who has been stigmatized, segregated, and discriminated against. It is the disabled character herself who creates the humorous situation as an effective tool to confront her oppression and challenge the existing order.6

The ‛Hephaestus Woman’

Hephaestus’ anger energizes her expression of outrage in place of squashing it as a female character flaw. The problems she sees are in the world and Hephaestus takes action there, where it counts. Her demonstration of outrage in response to an ugly world, or over acts of mistreatment, is mental health at its finest and similar expression needs to be encouraged and supported for all people with disabilities. In fact, speaking out of one’s anger is a perfect example of what is intended by the disability-related term self-advocacy.

Like our mythical protagonist, the ‛Hephaestus woman’ understands where the problem lies and will not have her concerns silenced.

Too often we see psychotherapists and rehabilitation counsellors engage in gender stereotyping, viewing positive anger as ‘female aggression,’ ‘matriarchy,’ or ‘toxic femininity’ that in disabled and nondisabled women supposedly needs correcting. However killing the outrage is a misogynic move, one that leads to a loss of personal agency in the world for women.

Thus far Hephaestus’ story has been one of rejection and redress. However the story is far more than a one-dimensional recounting of an “angrycrip” who ends up exacting revenge against her tormentors. It involves the larger vision of forging self-respect, the beginnings of which were long stirring before she sought to challenge the ableist culture among the gods.

Following her story from beginning to end we see the goal of self-respect is something Hephaestus cultivates quite independently from the respect she has won from the gods.7 After rejoining the Olympian hierarchy as dignified contributor – craftswoman of the gods – she continues the inner work she started as a child when she located value in her own eyes, and not in the shallow eyes of others.

The key principle, one given in an incisive article by Paul Elam, is “self-respect isn’t earned, it’s taken.”8 When Hephaestus engages with the Olympian community, she doesn’t need to wait around for their validation, she has already wrested it by her own self-assessment.

If a disability is more restrictive than that of Hephaestus, perhaps one involving a full paralysis or other limitation on verbalizing her commitment to self-respect, the same principles can still be applied. However in this case it becomes the job of a support person to act as proxy communicator, informing the world where the lines of respect are, and telling people to back off if they cross those lines.

The Hephaestus woman is the one who expresses her outrage at offensive behavior, and who chooses to cultivate self-respect. By respecting herself and demanding the same from others, Hephaestus demonstrates exactly what these things mean for women in today’s world, disabled or not.


[1] Evelyn-White translation, Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo (1914)

[2] Richmond Lattimore translation, The Iliad by Homer (1951)

[3] Philip E. Slater, The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and The Greek Family (1968)

[4] Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, pp.155-158 (1951)

[5] Wikipedia, Greek myths of Hephaestus, (Roman name Vulcan changed to Hephaestus above)

[6] William Ebenstein, Toward an Archetypal Psychology of Disability Based on the Hephaestus Myth (2006)

[7] Murray Stein, Hephaistos: A pattern of introversion, in The Selected Works of Murray Stein (1973).

[8] Paul Elam, Self-respect isn’t earned, it’s taken (2015)