The first time I ever realised the potential power of my voice as a writer and ability to one day create change was when I penned an open letter to the Walt Disney Animation Corporation and Studios in 2015. I wrote the letter after I went to see the groundbreaking and heartwrenching animated film from the company, Inside Out with my family.
I remember being blown away by the fact that they created a film committed to exploring mental health, normalising emotions and portraying complex experiences of anxiety and sadness without stigmatising them. To me, as someone who has had lifelong experiences with mental health which has proved to be confusing, frustrating, scary and yet another thing to make me ‘different’ this film was really important, even as a teenager.
To this end, it got me thinking about the other types of incredibly important progress Disney could be making in its efforts to represent the realities of life for children so that they could learn, relate and grow. Namely, my focus was on the representation of children with disabilities in film. This is because I have a physical disability called Cerebral Palsy or CP for short that affects my fine and gross motor skills, meaning I live life in a wheelchair. CP has no known direct cause or cure so this has been a part of me from the day I was born and will continue to be until I am old and grey.
I wondered what it would look like and do to perceptions of disability on a global scale if the hero or princess of a film was in a wheelchair, for example?
Now I know, disability is a wide umbrella with many different people equally deserving of representation but we have to start somewhere. I thought a wheelchair might be the best place for young children to start understanding the complexities of disability as a wheelchair’s presence is clearly defined, noticeable and inherently visual clues are the way in which children identify each other. I am forever described to people when I need to be remembered or easily identified as ‘the girl in the wheelchair’. That becomes a difficult thing to balance when you feel under-represented and invisible in society. It perpetuates a toxic cycle of damaging internalised ableism as kids with disabilities wrestle with the fact that we have to adapt our lives because there’s no escaping disability while also still feeling like we have to measure up to the standards and goals of able-bodied people because that’s all we see.
When you turn on the TV, go to the cinema or binge-watch Netflix, you take for granted the fact that you see characters who look like you and represent your life. Growing up, I never saw anyone that looked like me, lived the way I do or struggled with the things I did. In the context of Disney’s catalogue and disability, the characters I related to most were The Beast, Ariel and Tigger.
The Beast for the way his appearance made him different and deterred others from getting to know him but when Belle tried, what she found was a heart of gold and passion for the same thugs. Sidenote: In terms of personality, Belle was 110% me so bonus points there. Ariel, well all she wanted was to be like everyone else and trade in her tail for legs that worked so she’d fit in with the humans. And as for Tigger, well he was it. Just him. One of a kind. No one who looked like him, navigating the world relatively alone.
I sent that letter four years ago across the ocean from Sydney, Australia to Burbank, California twice and never heard a word of reply, not even the standard ‘We have received your message’ type. Since then, Disney has continued to make incredibly diverse and powerful films that fill gaps in representation but the appearance of a main character in a wheelchair or with another disability is still glaringly absent. I’ve decided to revamp my efforts in 2019 and take them more seriously through social media as a result of incredibly progressive strides recently made by other entertainment companies.
I cried when I saw the news last week that Barbie had created a doll in a wheelchair and a doll with a prosthetic limb. Finally, little girls (and some boys I’m sure) all over the world would see their lives represented in the toys they played with, feeling valid and seen as though their stories were important in the realm of imagination.
Netflix also blew me away with its recent casting call for an actress between the ages of 9 – 13 who was an authentic wheelchair user to be cast as the lead in a new show called ‘The Healing Powers of Dude’ . I was 10 or 11 the first time I saw a character in a wheelchair on mainstream television. That was Artie Abrams from the smash hit, Glee. I remember being so excited that someone who looked like me could still sing and dance and want the same things, at least until I realised the actor Kevin McHale wasn’t really in a wheelchair and could walk away from the life like mine as soon as the director yelled ‘cut’. I’ve lost count of how many times that same flooding sinking sense of disappointment has happened in mainstream media if a character in a wheelchair has even appeared at all.
I get that it might be difficult and logistically tricky to cast someone who is actually disabled as an actor which is one of the reasons I’m focused on targeting the gap of representation that exists in animated film. There are less logistical barriers, someone in a wheelchair can do voice work and animators can utilise the person’s gestures and body movements to make their depiction of disability accurate. However, the most important reason is for the millions of children around the world who will see themselves reflected in this character who if they are right in the thick of the action will make kids feel like they can take on the world, empowering and inspiring them to see a world where their disability is not burden or barrier but simply a part of who they are. It will also decrease the stigma carried by able-bodied society as it will make disability seem less alien and odd, creating better acceptance and experiences for everybody.
I’m writing this blog post with faith that Disney will see the chance they have to make a real and powerful difference, and seize the opportunity with both hands. If you need creative consultants, I’m your girl. If nothing happens, you can guarantee I won’t be going away because I have every intention of seeing this happen in my lifetime and this time around, I hope to have an army of support behind me.
Please don’t let me down ❤