Disneyfied Disability: Are Kids’ Films Causing Bigotry?

Portsmouth-based writer and activist Paige Tabone is worried about the depictions of disabled people in some of our best-loved movies.

Film and TV play an important role in shaping the thoughts, feelings and attitudes that emerge in our childhood and the ideas that we carry into adulthood. I don’t know about you but I got my first notion of death from Mufasa’s tragic encounter with the wildebeests in The Lion King; I never fully got over that one.

But all too often kids’ films get it horribly wrong when they grapple with the subject of disability. They tend either to act as if it barely exists or resort to hurtful and condescending stereotypes. Despite one in 20 children in the UK having a disability you simply won’t find prominent disabled characters in Disney or Nickelodeon productions.

I can think of only two exceptions. Having appeared in over 20 episodes of TV series Fireman Sam, Hannah Sparkes is the only child in the fictional land of Pontypandy who uses a wheelchair. Hiccup, the protagonist of the How to Train Your Dragon movies, is given a prosthetic foot after losing part of his leg in the first film in the sequence and his disability is conspicuous in both the cinematic sequel and spin-off TV series. That said, the producers have been careful not to make Hiccup’s disability his defining quality; instead he is subtly shown taking part in physical activities alongside other able-bodied characters.

Of course these are not the only images of disability to have ever appeared in children’s media. In 2014, the Junior Disney Channel put Australian double-amputee explorer Wildlife Will on the Doc McStuffins show. In the story, Doc helps Will to build his own wheelchair. Disney has also featured wheelchair user Johnny McBride (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) in The Proud Family – but he appeared for one episode only. Both of these examples addressed disability from a ‘different can be good’ angle. Adam Croasdell, who voiced Wildlife Will, received messages of thanks from parents of disabled children. Some told him that their kids could relate to the character, others said that his good work had helped their offspring to better understand disability.

Although public service broadcasting has a remit to ‘reflect a wide mix of children and presenters in terms of disability, gender and ethnicity’, statistically there have only been improvements in gender and ethnic diversity. Engagement with disability remains sporadic.

The best of a bad bunch is the BBC. From Grange Hill’s Rachel Burns (played by comedienne Francesca Martinez), who has cerebral palsy, to Balamory’s wheelchair user Penny Pocket, the Beeb has always presented a spectrum of different characters.

Flashing Lights Media is the company behind sign language-based children’s shows such as Magic Hands. Creative director Camilla Arnold – who also happens to be deaf – believes that, although the BBC is fulfilling its broadcasting responsibilities, the same can’t be said for its competitors. ‘We’re in the 21st century,’ she told me. ‘The other channels need to catch up as there’s a definite lack of representation.’

This lack of representation is having painful effects on the most vulnerable in our society. The Italian artist Alexsandro Palombo has spoken out about the scarcity of disabled role models for his young daughter, who was born without a right hand: ‘She would come up to me and say, “Daddy, why am I not perfect like those princesses?”’ To show his daughter that beauty can be found anywhere, Mr Palombo recreated her favourite princesses – but with added disabilities.

In his drawings, Mulan is wheelchair-bound, Sleeping Beauty is missing part of an arm and Pocahontas walks with crutches. The images went viral and Mr Palombo hoped that they could make a difference on how we view disability. ‘We need to get away from this idea of “perfection”; the handsome prince and beautiful princess. I want to give visibility to disability and challenge conventional perceptions of beauty.’

Dr Amy Holdsworth, Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Glasgow University, supported Mr Palombo’s approach to this tricky and emotive issue. Her view is that the media constructs disability as something to be pitied rather than admired: it ‘still relates to things like Children in Need, the charity “poster child”.’

How does this strategy operate in children’s media? In Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), the hero Quasimodo is alienated from society due to his visible physical difference; it is something to be ashamed of. What kind of message does that send to children? Could Quasimodo’s hunchback provoke an emotional response worse than pity? Hatred perhaps?

From Disney’s Captain Hook to Marvel’s Joker, think of a villain from your childhood and it’s likely they will have some form of physical or mental difference. Scary hook-wielding amputees and disfigured, make-up-smeared psychopaths do nothing to dispel the myth that disability is abnormal or should be feared. And what effect will all those stereotypes have on young malleable minds? In the 1960s, kids up and down Britain cowered behind the sofa when the Daleks would appear on Doctor Who. I’m not the only person to see a resemblance between a Dalek and a wheelchair?

At least now some of the bigger entertainment companies are trying to change their ways. According to Max Miceli, one of Disney’s top designer-illustrators, ‘in recent years Disney have made a huge effort to show disability in a positive light. Even Elsa’s ice powers in Frozen are meant to represent a condition like schizophrenia, and we wanted to show how a condition like that doesn’t have to hold you back.’

He recognises what a big step forward this is: ‘10 years ago you would have never had a princess with underlying mental issues, but the fact we’ve had such an amazing response to the film, just shows how mainstream differences are becoming.’ Miceli thinks the future is bright: ‘Disability is something you will see in Disney more and more. Who says in the next few years we can have a superhero or princess in a wheelchair fronting one of our films? It’s certainly not out of the realms of possibility.’

He is right: we need to go further than occasionally slipping disability into the odd storyline and make a physically or mentally different character central to a major movie. That would help – if just in a small way – to prevent fear and ignorance about disability taking root at an early age.


Image by Denis Adriana Macias licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence from Wikimedia Commons.