I grew up on a healthy diet of children’s television. I loved Big Bird on “Sesame Street.” I had a “Smurfs”-themed party for my second birthday. And when I was a little older and wrote Mister Rogers a fan letter, he wrote me a personalized response.
Yet in all my TV viewing, one thing was always missing: seeing other kids like me on the screen.
I was born with Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome, a genetic bone and muscular disability, and in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was incredibly rare to see characters with disabilities on my favorite shows. I’d see kids running, jumping, riding their bikes or swinging from the monkey bars — all things I couldn’t do — and wonder why there weren’t any kids in wheelchairs or kids with crutches. The shows may have talked about things in my world, such as going to the doctor and getting a shot at the hospital, but the story lines were primarily told through the lens of the able-bodied world.
Today in the United States, more than 60 million adults (1 in 4) have a disability. That’s not a small portion of the population. That’s why I’m so glad to see the popular “Peppa Pig” show taking an active role in furthering inclusion and representation. The British import, which follows Peppa and her pig friends and family as they have all sorts of adventures, recently introduced a new character named Mandy Mouse. She made her Twitter debut April 3 as the newest member of Peppa’s playgroup.
Even better, when we meet Mandy, she’s described as “a visitor.” She’s not described as a mouse with a disability or a mouse in a wheelchair. She’s simply a visitor who greets the group with a friendly “hello, everyone,” to which the rest of the playgroup all reply with an enthusiastic “hello.”
It’s only a 27-second exchange, but to me it’s a powerful statement about the future of inclusion, especially when it comes to how we view and talk about disabilities. They’re not making a big deal of Mandy’s disability; she’s just another character. And it looks as though this is just the beginning of Mandy’s adventures, as she’ll be a recurring character on the show.
The show presents Mandy in a way that is very true to real life — one where her disability is just one part of who she is. This is key, said New York-based developmental psychologist Stephen Glicksman.
"The fact that Mandy uses a wheelchair is not ignored on the show; it’s just that being in a wheelchair isn’t Mandy’s defining characteristic,” he said. “That’s an important message for kids with disabilities and their families to hear, especially families with young children who might still be uncertain about how their child’s disability might fit into their world."
Mandy is shown drawing and racing her friends down a hill. The only significant reference to Mandy’s wheelchair comes after one of her friends asks her why she’s in a wheelchair.
"Because my legs don't work like yours,” she says matter-of-factly, and then they all watch Mandy zoom around.
This is the natural next step toward real inclusion and reducing the stigma surrounding people with disabilities. For some children, watching “Peppa Pig” may be the first time they see someone in a wheelchair. And positive attitudes around disabilities such as hers will teach kids to be “more open and accepting of individual differences and perceive disability as a diversity,” said Connie Sung, associate professor in the Office of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies at Michigan State University’s College of Education.
Parents are praising “Peppa Pig,” too. “My husband is a wheelchair user, and I’ve worried that she won’t see many fathers or any characters at all on-screen who look like her dad who are simply going to work, going to school, and living their lives — not crying in a corner about their disability or excluded from society,” Ohio-based writer Laura Dorwart said of her 20-month-old daughter, who loves the show. “This is a chance for her to see a character that’s disabled and doesn’t make a big deal out of it.”
For Denver mom Stephanie Hunter-Scott, the show provides the perfect opportunity to have important conversations.
“The inclusion of a character in a wheelchair gives me the opportunity to talk with my daughter about equality, kindness, differences, similarities, respect and love,” she said. “It also prepares her to expect to see disabilities in the real world and recognize them without judgment.”
It’s essential that children with disabilities see themselves represented on their favorite TV shows, and it’s just as important that able-bodied children see these disabilities as well. Mandy Mouse gives me hope for the future. She gives me hope that the next generation won’t have to wonder why there aren’t characters like them on TV. She gives me hope that children won’t be afraid when they meet someone with a disability — that meeting them is, like on “Peppa Pig,” no big deal. She gives me hope that when it comes to inclusion, real, lasting change is possible.
And it looks as though children are leading that change already. An acquaintance of mine, Clementine Wallop, recently reported this as her 2-year-old’s assessment of Mandy Mouse: “She is a mouse. She is very nice. SQUEAK. She is wearing day wear, not pajamas.”
Yes, seeing the person (er, mouse) instead of the disability. This is what inclusion is all about. On TV and in real life.