When my daughters, 6-year-old Jules and 15-month-old Delaney, were watching their favorite movie, “Frozen,” for the 30th time, I noticed that Jules became very sad and was sitting by herself on the living room couch instead of dancing and singing with her little sister. I sat next to her and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Delaney can never be a princess,” she said as tears welled up in her blue eyes.
“Of course she can,” I assured her.
But Jules wasn’t buying it, “No, Mommy-O, there are no princesses like Delaney.” And it’s true: Delaney has Down syndrome.
In all ugly honesty, I likely would have been appalled only a few years ago at the thought that Disney might have pivotal characters with Down syndrome in their animated features, especially those beloved by a younger audience. What would be the point? And wouldn’t this risk mocking a disability?
I grew up in Anaheim, the hub of everything Disney, and was a Disney kid. As a small child, I remember glancing at a television show my mom was watching and saw a person with Down syndrome in a documentary about the horrid conditions in mental institutions. People with Down syndrome scared me. I never even met one until I was in my early 20s.
As an adult on the rare occasions when I did encounter a person with Down syndrome or other disabilities, I chose to walk away for fear they might want to hug me or drool on me. In short, I was a despicable ableist and, according to the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science and a study published by the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, I was not alone. Discrimination against people with Down syndrome has been well known for centuries, and American history is full of horrid examples: the “ugly laws” barring disabled people who might be deemed “unsightly” from appearing in public; the story after story after story after story after story after galling story of abuse that still often goes unpunished.
It never dawned on me that I was discriminating, and I never realized how awful I was or that I would someday be given a chance to be a better human being, which is a tale better left said in my memoir, “Saving Delaney, Saving Me.”
The Global Down Syndrome Foundation reports that it wasn’t until the 1980s that the vogue for institutionalizing Americans with Down syndrome began to fade and only today are researchers making more concerted efforts to unleash the amazing capabilities of people with Down syndrome.
Those researchers have made monumental strides. Today, with early intervention therapies and focused educational programs, it is common to read about people with Down syndrome living on their own, getting married, and even owning businesses, driving cars, going to college, performing as actors, having careers, and working as activists for the Down syndrome community. Broadly speaking, people with intellectual and mental disabilities are increasingly joining the workforce.
Perhaps if there had been more characters familiarizing me with people of all abilities when I was a child in the 1970s, I would not have grown up with feelings of bigotry. It is a sad fact that people with disabilities, young and old, are the target of bullying as recently seen in Ohio when an autistic boy who thought he was performing the Ice Bucket Challenge was doused with urine and feces. Recent studies have found that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers according to Pacer’s National Bully Prevention Center.
No wonder Jules thought what she thought.
What the bullies, and even the rest of us bystanders, needed were archetypes to show that the heroes, villains, and bit players in our world aren’t all typical. I want Delaney to grow up feeling included in society. I want her to have her own dreams and representation. But representation could mean so much for people beyond people like Delaney. Other minority groups, from Italians to Jews to blacks, have been heartened to see themselves depicted truthfully in film, TV, and books; it gave them models to aspire toward.
Disney, I realized, has the capability and opportunity to open the hearts of millions of children all over the world and provide them examples that could prevent their discrimination against the disabled before it even begins. Delaney had already transformed me into a passionate parent-activist for people with Down syndrome. But when Jules at the young age of 6 recognized that her little sister was not included, she lit a fire in me. So I started a petition on Care2. In the title, I mentioned Down syndrome, but it targeted all disabilities; I hope it opens the doors for Disney to depict more characters of all the abilities on which humans exist, thrive and contribute to society. Within an hour we had the 1,000 signatures I had originally hoped for. Currently we have over 50,000 signatures from all over the world.
Naturally, this brought out the trolls. I have even been sent crude hand drawn pictures titled, “Here is your retarded princess,” as well as photo-shopped pictures of obese men with beards in princess costumes and nasty emails, most of which make no sense.
They just prove the point: This is exactly why the world needs positive examples of mental disability.