Monday, January 17, 2011

Kids Are Different

(WARNING: Long post. For abbreviated version, skip down to the paragraph starting with the words "Okay, now that I've gone on.")

Recently, through the power of Netflix streaming, I rewatched the movie Quest for Camelot, which a voice in the back of my mind reminded me I'd once seen at a friends house at least a decade ago. Having rewatched it, I decided that aside from two nice songs, it's only got two real strong points (note: the point of this post is, actually, not to knock the movie).

  1. Cary Elwes voicing the leading guy, because, you know, he's Cary Elwes, and his voice ROCKS.
  2. Garrett (as voice by Cary Elwes) is blind.
This movie is notable in my mind, because it is the only time I can remember a kids' (as in, animated) film featuring a character, let alone a prominent one, who had any sort of disability. (If I am in some way mistaken about this, please jump in and correct me.)

Firstly, I felt that Warner Bros.'s inclusion a disabled character was, at one point, a step towards acknowledging that there are disabled people in America and saying, "Yes, even disabled people can help save their kingdom from evil." For once, we see a film breaking out of the more common Disney paradigm that the world can only be saved by ridiculously good looking, perfectly abled people (who often have bonus powers from somewhere).

Secondly, Garrett now faced some difficulties the other characters didn't (such as having to flee from a dragon -- which he couldn't see -- by jumping on rocks -- which he couldn't see -- across a pit of lava -- which he couldn't see. Thank goodness for assist birds). This made his struggles as a character all the more engaging. To be blunt,in terms of the story, it rather raised the ante on everything that he had to do. He had a harder time than the female lead, because she could see what she needed to do. Also, his experiences gave him the skills he needs to help save the kingdom. Helpful, that.

Thirdly, his experience of how he'd been treated when he lost his sight shaped his view of himself, her family, and their homeland. These factors all went into the motivations that moved him through the story and escalated the conflict. Garrett manages to both make strong points as to why he shouldn't be defined by his blindness and simultaneously define himself by it. (Oh, character angst.)

Okay, now that I've gone on and on about why Garret is definitely my favorite part of that movie, I'll circle back to my thesis. Namely, the rarity of disabled characters in books and movies. When they're included, it's generally in a "disability genre" and the books focus on being disabled instead of treating disabled characters like the abled ones.

Generally speaking, Disney -- the paragon of "kid appropriate" -- doesn't include things that it thinks will scar little kids, such as scars. Ever notice how the only characters in Disney films that maintain serious injuries throughout a flick are the bad guys?
  • Ex: Scar has a scar for all of Lion King.
  • Ex: Dorie's scars from the jelly fish attack only last on scene in Finding Nemo.
  • Ex: Mulan. Every good guy in the movie gets seriously beat up on. Does it show? Nope. They bruise once then are magically restored. They can even regrow teeth.
  • Exception: In Finding Nemo, Nemo has a bad fin, as does Gill. However, these aspects define the characters. They are not incidental aspects. They are essential aspects.
  • Exception: The Hunchback of Notre Dame has a hunchbacked MC. On the other hand, that's the primary thing we learn about his character, and he still loses the girl to an abled, and ridiculously good looking (read: Disney ideal) supporting male.
Disney believes that showing an injury lasting an entire film will be damaging to kids, so they generally remove indications of such things after one scene. However, this means that kids are rarely shown characters, especially ones in prominent roles, who are not fully abled.

If 18-20% of Americans are disabled, that would suggest that most kids, if they aren't disabled themselves, know or are related to a person with a disability. So would it really be traumatizing to see a disabled character in a book or movie treated the same as the other characters?

My previous works have not included a large number of disabled characters; however, I do have on character in my head with a disability, and her day will come. Disabilities are a fact of life, even in modern times, and I think it might be nice if books and movies written for kids reflected that.

What do you think? How do you feel about disabled characters in books and movies for kids? Have you ever written a disabled character?

** The title for this post derives from the song "Kids are Different," which is the theme song for the group Kids on the Block, a puppet troupe that teaches children about living with disabilities.


  1. Unfortunately there's become a fine line between having a disabled character who has their own strengths, and having the token disabled character who does one thing. It's like there's extra effort involved to make that character and their disability truly part of the plot instead of, "Oh, yeah, and he's blind/deaf/etc."

    I totally agree that Quest for Camelot does this to an amazing effect. Garrett's abilities (brought on by his disabilities) are essential to the plot, as well as his character's development. However, the larger the group, the less I think his abilities would have been able to shine. With 2 or 4 characters, he's still an integral part to completing the mission.

    With 8 or 9 (Artie in Glee) it's more like, here's a character who has a disability and yet isn't so different from everyone else - he's still able to find his place, to "fit in". Yes, the plot of Glee is just about as different as you can get from Quest for Camelot, but I think therin lies the differences between areas in which a person with a disability can shine, as opposed to being the token handicap.

    Best of luck with your story!

    (Not bashing on Glee at all - I love it, but just showing it as an example.)

    (Also, Hunchback technically had an original story to stick to in which, yes, Esmeralda hooked up with Phoebes. Silly Victor Hugo, you should have known better.)

  2. Honestly, I thought finding nemo was so powerful because nemo was disabled.

    God luck with your story!

  3. I would love to read more books about people with disabilities, I just don't think I have the capacity to write one myself. (Does that make sense?) I think it has to be handled carefully, and everyone is so worried about offending anyone else, that it becomes really hard to get something like that published. Maybe people out there ARE writing those stories, they just aren't on the shelves because publishers don't know how to market it?

  4. Vicki -- True, they couldn't escape Everything Hugo supplied, though they did toss some things. I gave Hunchback, the original, a read. The number of words they have for disabilites in there is insane.

    Melissa -- Thanks. :)

    Tiana -- I think you raise a fair point. There is a possibility these things are being written and not published.