Pixar and Disney have a knack for making us stop and think more deeply about some of the changes life throws at us or the obstacles some people face—adults and kids. Through the powerfully emotive world of colored animation, we are held captive for hours in the theater, and then when we leave, we find ourselves helpless to the sudden introspective evaluation of what the movie really meant.
In Up we were presented with growing old and the propensity to become socially isolated. We saw a man without a wife determined to fulfill their lifelong dream, who is then brought to life again by a quirky talking dog, Doug, and a fatherless scout Russell. From Up, we realize that age is nothing more than a number and life is always going to change us and the direction we are going. In Finding Nemo, we learned that being different doesn’t mean you aren’t capable. The first animated movie to truly show that disability equals ability, Nemo highlights the importance of recognizing you can do anything you set your mind to while embracing your differences. And as we look to the recently released, Finding Dory, we find disabilities once more in the spotlight.
Leave it to Pixar to make a film that empowers people with all kinds of disabilities—mental, physical, visible and invisible. USA Today’s recent article “How ‘Finding Dory’ could change the conversation around disabilities,” may focus on Dory’s disability and how it could positively impact the conversation around children with developmental disabilities, but if we take a closer look, the other characters could do the same for other disabilities as well.
Of special note, Bailey and Hank look at two things that society has often cast in a negative or demeaning light—hearing loss and anxiety.
So how does Finding Dory change the conversation?
Dory’s memory loss and how it impacts her life is compared to people having developmental disabilities. In the article, Mitch Prinstein, director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill discusses the positive correlations between Dory and her parents and human children with developmental disabilities and their own parents, but the real message lays in Dory’s attitude and is applicable to ALL disabilities.
“She doesn’t let that slow her,” says co-director Angus MacLane of Dory’s special needs. “For someone to have such a positive attitude, despite their challenges, is why she’s so popular.” The character’s popularity on Facebook (> 25 million followers) is further proof that a disability shouldn’t impact how people perceive you. But the point that Dory drives home is that it’s time to change the way we talk about disabilities—all disabilities.
‘The stigma is generalized by adults,’ McLane says in the article. ‘So if we get children to think about it now and have awareness of psychological difficulties, that is a huge and important step forward.’
Bailey and Hank are a first step changing the way we look at hearing loss and anxiety
McLane’s words are true for all disabilities—especially (hopefully) hearing loss and anxiety, two things that children typically don’t know about or are even ashamed to talk about.
Bailey’s struggle with echolocation can be compared to kids and adults with hearing loss, and Hanks’ anxiety sheds light on the rising importance and recognition of anxiety in recent years.
The stigma surrounding hearing loss and anxiety though has been slow to evolve, so Bailey and Hank are revolutionary characters for Pixar.
Hearing loss is an inherently invisible disability but one that has a profound impact on communication, social interaction, depression, fatigue, cognition and more. And hearing loss is on the rise, with over 360 million people worldwide having a disabling hearing loss. Just last year, the World Health Organization estimated that 1.1 billion teens and young adults are at risk for permanent hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices (noise-induced hearing loss), and according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.
And nobody talks about hearing loss. I have hearing loss, and I can speak from first-hand experience that in the early years of discovering my disability, people looked at and treated me differently. The way people treated my hearing loss didn’t just make me different, it made me feel “stupid,” “incapable” or “abnormal.” Those reasons are part of why I put off hearing aids for so long and exactly why I did my best to hide and reject my disability instead of embracing it.
Bailey’s issues with echolocation (utilizing sound waves to determine location and sizes of objects), seemed to me the first attempt at starting a conversation about hearing loss. While echolocation is not hearing loss, the way it impacts marine mammals like Bailey is similar to how hearing loss can impact humans. (Read here for how echolocation works if you don’t know by the way). In watching Bailey struggle to identify things, I immediately made the connection to how hearing loss impacts our ability to understand speech and sound. The most common question I am asked is “if you can hear me, why can’t you understand me?” but hearing loss isn’t simply a loss of volume, it’s the loss of key frequencies that our brain uses to interpret sound waves along the auditory pathway. And when hearing loss interrupts that auditory-to-neurological process, the ability to clearly define and discern certain letters and words is damaged.
The point though, is that Bailey pushes past the problems and finds his own strengths. The same goes for those with hearing loss. It took me 13 years to make my own positive transformation with my disability, but Bailey hopefully will spark in children and adults the desire to identify, acknowledge and embrace hearing loss should they have it.
Can we stop looking at anxiety as an extension of “drama”?
Hank on the other hand, is the first character I can truly identify as starting to look at anxiety as a more complicated health issue. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States (18 and older) according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and I’ve seen first-hand the power it can have on somebody.
One of my best friend’s has anxiety, and I’ve seen her not be able to breath before when a panic attack ensues. Other friends have taken to social media to open up about their own anxiety, explaining how it can physically cripple them or keep them from enjoying life’s simple pleasures.
However, the point is, that Hank’s character, is the first time we look at anxiety with a health-focused lens and don’t take the demeaning response of “quit being so dramatic.”
Why is changing the conversation so important?
A disability should never define a person. Instead, a person should embrace their disability and the unique strengths and opportunities it presents. I have a hearing loss that after I finally embraced it allowed me to turn to writing as a way to help others with hearing loss or friends and family of people with hearing loss understand and better maneuver the hearing journey they embark on. I am open about my disability with strangers immediately, and in changing the conversation, I’ve not only changed how I see my disability but how others see it.
And that is the most important thing. If we don’t start talking differently about disabilities then we will miss out on all the wonderful things that can come with them, all the incredible changes and creative insights that those of with disabilities can provide.