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Reclaiming Nemo

by Victoria Lucas

19th August 2004

In June, Scope conducted a survey of the British public to test their attitudes towards disabled people by asking them to name a famous disabled person. They found that "despite the achievements of Home Secretary David Blunkett", 36 per cent of those questioned in the survey couldn't name a single famous disabled person.
This didn't surprise me at all. Firstly, you can hardly blame people for not acknowledging David Blunkett as a disabled person when he doesn't acknowledge this himself! And secondly, surely the reason why the 36 per cent couldn't name a famous disabled person is because there aren't many?

We have a drought of famous disabled people that is so bad that I used to leap off my sofa in excitement whenever I saw that one-armed bloke in the B&Q advert. Even Ouch's Great Disabled Britons vote consisted of six dead people. Let's face it, we have no Oprah to call our own.

I first realised this when I was a kid. Growing up, I never saw anyone else that I recognised as disabled, as different, as being like me - famous or otherwise. Despite growing up in a seaside town on the South Coast that is so full of elderly people that it is 'fondly' nicknamed El Geriatrica, I rarely saw any disabled people in the streets. The town is so full of 'homes' for elderly and disabled people that you'd think it would be swarming with crips. But no, they were all in the homes! At least, that was the case when I lived there. Maybe they've let a few out now.

But when you don't know anyone in real life who's like you, and you don't see anyone on TV who's like you, well, it can do strange things to the mind of a child. So I found myself reclaiming cartoon characters as disabled instead.
Dumbo (image © Disney)
The first time I did this was when I was nine years old and saw the classic Disney film Dumbo, about the elephant with big ears who finds he can fly. Like me, Dumbo had an extremely enlarged facial feature. His large ears made him clumsy and awkward, and the other elephants considered him a 'freak'. But then he discovered that those big funny ears could make him fly (which in my opinion makes this the best disability film ever). For the first time, I'd found someone I could relate to. I didn't realise it then, but I had reclaimed him as a disabled role model.

Beauty and The Beast was another example. As a gawky twelve year old, I found myself feeling much more in common with Beast than with Belle, and thought it was a shame that he had to go back to being a handsome prince. "Surely he could have stayed a beast?" I thought to myself. "Why does he have to go back to being normal? He was cool as a beast! Is being hairy so very, very wrong?!"

Even to this day I still do this. It's probably not a thing a 25 year old woman should admit to, but I love animated films and think that it's interesting how they often portray disability and difference in a much more positive way than normal movies.
A friend recently recommended that I saw the animated film Finding Nemo because it had disabled characters in it. The main character, Nemo, is a clown fish with one fin shorter than the other, which he calls his 'lucky fin' (aah!).
Nemo (image © Disney/Pixar)
After being snatched by a sea-diving Sydney dentist and placed in the tropical fish tank in his consulting room, he makes friends with a fellow captive called Gil. Gil has scars on his face and a damaged fin from an unsuccessful escape attempt. They bond over their mutual disabilities and Gil inspires Nemo to not give up hope about being rescued by his dad.

Not only are these two 'disabled' characters great fun, but they also give a very positive look at difference.

There are many other disabled characters in animation that I love. Roger Rabbit from the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, whose clumsiness is a sure sign of dyspraxia; Leela, the beautiful, ass-kicking, purple-haired, one-eyed alien from the animated series Futurama; Shrek might not be disabled per se but he is a green ogre, which I'm sure would give him plenty of trouble accessing goods and services.

And we mustn't forget Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for obvious reasons, but also because I suspect that Ms White - who is given to bouts of singing and frantic cleaning followed by deep sleep - is probably touched with a little bi-polar disorder.
Crimson Chin
I even recently discovered that there's an American cartoon series called Fairly Odd Parents, which features a superhero character called Crimson Chin, who has an absolutely enormous chin and wears a crimson costume with the initial C stitched on it. Oh, how I laughed when I found out! And oh, how I wished I'd copyrighted the idea ...

So until we start to get some famous disabled people in real life, I'm afraid I shall have to continue with this strange habit of reclaiming animated characters instead. If things get really bad, I might even end up reclaiming David Blunkett as a disabled role model. Now that is a worrying thought.

Finding Nemo images © Disney/Pixar; Dumbo image © Disney
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