Talking About Disability with Kids
Cathy Reay reckons every parent has the choice whether or not they're going to raise inclusive or exclusive kids. And if you're goal is to create inclusive little people, you need to start talking about disability with kids.
Picture the scene.
It’s a cold, blustery evening in 2009. I’ve just arrived at Elstree, the studio location of one of the most popular TV shows of the decade: Big Brother. I’m brandishing an obnoxiously large badge that reads ‘MEDIA’, my notepad and my pen. I’m excited, but also extremely nervous.
That night, it was the press conference for Celebrity Big Brother 6. In my then-role as a journalist with a focus on disability issues, it was my only chance to grill the late actor Verne Troyer on his life, his work and why on earth he kept accepting roles that belittle (excuse the pun) his size.
Unlike, I imagine, most journalists that interviewed him, I had something in common with Troyer: we both had dwarfism, albeit different types. He had cartilage-hair hypoplasia, and stood two feet, eight inches tall. I have achondroplasia, and stand at about four feet. In essence, though, we were both much shorter than the average person, with some unusual limb features to boot. We were the butt of the same jokes and the same types of discrimination.
And I was annoyed with him.
Very annoyed. Because I’d seen him in Jingle All the Way, in Men in Black, and in the Austin Powers films. And in all of those films, his size was the joke. And that played out badly for me.
At the height of Austin Powers mania, people would call me Mini Me and mimic his character in front of me. It really upset me that this was what people thought of when they saw me, rather than just seeing me for who I am.
The thing is, representation in film is much more impactful than we think. Especially for those who aren’t typically represented at all. Is it any wonder that kids with dwarfism are teased if the only time we see dwarfism on screen is in Verne Troyer characters, the dwarves in Snow White, the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the little people in Willow? Is it any wonder that as we mature into young adults, we are othered and desexualised?
While those particular characters might not stay in your minds, the way they inform how you react and interact with people of my size will.
It’s not Verne Troyer’s fault, though.
As a very short man in Hollywood in the ’90s and 2000s, I recognise it would’ve been impossible for him to make any real money without playing characters that exploit and make fun of his size. It’s sad but true. There are conversations that need to be had in Hollywood and representation that needs to appear behind the camera in order to ensure non-harmful representation in front of the camera.
So now I can hear you asking me, but what can I do? You’re kinda right—you can’t do much about the nonsense that goes on in the movies. But you actually have a lot of power somewhere else: your own home. As parents, you have the choice of whether you’re going to raise your children to be inclusive or exclusive. It is essential that we have difficult but open conversations about discrimination. And problematic films provide an excellent starting point.
Let’s enjoy the movies while also having open and frank conversations with our kids .
Let's talk about how unfair it is that the Disabled character never gets to ‘fall in love’. Or how it’s actually kinda inappropriate that we’re always cast as ‘freaks’. Or how about the films that pity us or see us as very inspirational purely for existing (Wonder is a very good example of a family film that illustrates this disability stereotype). Tell your children that maybe Disabled people want to move about the world without being labelled as a miracle for doing so, that maybe we should just be able to get on with our lives, just like them.
It’s not easy holding conversations like these, because they require you to confront your own ableism, past and present, and to be vulnerable and honest in front of your children about how messed up the world can be. They’re going to figure that bit out sooner or later, though, anyway, and wouldn’t you prefer it if you told them first? Let them know you don’t have all the answers and you’re a work in progress too. But tell them Disabled people are so much more than what they see on screen. Seek out films and read some books that feature positive disability representation. Compare positive and negative side by side. Get them to spot the problematic narratives in new films they watch.
If nothing else, my Disabled kids will thank you for it.