Growing up, I loved Disney movies. For most of my early life, I wanted to be a mermaid when I grew up. But not just any mermaid; I wanted to be Ariel. I'd belt my rendition of "Part of Your World" to any and every audience I could find. It led to my parents putting me in vocal lessons and carried with me, my entire life, effectively shaping my career as a vocalist and a vocal music instructor.
I now have three daughters, two of whom are heavily into the Princess Phase. My oldest's favorite is Belle because she has brown hair like her and she likes to read books. My middle daughter is a fan of Anna from Frozen. She's a little sister too and a true wild spirit. My youngest daughter, while still too little to have any concept of Disney princesses for now, won't have a Princess that looks like her and someday, she'll be aware of that. My youngest has Down syndrome.
There is a petition sweeping the Internet asking Disney to incorporate a protagonist with Down syndrome, but there is a backlash brewing even within the special needs community asking, is it necessary?
Keston Ott-Dahl, the author of the petition, thinks it is, and I agree. According to the U.S. Census, nearly one in five people have a disability, so one would think this would be a great train for Disney to hop on, yet people with disabilities are the most under-represented minority population in television and film. Ott-Dahl targeted Disney because "Disney's focus is children and this a great place to eliminate discrimination against the disabled before it even begins. Children will grow up with a familiarity, understanding and compassion for the disabled thus discrimination can be a non-issue for future generations to come." It's a message anyone can get behind, so you'd think their marketing executives would be all over it. But they haven't. Is it just too hard?
The Down syndrome community pushes the slogan, "more alike than different," but Disney would have to draw on the differences to make it apparent that any Princess had Down syndrome. We'd expect to see the typical flat facial features, almond-shaped eyes and a short stature associated with it. That in itself is a fine line to walk because every individual with Down syndrome is affected differently. Some may have a significant showing of traits while others with very little. While viewers would take issue if the first disabled princess showed nothing of her disability, I'd also venture to say that most would be upset if our children seemed trivialized or stereotyped in any way. Showing a princess in a wheelchair would be the safe route to showcase a disability, sort of like American Girl did with their dolls, but then it leaves children with Down syndrome underrepresented yet again and still without someone on screen to look up to.
Furthermore, while the Down syndrome community has many unifying characteristics, there are also a lot of differences because Down syndrome can affect anyone regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status. If they chose a blonde-haired, fair-skinned, blue-eyed girl with Down syndrome, would the dark-haired, dark-skinned, brown eyed little girls with Down syndrome still relate as well?
And then there are those within the Down syndrome community who are arguing that there are bigger problems to address, and that effort is a waste of time. Regardless, the petition still raises the issue that we need more heroes right now that are identifiable for children with Down syndrome. They just aren't out there.