Saturday, 3 January 2015

Visibility, Visibility.

EcoSchools Lights Off Stickers
In high school as a COO of my EcoSchools team, my three teacher supervisors took one word from the English language and made it their mantra.

They stressed that the student body best responded to our iniatives if we maintained a sense of presence in the school. "Recycling posters. Announcements," they suggested. The team was under a new structure to encourage student independence. As our teacher supervisors challenged us to learn some of the ropes for ourselves, visibility was one of our biggest challenges. Though my role was to monitor sub-teams’ deadlines and send out emails rather than join the visibility movement myself, I felt the EcoSchools teachers had "Visibility" right. They weren’t the only ones. In October 2014 , a person started a petition for Disney to introduce a princess with Down Syndrome.
The mind behind the campaign is Keston Ott-Dahl, a mother of a girl with Down Syndrome. For those of you that don’t know, Down Syndrome is caused by a person having three copies of Chromosome 21 (one of the classified DNA molecules in human cells) rather than two. In Keston Ott-Dahl’s opinion, Disney is a role model for younger girls and a person with Down Syndrome would feel valued having a role model for people like her on the screen. The petition gained media attention from Huffington Post to the Guardian. As I write this blog, the petition has earned 82,399 signatures online.
Keston Ott-Dahl has a point. I think that those with Down Syndrome are unrepresented in the media and need more attention. I didn’t know what Down Syndrome was until my mom came home while doing her diploma as a Developmental Services Worker and explained it to an almost-fifteen-year-old FA. How often do today’s children and youth hear about Down Syndrome? I imagine that unless you knew a person with Down Syndrome as a child or have it yourself, you most likely wouldn’t have heard the term until you were old enough to use Google News.  (I have not found the exact statistic yet. I'll post an update if I do.) Yet children are easily exposed to movies. According to, "kids under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, primarily TV and videos or DVDs" and "kids and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen." Why don’t we introduce them to diagnosed disabilities through the screen?

Princess Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. Taken from
I have my worries about the petition, though. If Disney portrays a princess with Down Syndrome, what role will it be? Will it be a humanistic role such as Elsa (left), the princess who learns to love herself for her ambivalent cryoscopic powers, or will the character simply reflect the current challenge to accept those with Down Syndrome, possibly portraying a girl trying to erase her third Chromosome 21? Aurora and Ariel (both respectively from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid) little fuelled the women’s rights movement despite their roles as female protagonists.
If Disney brings a princess with Down Syndrome to the screen, we still don't have a panacea to visibility. Rather, I think we must all take it our responsibility to show not just those with Down Syndrome but everyone who is a little different (doesn’t that include all of us?)  that no matter how many genes they differ from us, even an entire chromosome, they belong. Parents. Teachers. Employers. Relatives. Friends. Volunteer coordinators. Those five students that run hallway recycling on a high school EcoSchools team. The person that files the cards in Carlton Cards. The person who is paid just to haul your luggage onto planes. The aerospace engineer that co-designed the plane’s wing. Don't forget the scriptwriters at Disney. Visibility is not just an idea for a minority but a job for humanity.
Meanwhile, Disney responded to the petition stating that “[Walt Disney Studios is] committed to continuing to create characters that are accessible and relatable to all children.” I want to look at the statement and think that Princess I’ve-got-Down-Syndrome-and-I’m-proud-of-it is on the table. I wished I wasn't suspicious that Disney released this statement the same way a politician builds election promises during election season yet accomplishes few once elected. Can Disney do it? I have to admit they surprised me with “You can’t marry a man you just met” in Frozen. If empowerment is not a one-time plot but an ongoing trend, I think I see the protagonist with Down Syndrome in the distance. Maybe a few movies away, but in sight.
- FA

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