November 19, 2018

How ‘Finding Dory’ Does Disability Right

Too often stories in the media about disability are focused too narrowly on how a disabled person affects others, and how all involved parties “struggle” with it and have to “persevere”. Such was the case with the recent film, “Me Before You” in which able-bodied actor Sam Claftin played the paralyzed male lead viewing his disability as overwhelmingly worse than death. Claftin's character is portrayed as being a young vibrant success before his paralyzing accident, putting him in despair that he supposedly can't enjoy life in the way he was accustomed to. The upcoming Sundance TV mini-series “The A Word” profiles a British family coming to terms with their child's recent autism diagnosis and is advertised as a “drama”. The film “Theory of Everything” ends with a dream sequence that sees Stephen Hawking (played to an Oscar win by similarly able-bodied Eddie Redmayne) able to exit his motorized chair and able to talk, hinting at how his life could have possibly been better had he not developed ALS after the film shows all the things that “limited” him. And the popular show “Parenthood” had a substantial subplot about a family's “struggle” with their son's autism.

In my own blog, I wrote that the way to remedy this pervasive “tragic disabled” narrative is to tell stories from the disabled character's perspective and promote it like its Game of Thrones. What I didn't expect is that this person-centric perspective would be done so soon, nor that that story would come from, of all places, Pixar.
My first thought upon hearing that “Finding Nemo” would spawn a sequel called “Finding Dory” was the same as everyone else's – “Really? A sequel? Can't Hollywood come up with anything original?” If a sequel does happen to be good, it's because it expands on the first film and has its own story to tell.

“Finding Dory” succeeds for those reasons indeed, but it does something more. It tells of living with a disability and all the complications and strengths within it. And it did something that very few movies do – it made me profoundly relate to it and sob by the closing credits.

Why? To explain, there will be spoilers from here on out.

On the surface, “Finding Dory” is a simple story – the Pacific Blue Tang comedic sidekick from “Finding Nemo” has a sudden trigger of a long-dormant memory of her parents she mistakenly separated from as a child and drags her buddies Marlin (Dad) and Nemo (his son) on a journey to go find them. The plot line seems similar to the first movie, but instead of focusing on trekking the ocean the bulk of the story actually happens when the fish arrive at location they believe her parents are at (a Californian Marine Life Institute). After the three fish arrive in California, the bulk of the story is following the characters individually when they're separated at the institute, primarily on Dory and the characters she meets.

The opening scene of the movie makes the focus on Dory abundantly clear – she's a baby fish learning about the dangers of “the undertow” from her parents via song, and in those opening moments we the audience learn that her short-term memory loss from “Finding Nemo” is a chronic condition. This does two things: 1) it makes us feel bad for laughing at her during “Finding Nemo”, and 2) it showcases how challenging that chronic short-term memory loss is for her and the characters around her. And the film takes Dory's side in both showcasing how her memory loss affects her and how she deals with it, prioritizing it over Marlin's, Nemo's and any other character's perspectives.

There are so many ways “Finding Dory” hit home to me. Autism affects me in similar ways Dory's short-term memory loss affects her. It affects my ability to communicate, socialize, process complicated concepts, and the formation of my overall worldview. My memory may work significantly better than Dory's does, but both our natural instincts are not considered conventionally appropriate at times (even if it turns out to be the correct ones). Dory and I are in constant need of guidance in navigating a world that was not built for us to thrive.

It's not easy to live this way. Despite being told I present very far off the autistic spectrum, it nevertheless has created many personal and systemic roadblocks for me throughout my life. My troubles regulating my emotions and understanding social cues resulted in situations that have turned off others and thus have limited opportunities for me. My parents hired babysitters to take me on early childhood excursions to parks and zoos because few parents would let me play with their kids. I was not accepted into a prestigious private school despite qualifying academically because the school didn't want to provide supervision. I was asked to take a leave of absence from college my first year when I had a bad meltdown and school officials didn't know how to handle my needs. Dory has her own challenges – her limited ability to focus and remember frustrates almost every character she meets to the point where few tolerate her, let alone take a liking to her. And all that makes it difficult for her to seek the help and support she needs in finding her parents.

But “Finding Dory” does something other stories about disability do not do – it does not fault or devalue her for her condition. When Dory's parents are trying to help her learn and remember the undertow song they're teaching her at the beginning of the film, her inability to learn is shown as frustrating but it doesn't diminish their love for her and their willingness to teach her. More flashbacks to her childhood prove this point over and over again. And while Marlin and Hank (an octopus who reluctantly assists Dory in locating her parents in the marine life institute) repeatedly express frustration in Dory's lack of focus and distractibility, they end up truly liking her for her differences and appreciate her for her spontaneity and determination. In one moment in the film where Marlin and Nemo are stuck without her in a seemingly dead-end situation, Nemo asks his father what Dory would do and Marlin is able to figure their way out by looking at their predicament through her perspective. Where Dory was repeatedly seen as a frustrating comic asset in “Finding Nemo”, Dory in “Finding Dory” is truly valued as her own being.

This takes me to the most beautiful element of the movie – none of the main players in “Finding Dory” gives up on her. Hank, Nemo, Marlin, and several other characters she encounters in the marine life institute are all allies who believe in her ability to find her parents. And although one of Dory's flashbacks shows Dory eavesdropping on her parents expressing fear over ability her to survive on her own (especially since she accidentally gets caught in the undertow away from them, confirming those worst fears), when she eventually finds them in an emotional reunion, her parents sob as they tell her they never gave up on her ability to find them again.

That moment when Dory's parents show their love and devotion to her even in the worst possible circumstances made my tears flow. I have always had an unshakeable fear that people would just give up on me. Being aware of my differences and my challenges makes me feel like a constant source of frustration to everyone around me. Like Dory, I have always felt the need to apologize for my condition because I fear people will react negatively. It makes me live in a state of terror that people will decide I'm too much trouble to be worth keeping around in any capacity. And yet life has proven that this fear is largely unfounded. Many teachers and professors were sympathetic and encouraged me to reach higher because they saw and valued my strengths. My friends have all seen me at my worst emotional moments and still support me when I need them. And most importantly, I know I have caused a lot of drama and pain for my family, but they have not walked away. They constantly proclaim their love and support for me, and tell me that their greatest wish is that I am happy. I know as I write this I still can't shake my doubt that this support will last, but I know I could have it much worse.

I don't expect everyone to get “Finding Dory” on this level. I don't expect people to even like “Finding Dory” the same way I did. What I will say is that there's a lot more going on in “Finding Dory” than meets the eye.  There's a powerful message in “Dory” worth taking away – people with disabilities are worth being accepted and loved for who they are. We may not fit in with what society wants people to be, but we don't deserve to be shut away for it. If you just have the patience to take the time getting to know us, you'll find that we have a lot to love and the world is a better place because of it.

And should the worst comes to worst? Do what Dory does – keep calm, and just keep swimming.