'Suck it, Bipeds': Finding Dory 's Disability Narratives

Spoiler alerts: Finding Dory

Rarely, if ever, have I encountered a movie, animated or live action, so replete with positive representations of multiple disabilities, that simultaneously avoids stereotypical pity and triumph narratives and refuses to deny truths like bullying, isolation, despair, and grief. "Presuming competence" is at the heart of the movie -- or, at the movie's three hearts, if one is invoking Hank the septopus (more on him, in a moment...).

According to Dr. Doug Biklen, Dean and Professor Emeritus at the Syracuse University School of Education, presuming competence is "a framework that says, approach each child as wanting to be fully included, wanting acceptance and appreciation, wanting to learn, wanting to be heard, wanting to contribute. By presuming competence, educators place the burden on themselves to come up with ever more creative, innovative ways for individuals to learn. The question is no longer who can be included or who can learn, but how can we achieve inclusive education."

Biklen's heartfelt and scholarly words are not just relevant to educators. Although folks might not use the same language as he, the principles underlying the presumption of competence make it possible and pleasing for kids with and without disabilities to play together and to be welcomed and celebrated by each other; the approach likewise supports children's families and friends in a largely unwelcoming society, and has the potential to influence -- vitally -- community and organizational spaces.

By advancing a commitment to and showing specific examples of presuming competence in its protagonists and in many secondary characters' depictions, Finding Dory emphasizes why and how disability matters. The film celebrates disability culture and admonishes ignorance and meanness. Importantly, it privileges the perspectives of individuals with disabilities. During a season when Me Before You is receiving repeated accolades in the face of disability rights activists' protests, I'm going to keep applauding Finding Dory, and don't really mind all that much that its creators are media moguls. To learn more about why Me Before You is the latest act of media violence against disabled people, I encourage interested parties to read my good friend Bill Peace's work at his blog site, Bad Cripple. People with myriad disability identities are accustomed to mainstream media representations that minimize, question, undermine, and even seek to eradicate our very existence. Finding Dory is, for me, Me Before You's summer blockbuster opposite.

Sy Montgomery's magnificent tribute to the brainy and compassionate cephalopod, The Soul of an Octopus, is available in a different but no less impacting representational way, for children of all ages, in Finding Dory's Hank (voiced by Ed O'Neill). Gutsy and ingenious Hank is a disabled octopus -- a septopus. In one of the film's many tongue-in-cheek scenes, Hank asserts, loudly, "Suck it, bipeds!" in reference to the humans who are in his way. After all, humans are the least interesting (or relevant) characters in the film which, of course, focuses on sea creatures and plants. Hank's comments are funny on multiple registers and advance a biting, social critique of ableism that applauds insider humor: wheelchair users at times refer to condescending non-wheelchair users as bipeds; this linguistic strategy reverses who is pitiable, and disrupts the idea that disabled people primarily need or seek non-disabled people's help (or prayers).

My favorite messages to children and adults in the audience include how beings who are often coded in mainstream spaces as "limited" in fact have advantages, use strategies, are talented, can succeed and thrive. The "you can be whomever you want, just be yourself" storyline, rather than feeling sappy or forced, is emphatic, situated in a film showing that access is partly about context, privilege, and choices; it is largely social oppression that limits and delimits. (Please check out my HuffPost blog entry on "Mad Advantage" for more ideas regarding this related subject.)

Interdependence as most everyone's life requirement is in the film both a brazen critique of the myth of independence and a movement away from the devaluing of so-called dependence. Family members, caregivers, teachers, and the rest of us can learn a lot about and feel validated in supporting adults and children with and without disabilities by watching an animated movie about fish.

Encouragement and acceptance of others' perceptions, sensory preferences, and right to decision making are all consistently emplotted in the film. This film is also seemingly against euthanasia/assisted suicide, denial of treatment, and institutionalization. (Again, big contrasts with Me Before You.)

And, clearly, very often but surely not always, trauma and resilience can indeed go fin in fin, tentacle in tentacle, as Finding Dory shows.

Telling people how you really feel (as long as it's not dangerous to be too direct), rather than being withholding or passive aggressive; not being defensive; taking time to embrace solitude, as well as enjoying company; accepting that we are not all the same -- and that's a good thing; and honoring and appreciating the fullness of and within emptiness are also all great messages in the film.

I can't wait to see it again, seven arms waving.