I don’t know why, at the beginning of Spring., I thought of writing an entry on the ‘flying elephant’ Jumbo Junior, ironically known more by the nickname Disney ascribed to him, Dumbo. I am not sure if it’s because after I do my work from home, I do find myself meditating on my past. And, there, in my mind comes fleeting images of Dumbo. My visual memory still works a little bit… Anyhow, Dumbo came to mind. True, I am contributing to the UN online forum to discuss how the world can become more inclusive at World We Want 2015 but Dumbo has hardly anything to do with disability and inclusion, does it?
Well, the Disney production of Dumbo was one which left me a little uneasy as a physically disabled boy who knew he walked differently but vociferously deny he was really disabled - even preferring to be called a ‘person with special needs’ in his early teens. However, Dumbo appeared to be delivering messages that I may have internalised as a boy who would go through great lengths to hide his impairment. In this entry I will list some of the messages and the lessons I might have internalised as a child.
Today, as I grew more aware of the fact that it’s society that often creates disabled barriers for us, I suspect that I put on a sardonic look when I hear a well meaning teacher before I deliver a discussion on why inclusion is important, ask them if they ever watched Dumbo. And commending it for its “message of inclusion and acceptance”. Because, frankly, it’s sending the opposite message!
And here is why...
1. The Life of Jumbo Junior
Before being given the demeaning nickname of “Dumbo because of his exceptionally long ears, his ‘birth name’ was Jumbo Junior. Dumbo was a nickname aimed to mock him and ridicule his physical difference.
Lesson 1: If you’re different, accept to be humiliated and disrespected.2. Prepare to be a clown
Jumbo Juniors long ears led him to become literally, the circus clown, as he tripped inn his long ears when taking part in an elephant act bringing the big top and injuring the other elephants.
Lesson 2: To include people who are different in your group is a recipe for disaster, leading only to social disorder and anarchy. Accept only who will conform to the social norms.
3. If you’re not like the rest, you must prove you are extraordinary to be treated (almost) as an equal.
He was only accepted by his peers and achieved fame and prosperity only after he discovered he had the special ability to fly thanks to his long ears. Forget the fact that he discovered he could fly after getting drunk on champagne and after befriending the mouse Timothy. Indeed, forget the mouse.
Lesson 3: In order to be accepted with your differences, you must excel at something and prove you are worth the time and trouble. Those who are different and not able to justify their existence are burdens, if not threats, to society. People will generally accept you only on a condition that you follow the rules better than others who feel entitled to their rights by birth and not merit.
4. Outcasts belong with others of their kind - Like with like!
The only ones who initially cared for Jumbo Junior were his mother, out of maternal love, and Timothy, the mouse, out of pity more than anything else. And, no, don’t forget the mouse. For, a long standing misconception has been that elephants are afraid of mice. So, by associating with the creature most feared by elephants, Jumbo was also associating himself with other outcasts. Jumbo’s mother can also be seen as an outcast as she was once thrown in solitary confinement away from the elephants after getting angry when the other elephants made fun of Jumbo for having his long ears.
Lesson 4: People who are outcasted because of their differences have a place only with others In their position or with those who choose to associate with them. Mixing with others of [a different kind’ will destroy the order of the whole of society in the longterm..
At face value, the story of Dumbo appears to offer hope to those of us who are different and judged for it. If we take the long ears as a symbol representing impairment, it is easy to assume that the story of Dumbo is one which expresses a kind of triumph over impairment or as a story of inclusion and a celebration of diversity, the real message is rather different.
Unfortunately, given that only a few would suspect a Disney movie can be expressing values that appear positive but are, in fact, deceptive and exclusive.
For, Jumbo Junior is not accepted forwho he is as an elephant but for the special abilities he has. There would be no story if Jumbo hadn’t learned that he could fly. His acceptance wasn’t an example of inclusion but an example of normalisation. Stripped of his special abilities, the insulting nickname he reclaimed “Dumbo” would have remained just that - an insult meant to belittle him. At no time do we see others around him accept him for who he was and no one supported him (except perhaps Timothy) in his life. While he appears to have triumphed at the end by becoming a rich elephant, this was also a form of segregation.
Even if he became a famous and rich elephant, he still lived away from the other elephants. At the end of the movie, he was never truly included.
In other words, the new Dumbo remained an outsider and only accepted because he could entertain the crowds. He was valued on the grounds of utility. He was just a means to an end. His life wasn’t valued because he was a being but because he could do something that people approved of. We never come to accept Dumbo as a unique creature, and we rarely get to know his character. We only know him as a flying elephant and, again, his identity is obscured by his physical difference. Like other real life people such as the one of Rain Man, there’s a danger of accepting a person in general and a disabled person in particular, only because we are somehow fascinated and ‘inspired’ by an extraordinary ability. But, the truth is that those who might have achieved extraordinary things are exceptions and not the rule.
I’m not saying this to diminish the work achieved by those disabled people who have achieved great things or those who had to face difficult challenges to get where they are today. However, inspiring as these individuals, my friends, are, this isn’t what true inclusion is all about. Why should we be expected to make all the changes and put in all the effort while society doesn’t support us or even may make it more difficult?
True, I have witnessed many positive changes in this regard. But, I suspect that people still continue to offer help or support to those deemed worthy and who conform to the norm and who are easier to include. While those who require more help are often the ones least to get it or, worse, put apart from the rest because
they are labelled ‘problem cases’ and not as persons. Like you and me.
Indeed, the story of Dumbo is not about inclusion but about changing to fit in. Being extraordinary to be close to being treated as an ordinary person. It’s not even about acceptance but more about conforming or becoming more normal in a society that often preaches inclusion but implicitly practices exclusion.
No, Jumbo or Dumbo is not my role model. He never was and will never be.
I don’t have to prove my value as a human being. Or justify my existence.
I am entitled to my human rights irrespective of whether I can walk, see, hear or think like the norm.
And I certainly don’t want to suffer dumbification!