7 STEPS TO SEPARATE YOU FROM THE GOOD-GONE-BAD
You wouldn’t want to be in the business of selling diesel cars following the Volkswagen scandal nor would you want to be a fundraiser raising money for prostate cancer or even for Yooralla, the Victorian disability provider.
What did Volkswagen do? Volkswagen has admitted that 11 million of its cars failed to meet certain emissions standards but passed testing due to specially programmed “defeat devices”. The cars were programmed so that a reduced amount of diesel flowed through the system when the vehicles were being tested for emissions. They passed the test but when checked independently were found to have up to 40 times the amount of nitrous oxide emissions that are permitted in some countries. And, it seems to be getting worse with the recent news that the scandal is spreading to Porsche.
And why is there a problem for prostate cancer bodies? Professor John Kearsley recent pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting a female colleague after he spiked her drink with bennies. Why would this impact on prostate cancer charities? Because Professor Kearsley helped to found the Prostate Cancer Institute. Do donors know the difference between the Prostate Cancer Institute, the Prostate Cancer Foundation and Prostate Cancer Australia? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Kearsley was a professor at the University of NSW and, until February 2014, he was a senior oncologist at a leading Sydney hospital. He was a leading figure in the medical profession, and he assaulted a colleague, he did so using a controlled substance and he was a bit of a hero in the development of prostate cancer treatment, research and funding.
What went wrong for Yooralla? A former casual carer was jailed for 18 years for raping people with disability in his care who were Yooralla clients. The CEO of Yooralla resigned, the board lost its chair, and there were calls for a national inquiry into the disability sector.
And before you say (or sing) “One bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch, girl” in PR terms yes it does. So how do you – as a seller of diesel cars, a fundraiser for prostate cancer or Yooralla – separate yourself from these terrible events?
A breach of trust
These scandals saw very real damage inflicted on the poor woman who was assaulted by a trusted colleague and on clients of Yooralla, who were raped and abused, and on the purchasers of defective Volkswagens. All of them – one a very commercial transaction, one a service/client relationship and one a more personal interaction between colleagues in a profession – involve a breach of trust.
Doctors and carers are meant to be “caring professionals” not people who drug and assault their colleagues, nor rape people in their care. Disability service providers are there to protect their clients not ignore their complaints. Multinational car companies that sell millions of vehicles are meant to be honest corporate citizens who observe the rules and don’t break the law. They are not meant to try deliberately to circumvent legislation designed to reduce pollution.
You will never see it coming
And it seems so unfair when you as a fundraiser or car salesperson have done nothing wrong and suddenly, because of some few bad apples, your job is made so much harder. It may not even be your brand of car, or cancer foundation (it could even be a different cancer or medical research body) or disability service provider. Your organisation (car company, service provider) doesn’t behave that way. You may never have heard of Professor Kearsley. Suddenly, the proverbial has hit the fan, and you are ducking for cover. Don’t duck. Cop it sweet. This is where your crisis management process kicks in.
- Have a plan
It’s too late when a person has been charged or the tests have been checked and found defective to develop a crisis management plan. That is something you have to do when the sky is blue; the birds are singing, and the donors and car buyers are parting with their hard earned.
- Appoint one person to talk about the issue
- Make it someone’s job to speak to everyone concerned. In your plan, make sure everyone knows what they need to know. These may be staff, the board, volunteers, regulators, clients and the general public (via the media).
- Don’t be stingy about information because the crisis involves fraud, rape, assault or any other nasty event.
- Treat every person who has questions with respect
- Treat every question (even after you’ve heard it 43 times) as important
- Answer all the questions.
- If you can’t answer the questions, say that you can’t and that you will come back to the questioner.
- Here’s a big tip, get back to the questioner with the answer as soon as you have it
- And make it quick.
- Say you are sorry (if it’s your organisation)
If it is your organisation at the root of the problem say
- You are sorry that you haven’t met the standards required
- You are cooperating with authorities,
- And what you are doing to prevent it happening again.
- Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat until you start to see some sunshine.
This could take a while; years depending on how bad it was in the first place.
If it’s not your organisation that is the cause of the problem
- Talk about the safeguards and measures that are in place to prevent such a thing happening
- Agree to scrutiny anyway
- Post your policies regarding the issue on your website
- Offer a helpline for clients or customers
- Swallow the frog
Mark Twain used to say that if you have to swallow a frog, do it in the morning. Get the nasty stuff out the way as soon as possible. Address the issue and get on with the rest of your day/plan/life.
- If you have to say one of your trusted founders has admitted to a criminal charge, say it. Say you’re sorry. Say what you are doing about it.
- If you’ve been found out in widespread corporate fraud, put your hand up, admit what’s gone on, say what you are doing about it.
- This is not the time to listen to your lawyers who want you to admit nothing because you could cop it. You are going to cop it – so do it bravely, early and comprehensively.
- Continue to communicate until the crisis is passed
There is a great scene in The West Wing where Arnie, played by Alan Alda, who has been championing nuclear power as a clean, safe fuel stands in front of a nuclear power plant where there’s been a nasty nuclear accident and answers journalists’ questions on his stance until they run out of questions. Be that person. Be Alan Alda, be Arnie Vinick.
- Start getting back on message
Keep talking about your cause, your foundation, the great service you provide and the outstanding cars you build (notwithstanding the nasty hiccough).
But this step needs to be treated with caution. If you talk too soon about your good stuff, people won’t believe you because of the bad stuff. If you don’t talk about your good stuff, people will only talk about your bad stuff.
See if you can get others talking about your good stuff – not to refute the bad stuff, but to balance it.
If I were advising Volkswagen, I’d get motoring writers churning out column inches on their long love affair with Golf or Passat or Audi.
If I were the communications manager at Yooralla, all my case studies and communications this year would focus on great stories of care that have been going on for years – I’d be making it appear as if great care and wonderful service are the norm (which they probably are).
If I were the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, I’d be getting family stories out there about prostate cancer survivors and how they and their families were doing so well because of the research that has happened as a result of PCFA’s fundraising efforts. I’d be using female researchers fronting the story, and I’d be getting videos of families and these wonderful women on as many social media channels as I could.
- Remember Vivien Leigh’s advice
In the closing scene of Gone with the Wind, where Vivien Leigh as Scarlett has just had a big bust up with Rhett Butler played by Clark Gable, Leigh says: “After all, tomorrow is another day”.
It doesn’t sound like great advice but it’s very practical.
You may have survived the PR-equivalent of the American Civil War on the losing side but you still have the cause you believe in.
It was and still is a worthwhile cause and, ultimately, one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl!
In the final blog of the Accessibility Is Everywhere series, The Copy Collective contributor Monica Seeber gets up close and personal. She uncovers the reality of living with a disability and the part we can all play in improving accessibility for everyone.
When I left high school, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Music program, specialising in percussion. During high school, my most supportive teacher had been my percussion tutor, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps and corrupt teenagers by teaching them how to hit things…
But when it came time for my mid-year performance exam, I had no feeling in my left arm from the elbow down, and no strength in my hand to grip. Needless to say, I failed the exam.
I visited an occupational therapist who suggested I had the early stages of carpal tunnel in my left wrist and that it was unlikely to improve without significant rest. I was unable to play music for a month.
At the end of that year, I made the difficult decision to transfer from the music degree to a Bachelor of Arts. I was forced to re-evaluate my future and choose a new vocation.
That was a long time ago, but I still experience pain, numbness and weakness in my arm. Sometimes all it takes is a poor night’s sleep, and I have to rest my whole arm.
It wasn’t until I was writing this blog that it even occurred to me that I was living with a disability.
Living with a disability
The World Health Organisation uses “disability” to broadly cover:
- impairments – problems in body function or structure
- activity limitations – difficulties in executing activities
- participation restrictions – problems an individual may experience in involvement in life situations.
The Australian Human Rights Commission uses an even broader understanding of disability that includes temporary disabilities such as a broken arm or episodic depression.
For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to use “disability” in its truest sense: the negation, lack of, or deprivation of (an) ability.
I have a close family member who is blind. They have a guide dog and use various assistive technologies throughout their day. When I was 15, I stayed with them in Sydney, and we planned an outing to the CBD to “visit the sights”.
Throughout the day, whenever we spoke to people (to ask for directions, or purchase a ticket) they largely ignored my guide, and directed their comments to me instead. This person is highly intelligent and very accomplished, yet they were treated as a bit dim – even non-existent – simply because they needed assistance navigating the visual world.
For two years, I worked for a charity that supports people with autism and their families. Most of the programs were for children on the Autism spectrum and focussed on teaching social skills, emotional regulation, and sensory integration.
It is not widely known that the vast majority of autistic people have a sensory processing disorder.
Imagine trying to tune an analogue radio when there is a lot of static. Or talking on a mobile phone when you pass through a tunnel. Or going to the cinema where the image is so bright it hurts your eyes.
Now imagine all that sensory interference is part of your experience of the world every day.
The static on the radio? That’s your brain struggling to filter external information. Loss of signal on the phone? That’s your aural processing struggling with the environment. Going to the cinema and the picture is too bright? That’s you visual processing system struggling to adjust to changing light conditions.
These are all examples of an individual’s sensory processing working “abnormally”. It’s not a physical disorder like vision or hearing impairment, rather a neurological condition “that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses”
|Sensory kits (top left) are often used with children who require extra sensory imput to remain calm and focused. They can be complimented with weighted clothing (bottom left) and/or wiggle cushions (right).|
I’ve spent a lot of time with children who have a sensory processing disorder. Children who can’t focus in the classroom because the noise from other children (even in other rooms) overwhelms their processing and they can’t hear the teacher. Children who run away from class to a dark corner somewhere – not because they are naughty, but because they are so visually exhausted they were about to cry. Children who run laps around supermarket aisles because they are physically unable to remain still: their proprioceptive feedback (the sensation of moving muscles and joints) is so dulled they live in a perpetual state of numbness except for when they’re running around.
The constant battle
A close friend of mine has executive functioning deficiency. We use our executive functioning processes all day, every day. Making plans, keeping track of time, multitasking, and following (and joining in) group discussions are all examples of executive functioning. Those who have a deficiency in this area may seem disruptive, “scatterbrained”, or “stupid” to those who don’t know any better.
If you’ve ever had a late night followed by a grueling day at work or school, and felt so worn out that you can’t remember your own name – that’s your executive functioning not functioning. Except while you can recover with a good night’s sleep, those with an executive functioning deficiency experience that all day, every day.
|Example of a schedule for those with
executive functioning difficulties.
My friend was often chastised at school for not following instructions. It wasn’t because they were disobedient, rather the teacher gave multiple instructions, and they couldn’t remember all of the individual steps. What they needed was shorter instructions with fewer steps – preferably written down so they could refer to the list to make sure they’d completed everything.
Experiences like these are like sleeping on a lumpy bed. It can wear you down slowly, a little each day, because you have to work harder at the little things that everybody else seems to do with no effort at all.
And all of them are easily avoided with small changes to how we conduct ourselves personally and how we work with others in a school or office environment.
All too easy to discriminate
These experiences are part of what is called “ableism”. Like sexism, ableism makes gross generalisations about people: it is the assumption that every person has the same set of abilities and the same level of competency. The result is discrimination and prejudice against those with disabilities and those who may have a deficiency that is not classed as a disability (for example, when a person is literate in their first language, but largely illiterate in English or another second language).
Ableism can manifest in myriad ways, from the obvious (lack of wheelchair access to public buildings) to the hidden (important government information not presented in Plain English). Ableism can also be overtly harmful (the forced sterilisation of disabled women) or benign (the promotion of a disabled person’s success as “inspiration porn”).
Stella Young presenting “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much” at TEDxSydney
Ableism is one of those things that once you start noticing it in action, you never stop seeing it. With so many close friends and family who live with a disability it is something that I witness on a daily basis.
I see the anger and the frustration as they struggle with basic, daily tasks that fully-abled people do without thinking. Something as simple as making coffee was dangerous and time-consuming for my blind family member until the release of the Nespresso.
I see the shame and humiliation my friend feels when they ask for help walking down stairs because they have a limp and can easily lose their balance if there is no railing.
I see the confusion and helplessness when children (and adults) with executive functioning deficiency struggle to keep track of the day’s schedule and fall behind.
I’ve also felt my own grief when I had to choose a different vocation because my disability prevented me from pursuing a career in music. I was lucky that I had so many other options available to me – not everybody has that luxury.
You might be asking, “What does this have to do with web accessibility?”
And the answer? Everything.
Making the web accessible for everyone
I want people with a vision impairment to be able to ‘read’ an e-document as quickly and easily as I do.
I want people with executive functioning deficiency to be able to find information easily online because it is presented in a clear and logical manner.
I want people with a sensory processing disorder to be able to open a web page and not be overwhelmed by scrolling banners and auto-play videos.
I want those with mobility problems – like tremors or arthritis – to be able to navigate the web easily and with as little pain and frustration as possible.
I want those with English language difficulties (because it’s their second language, they have dyslexia, or are functionally illiterate) to not only find information that they can read or listen to, but to also understand it.
How can I not want those things? How can you not want those things? And how do we achieve it?
Luckily for you, we’ve already done the hard work of figuring out which guidelines are relevant to copywriters and those who write for the web.
We’ve put together a couple of videos — so we can talk you though them when you’re ready:
eAccessibility webinar Part1
eAccessibility webinar Part2
You can even download the Powerpoint presentation from the videos:
If you go to the Australian government’s website for the National Transition Strategy you will be greeted with pages of boring government-speak about:
“improved web services”
“the provision of information and services online”
“an important milestone for government”
Federal Government departments are required to make their websites comply with standards that make them accessible to people with disabilities. Here we introduce our new e-Accessibility training videos Part 1 and Part 2… and it’s on us.
“At The Copy Collective, we’ve noticed that many government websites don’t comply, as yet, with the guidelines in regards to copy,” CEO Dominique Antarakis said.
“We thought we’d help out by making free training available to everyone, so that the government didn’t have any excuses not to comply with its own policy. We also think that accessible websites are great for all businesses, not just government.”
The Copy Collective is a 5-person business based in Sydney. As part of the company’s Disability Discrimination Act Action Plan, they wanted a practical way to show that small changes could help everyone. The team thought they would start by helping the Federal Government comply with its own Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy.
Today, The Copy Collective announced the release of two training videos designed to assist copywriters and government departments to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). Federal government agencies are encouraged to meet the guidelines for their website content by December 2014.
“We’re not doing this because we want jobs rewriting Federal Government websites; although that would be nice,” Ms Antarakis said. “We’re doing it because we want to show that simple changes to copy can make a big difference to access.”
“The training we offer is in-depth and detailed. The presenter, Monica Seeber, is one of our freelancers from Perth. She is our resident accessibility expert. Having experience with disability in her own family, Monica is very committed to access and so are we.
“We’ve provided 2-hours of training, free of charge. We’d like the Government to make the videos compulsory viewing for all their comms and web teams.
“Making website copy accessible for all just makes good business sense,” Ms Antarakis said.
In two hours, the online e-accessibility training takes users through the principles of WCAG 2.0, how these principles will affect websites, and how to create content that meets WCAG 2.0 standards. The YouTube videos are fully captioned and there are downloadable PowerPoint and Text versions of the presentation slides available on Scribd.
Comply by December 2014
The Copy Collective supports governments, NFPs and businesses to comply with the WCAG 2.0. While the compliance imperative is important and it is great to ensure content is available and accessible for all, the steps to make sites accessible have the side benefit of also helping organisations with their search engine optimisation (SEO).
Providing this complimentary training is part of The Copy Collective’s commitment to an inclusive society under its Disability Discrimination Act Action Plan.
The Copy Collective encourages people to set aside the time to watch the training videos and understand how the WCAG 2.0 applies to organisations. Trainees will also get the resources and tools they need to make changes to their web copy .
The Copy Collective can be contacted for further support to make website copy accessible. Please note: you don’t need to book any work with The Copy Collective to enjoy the complimentary training!
About the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0)
The WCAG 2.0 guidelines were released in 2008 to implement user-friendly web content for people of all abilities.
The guidelines cover the full range of Web content that a user is likely to access — from images and graphs, to videos and podcasts, to the structure and design of each page. Each guideline has three levels of accessibility: A, AA and AAA. Level AAA is the highest level of accessibility.
Compliance with WCAG 2.0 is part of the digital inclusion framework referenced in the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy.
Here at The Copy Collective, we’re big fans of accessibility – in the ‘real’ world and the virtual. In this three-part series, Perth-based contributor Monica (@thebigmeeow) will introduce you to the basics of e-accessibility and how you can make your content user-friendly for all abilities. Here we introduce our new e-Accessibility training videos Part 1 and Part 2… and it’s on us.
First there was the word.
Then there was the Internet.
And when the word and the Internet got together, they made the World Wide Web.
The Internet is the physical network made up of computers and routers and phone lines and server farms and deep-sea cables. The World Wide Web is all the information that we access using the Internet. And the “word”? Well, that’s “01110111 01101111 01110010 01100100”.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is responsible for developing Web standards. Their mission “is to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure the long-term growth of the Web” (W3C Mission).
If the Web is an “information super-highway” then W3C is like the Department for Infrastructure: they write the guidelines and technical specifications for designing and building new roads and regional developments.
The Web standards cover all aspects of the Web:
- Web design and applications
- Web architecture
- Semantic Web
- XML technology
- Web of services
- Web of devices
- Browsers and authoring tools.
For most of us, we don’t know what any of that means – and we don’t really need to (if you would like to know more, the W3C Standards page covers each topic in greater detail). Web developers and graphic designers mediate most of our interaction with the Web; and all we have to worry about is the speed of our Internet connection.
“The power of the Web is in its universality.
Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect”.
Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web
Unfortunately, not all Web content is created equal – and not all content is available to everybody. For some people (especially people with a disability) they’re not just worrying about the speed of their Internet connection, they’re also thinking:
“Will this webpage trigger a seizure?”
“Can my screen-reader make sense of the text?”
“Does this video have captions or a transcript?”
“Is this information written in a language I can read?”
Within the Standards for Web design and applications, the W3C created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG10) were released in 1999, and were then revised and succeeded by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) in 2008.
There’s a lot of information in those guidelines. If you print them out, there’s about 34 pages of information. You can access the full WCAG 2.0 for free on the W3C webpage.
WCAG 2.0 covers the full range of Web content that a user is likely to access on Web pages, from images and graphs, to videos and podcasts, to the structure and design of the pages themselves.
WCAG 2.0 structure
WCAG 2.0 is structured around four broad principles (also known as pillars):
- Perceivable: Web pages and content must be presented to users in ways they can perceive.
- Operable: Web pages and navigation must be operable.
- Understandable: Web content and the operation of Web pages much be understandable.
- Robust: Web content and pages much be interpreted reliably by a range of users, hardware, and software – including assistive technologies.
These four principles are then broken down into 12 guidelines:
- Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.
- Provide alternatives for time-based media.
- Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
- Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.
- Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Provide users enough time to read and use content.
- Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
- Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.
- Make text content readable and understandable.
- Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
- Maximise compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.
Those 12 guidelines are broken down further into 61 “success criteria”. That’s a lot of criteria!
Now before you all panic…
Luckily for you, we’ve already done the hard work of figuring out which guidelines are relevant to copywriters. We’ve even put together a couple of videos — so we can talk you though them when you’re ready:
eAccessibility webinar Part1
eAccessibility webinar Part2
You can even download the Powerpoint presentation from the videos.
Join me for my next Blog – Part 2 of Accessibility is Everywhere – where I introduce the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy and share useful things for making your web content accessible.
Today marks the launch of Attitude Foundation Limited a pioneering storytelling initiative, which will change attitudes towards the 4 million + Australians with disability
“Disability is viewed by many in Australia in a limiting and negative way. What this foundation seeks to do is change this attitude. Changing attitudes will change lives.”
Graeme Innes, chair, Attitude Foundation Limited
“I think documentaries are the greatest way to educate an entire generation.”
Steven Spielberg, filmmaker
Sydney, Australia: As its first step in changing attitudes, Attitude Foundation is partnering with award-winning production company Attitude Pictures to deliver powerful documentaries about people with disability for ABC television.
“As a person with a disability and having been the Disability Discrimination Commissioner for eight and a half years, I know the power of telling compelling stories about disability,” Mr Innes said.
Attitude is calling on the corporate sector, disability organisations and supporters from within the Australian community to join with us to remove the barriers around disability.
Attitude will raise $200,000 by September to fund the first of these television productions. The documentaries are compelling stories told with insight and understanding.
“When the Human Rights Commission produced the video series 20 Years 20 Stories it was very apparent that they had a profound impact on people’s lives – we heard that all around the country.
“One young woman with an intellectual disability turned to her mother after having attended the launch in the ACT and said: ‘I’m moving out’. Nothing conveys a message like video, and I can’t wait to see these Attitude-sponsored films screened on ABC TV,” Mr Innes said.
These stories show the benefits gained by full inclusion of people with disabilities into every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.
“We will not portray people with disabilities as victims or heroes but as agents of our own destiny,” Mr Innes said.
Attitude Pictures CEO Robyn Scott-Vincent said: “I am so proud to be part of this wonderful organisation. Attitude Foundation is launching in Australia for all the right reasons and has an amazingly talented board.
Members of Attitude Foundation Limited board are:
- Graeme Innes AM, chair, Attitude Foundation Limited
- Dominique Antarakis, CEO, The Copy Collective
- Cain Beckett, Director, PwC
- Lesley Branagan, Film maker and digital producer
- Jane Seeber, Chartered accountant
- Robyn Scott-Vincent, CEO Attitude Group NZ
- Tanya Black, Producer, Attitude Pictures NZ
Please contact Graeme Innes on +61 412 369 963 for more information and interview opportunities.
Pictures and biographies of the board members can be sourced from email@example.com
Attitude Foundation Limited is proudly sponsored by Gilbert + Tobin, Attitude Group Ltd New Zealand, Graeme Innes AM and The Copy Collective.
Frozen charts feminist territory and a glimmer of a more enlightened view of people with disabilities for Disney writes Maureen Shelley.
Despite the singing (I lost it when the snowman started warbling a ballad to summertime), Frozen is a stand out in the Disney movie archives. The plot – loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen – has two beautiful young princesses face the requisite number of obstacles before they discover the meaning of true love. So far, so Disney. What’s different is that true love IS true love, the sisters are agents of their own destiny, the issue of disability is taken out and examined implicitly in a shockingly different way for Disney (more on that later) and the plot is intricate, complex and engaging.
For Disney true love has been, until this century, what we in the real world call infatuation or lust. In Frozen, true love turns out to be the love that two people have for each other and is based on years of relationship, shared memories, selflessness and self –sacrifice. It is based on more than a few hours of acquaintanceship or a single kiss. So not Disney. Further, one of the beautiful princesses falls for a bad boy who is prepared to kill her and her sister to win a kingdom for himself. The princess sees the bad boy for what he is and doesn’t fall in love on the rebound. Disney, it seems, has lost the plots on which it has relied for about 90 years.
Yes, these two princesses are beautiful, size 6, talented (singers at least) and privileged. Yet, in Frozen the young women get to do the rescuing as well as being rescued. They
get to make decisions for themselves and implement them. They order people about and have their orders followed (I think that’s the princess bit but it’s a start). These women do more than stand around singing. Although the animators at Disney still have foot-in-mouth disease where women are concerned (it’s hard to animate them, make them do things and keep them “pretty” said one), at least Frozen sheds a glimmer of light on the equality of the sexes in Disney. It doesn’t stretch to the women being plain, ordinary, lacking in privilege or, you know, with a job or anything but it is progress.
Frozen was shown in the session we attended with Get A Horse – a short cartoon based on old footage, reworked for the digital age. The villain in Get A Horse is Peg-Leg Pete. Pete’s name is a dead giveaway – he’s a person with a disability. He’s the only person with a disability in the cartoon and he’s the villain. He’s a pretty nasty character and he has Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt himself) to contend with, so there are no prizes for guessing who wins the day. Mickey ensures that Peg-Leg Pete, who is a would-be thief, is repeatedly injured by taking advantage of his clumsiness that results from him only having one leg. Now, apart from the unsympathetic treatment of Pete, Get A Horse is a nasty little story, so we won’t dwell on it. However, it does show Disney’s (sometimes very unsympathetic) treatment of characters with disabilities. Disney has depicted a range of characters with disabilities in Princess films over the years, namely:
- Seven men of short stature in Snow White (achondroplasia or dwarfism is a recognised disability)
- Ariel in Little Mermaid (at times she can’t walk and at others she can’t talk)
- Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (she’s in a coma for much of the film and may have brain injury)
- The Beast in Beauty and the Beast has a debilitating disease that causes dysmorphism or physical malformations
- Pocahontas believes she can talk to animals, commune with spirits and understand unknown languages, which makes her a savant, possibly on the autism spectrum or she may be delusional
- Cross-dressing Mulan is very clumsy and may be living with ataxia, a movement disability
- Tiana in The Frog and The Princess believes she turns into an animal. This may be psychiatric therianthropy or delusions associated with schizophrenia.
- Rapunzel in Tangled clearly had a form of polycystic ovarian syndrome that resulted in excessive hair growth
- Merida’s mother Elinor from Tangled and her brothers Harris, Hubert and Hamish all turn into bears – a similar dilemma to Tiana in The Frog and The Princess. These may be just delusions created by drug abuse but they also may be symptoms of mental illness.
These disabilities are usually “inflicted” on the characters by a “wicked witch” or a “curse” and are often resolved (cured) at the end of the film by true love (a different form of magic).Yet it is in Frozen that we see Elsa, the character with a disability that is both a “power” and a “curse”, as being the subject of two very different treatments as a result of her condition.
Elsa has a condition that makes things she touches become frozen, which can be a good thing – she can create ice castles in the air – and causes problems (she accidentally puts ice into her sister’s brain).
Her parents’ response is to lock her away, to not let anyone see her, to have her learn to control her emotions and to be a “good girl”. She and her family become very isolated.
It reminded me of how families with children with disabilities would put them in institutions, send them to special schools (we don’t see how Elsa was schooled) and generally cut them off from mainstream society. Both Elsa and her sister, Anna, suffer loneliness as a result of Elsa’s isolation – much in the way that families with members who had a disability did in the past.
Elsa runs away to the mountains and embraces her condition and the power it gives her. Interestingly, when she does so, she becomes much more womanly. She sheds her “good girl” clothes and walks with a wiggle; she creates a beautiful palace and becomes more queen-like. However, she is even more isolated than when she was shut in a room by her parents. In her room she could talk through the door to her sister or the servants. In the ice palace, she is alone except for the snowman and a Yeti-like beast that she creates. Clearly, in the Disney cosmos, disability is a reason to isolate people in the most extreme way. Anna, when she learns of Elsa’s “power” (curse) wants to investigate what can be done, she wants the condition out in the open and she wants to use relationship to address it. It seems odd to me that Elsa’s parents don’t ever try to get help for her to learn to control her emotions (psychiatric treatment) so that she can manage her condition. They seek advice from a troll when she is a child but no further intervention is sought until she comes of age.
The intersection of sexuality and disability in Elsa’s life is like a double threat and echoes the experience of many women with a disability. The disability may be tolerated when they are children but when they become women the disability needs to be dealt with more strictly. In extreme situations (in real life) this has resulted in many women with intellectual disability being sterilised. In Elsa’s case, she has to run away to become a woman but is seen by some as a “monster”.
Anna works to get Elsa to return to the city so that it can be removed from the permanent winter she accidently created by letting her emotions loose. By Anna’s self-sacrifice – she takes an injury meant to kill Elsa – Elsa’s heart melts and she is now able to control her condition. She uses it to create beauty. Through the self-sacrificing love of her sister, Elsa is able re-join society, live in the city and be crowned queen. She is no longer isolated, her condition is known to everyone and the people are indulgent of her and proud of the way she uses her power to create beauty.
However, Elsa doesn’t win the ultimate Disney prize that of a relationship with a man. Maybe, that is a stretch too far for even this new 21st century, Pixar-driven Disney universe.