Interrogating Representations of Disability in Disney: “Part of Your World” & The Lion King

Last year, I led my students through a “Disability in America” module that asked them to critically analyze representations of disability in media (ads, PSAs, film clips) and in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. What I liked about this module was that in addition to building students’ media literacy and critical thinking skills, it asked students to reconsider what it means to be disabled, and it worked to challenge some of their ideas about  disabilities: That disabilities are always visible; that people with disabilities should be pitied; that they’re a burden.

One activity that we did in class asked students to re-watch and analyze a few Disney clips from a disability lens.

Graphic organizer: Part of Your World

During the in-class discussion, some students also observed an irony in The Little Mermaid: Ariel bemoans the fact that she lacks the “ability” to walk but then takes for granted the fact that she can move through her environment in a three-dimensional fashion (see: vertical backflips — something that can’t be done by mere bipedal, abled humans).

If I were to do this lesson again, I would ask students to use this graphic organizer to form a claim about the representation of disability in The Little Mermaid (Forming EBC).

Questions to ask: How are disabilities represented (Comical? Scary? Sad?) What characters have disabilities (are they ‘good’ or ‘evil’?) What are some physical qualities of good/evil characters? What messages do these clips send about disabilities?

Additional possible object of analysis:

Remember, the point of these exercises is not to cast a moral judgment on various texts, but rather to help students flex their critical thinking muscles. Students need practice in “across the grain” readings, and should be able to interrogate texts from a variety of angles. This kind of exercise also gets students in the habit of thinking more deeply about media they encounter in their everyday lives.

Additional Resources

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