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Disney, Dory, And Disabilities

I found something very interesting when I watched Dory for the first time. As the mother of a disabled child, I'm still not sure what to think of Disney's Dory after what I witnessed.

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Finding What..?

Most of us have seen the hit kids movie Finding Nemo, where Marlin the clownfish goes on an epic journey across the ocean to find his son Nemo with a little assistance from a quarky character named Dory. In Finding Nemo we discover that Dory has short-term memory loss which mostly only plays a role as comic relief. Basically, her memory failures get her and Marlin into various sticky situations, and her accidental cunning always gets them out.

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New Dory...SPOILERS!

In Finding Dory we are introduced to Dory as a small child learning from her parents about her short term memory loss. As Dory struggles to communicate properly, her parents show patience and understanding, while at the same time regularly exchanging looks of confusion and dismay that their child cannot perceive.

Immediately after Dory is separated from her parents at a very young age. Without the ability to remember, Dory has to rely on various strangers throughout her life. We watch Dory grow from a child to an adult struggling with her disability, not fitting in anywhere, and having difficulty finding a purpose or place in life.

It's not until Dory meets Marlin that she has a companion for more than the span of her short term memory. Unfortunately, Marlin is not understanding of Dory's disability at all. He is often annoyed, exasperated, and cruel to Dory when her disability becomes too much for him to handle. Nemo is more understanding, but as a child, still sees Dory's ticks as funny instead of annoying.

The Scene That Did It

I wasn't looking for anything to complain about when I put Finding Dory on for my son. To be honest I had been trying to get him to recognize the character for months before the movie was available for us to watch in the hopes that he would find a new movie he enjoys.

There is a particular scene nine minutes into the movie that vividly displays common treatment of people with disabilities, and experience I had myself that had real life consequences.


At nine minutes in, Marlin and Dory are escorting Nemo to school. When they get there Dory is excited to go on a field trip with the class, we are drawn to the conclusion that she has been spending her days with them when Mr. Ray mentions something to Marlin that makes him pull Dory aside. Marlin tries to explain to Dory that her memory loss causes her to wander and disrupt the class, that Mr. Ray doesn't have enough help to keep her in the class. Dory of course misunderstands and proceeds to act as an assistant where she makes a fool of herself as everyone laughs, she remains oblivious.

My experience was similar. I was a student at my local community college and a single mother, my son, Logan had been in daycare from the time he was six months old until he turned three. After a our summer vacation I stated school again and the first semester was fine. As Logan got older, his autism became more noticeable. He didn't give attention to group tasks, he began getting upset if his routines were disturbed, and he could become difficult when he couldn't express himself verbally. All things I believe most people expect from any three year old. Unfortunately for Logan, the daycare he attended was a part of a corporation, and their concern for the liability of the possibility of accidents with a disabled child determined that my son could no longer attend their daycare without an aide.

Every other daycare I went to said the same thing. I connected with Easter Seals, an organization that focuses on the development of children with disabilities. They too were unable to connect me with an aide that could attend daycare with my son. As I tried to balance school and not having daycare, I was quickly running out of options for someone to watch him. Finally, I was told by Easter Seals that he was old enough to begin taking pre-pre-school at the local public elementary school.

I enrolled Logan in a small class with six students and two teachers, and I had to drop all of my college classes. The hours for Logan's education were 8AM-11AM. There were no other options at the time in the area that I live in, and I know that Logan and I are not the only victims of a system that sees someone with a disability and sees them as a problem or someone who should be avoided.

In a lot of ways I feel like Finding Dory really emphasizes these points for me, but I don't believe it was intentional. I don't think this film made any statements about being disabled or about how society should be working to accept members that require additional assistance instead of trying to make them "fit in".

Autism statistics are 1 in 42 for boys and 1 in 189 for girls, with numbers like these there should be schools for children with autism, there should be daycares for children with autism, there should be parks and toys and futures for children with autism. My son will grow and he will want to contribute to society, but how can he thrive in a society that ignores what makes him different. A society that tries to make him the same, in a world where everyone is trying so hard to stand out. Only when the ideas about disabilities change; whether it's autism, down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, will we truly have a place that every person can call home.

We are all different, and there in an established system in place for people who fit in the norm, but without an option for people who don't how do we truly know where any of us belong?

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