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Disability, Disney, and Representation

Updated: May 26, 2020

Disability is a word that is often included as an afterthought in conversations of diversity, social justice, or most other discussions of human differences. In fact, if you look at the diversity statements created by organizations or institutions of higher education, it would be uncommon for any reference to persons with disabilities. The overall lack of inclusivity of people with disabilities has been so lacking that in 2015, the United Nations declared disability-inclusive development as an essential component of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Now, what does that have to do with Disney? Well, from an inclusivity standpoint, everything. The majority of justice, and by extension, requests for social justice, have had a heavy emphasis on the “morally proper distribution of benefits and burdens among society’s members” (Young, 1990, p. 15). Legislation and programs for people with disabilities traditionally target distributive justice (for example: the Americans with Disabilities Act, Social Security programs, Medicare, and many others). It is well known that existing social programs specifically attempt to incentivize work for people with disabilities, but more often actually work in opposition to the goal of independence. It has been suggested by many (and theorized by Kosciulek in the Consumer-Directed Theory of Empowerment, 1999) that inadequate laws and programming are a result of a lack of recognitional justice. In other words, legislation, media, policies, treatments, and most other things that have been developed with the intention of helping people with disabilities, have been developed without the input of people with disabilities. What this results in are shortcomings that someone without a disability would not have been able to anticipate. Further, it results in oftentimes [unintended] but offensive and problematic representations of what can be identified as disability characteristics.

Now, the good stuff: Disney. Specifically, Disney princess movies. There have been many commentaries on the Princesses and their representation of diversity (or lack thereof), the female body, and traditional damsel-in-distress tropes. Here, a new commentary on the representation of disability in these films. While the word disability is not used in these films, it is certainly present and represented as evil in almost every instance.

  1. Beauty and the Beast: Belle is the quirky bookworm (see also, my favorite princess). The Beast, on the other hand, is a former prince, cursed to look like a beast, which is supposed to make him unlovable (“for who could ever love a beast?”). There are countless disabilities which manifest in an alteration of someone’s physical appearance. While Belle ultimately falls in love with the Beast in his beast form, the fact that he is supposed to be unlovable is underscored by the emphasis on how Belle is different from the others in the village (“I’m afraid she’s rather odd”). In short: no one in the mainstream could have or would have loved the Beast.

  2. The Little Mermaid: For starters, I think we can all agree that Ariel does not have her priorities in order. Ariel makes a deal with the evil Ursula (whose representation was actually based on a drag queen) to give up her voice in order to gain human legs so that she can meet Prince Eric. Setting aside the falling in love with someone with whom you’ve never spoken and subsequently giving up your voice to meet him, Ariel fumbles through attempted communication with him while in her human form. Sure, the plot needs to keep moving but WHAT ABOUT SIGN LANGUAGE? Or the written word! Millions of people successfully navigate the world without access to ‘traditional’ communication. Again we see characteristics that are disability adjacent falling into a category where the character has to question if they can be loved as a result of these characteristics.

  3. Snow White & Sleeping Beauty: These are two of the more problematic princesses in the group from a feminist perspective, and upon further inspection, possibly from a disability frame as well. 

Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) is actually only present in her namesake film for 30 minutes. Given that Aurora is asleep for most of the film, it is hard to ascertain what specific characteristics she has, but based on the way her fairy godmothers make all of the decisions in the film, we can surmise that Aurora is not her own guardian. This may mean that we are to believe that Aurora cannot care for herself; a concept that is underscored by her ultimately being cursed after she is tricked into pricking her finger on the spinning wheel by Maleficent. The issue here is not explicitly disability characteristics, rather the issue of guardianship and persistent treatment of individuals who have guardians as though they are much younger than they actually are. Guardianship decisions often occur prior to high school graduation, and once that decision is made, it is an arduous and often unsuccessful experience to remove the guardianship mandate.

Snow White, on the other hand, has a number of characteristics indicative of an anxiety disorder; most likely Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) due to her insistence on tidying up constantly and persevering on cleanliness. She is represented as only being beautiful, and having a penchant for cleaning. Amid Snow White’s despair and the evil Queen’s attempts to have her killed, somewhere along the line, a prince who has never spoken to her falls in love with her, kisses her, and breaks the curse.

The issue of consent is relevant for both Snow White and Aurora, given that both women are unconscious when their “true love” comes and kisses them. Women with disabilities, and especially those with developmental disabilities, are significantly more likely to be sexually assaulted when compared with most other groups (Disability Justice, 2019; Shapiro, 2018). 

In addition to the myriad issues with the representation of women in these beloved films, it is worth considering an additional perspective, and one which is often overlooked. When looking through a disability-lens, the issues represented by these characters and plot lines take on new meaning; a meaning that an ableist society would likely not acknowledge or even realize. Not to mention that none of the princesses or any other character in the Disney universe is represented as using a wheelchair, a guide dog, or any other representations of disability that we see everyday. As counselors, it is important that we realize the undercurrent of bias that is embedded in everything we consume. Until there is better representation in positions of power and decision making, individuals in groups considered to be ‘less than’, or atypical, will be hurt by inadequate and inappropriate representations.


Disability Justice (2019). Sexual Assault. Retrieved from:

Fraser, N. (1995). From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a 'post-socialist' age. New left review, 68-68.

Kosciulek, J. F. (1999). The consumer-directed theory of empowerment. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 42(3), 196-213.

Power, S. (2012). Redistribution recognition and representation: Conceiving a path to fight social injustice and changes in education policy. Education Et Sociétés, 29(1), 27-44.

Shapiro, J. (2018). The sexual assault epidemic no one talks about. Retrieved from:

Young, I. (1990). Displacing the distributive paradigm. In I. M. Young (Ed.), Justice and the politics of difference (pp. 15–38). New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Originally posted 8/19/19

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