We all have our favorite Disney characters. Princes and princesses, heroes and heroines, sidekicks and villains, but there is more to many of our favorite animated personalities than meets the eye. Several characters have unexpected disabilities whether they are physical drawbacks or mental illnesses. These characters present a new way of looking at disability as the audience learns how they use their quirks and impairments to overcome great challenges.
Check out the below list of Disney characters who turned being different into a superpower.
The 7 Dwarfs
Chip, the lovable son of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast is far from a superhero at the beginning of the film. The Enchantress’ spell transformed the once disabled boy who walked with a crutch into a chipped tea cup. Children, in 18th Century France, much like Chip’s character were particularly susceptible to disease and disability. In fact, almost 1 in 3 infants died of infectious disease and many children experienced disability and “crowd illnesses” like typhus and tuberculosis that were rampant throughout Europe.
While Chip is the smaller of the teacups and the only one who is different from his brothers and sisters that we meet when they are put to sleep in the cupboard, his chip does not stop him from becoming the hero. Out of all the characters who do not have flaws, chip is the one who uses his disability to eventually help Belle escape. His small size allows him to easily jump into Belle’s bag when she goes to find her father as he risks further cracking his already fragile cup.
Chip proves that even the smallest or most fragile of us can make a difference, no matter if we have a visible chip or not.
Tiny Tim is perhaps the most charming of characters from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This classic Christmas book sold over 6,000 copies when it was first released, no doubt in part to its memorable characters and the messages they bring the reader. The Disney adaptation of the story is one of many. We all remember him as the ragamuffin little boy with leg braces and a crutch likely due to diseases that were typical of the time period in London like rickets, often caused by a Vitamin D deficiency or tuberculosis.
What makes Tiny Tim remarkable is his ability to share the Christmas spirit and make others believe in the magic of the season despite the pain and illness he faces. Tiny Tim’s positive outlook on life becomes his superpower when he encourages Scrooge to have a change of heart. No matter how miserable your situation may be, Tim teaches the audience that there is always something positive your life can bring to others as he exclaims his famous phrase during the Christmas dinner blessing, “God Bless Us Everyone!”
Energetic, animated, adventurous, and bouncy are just some of the traits that best describe Winnie the Pooh’s sidekick Tigger. As he often says himself, “bouncing is what Tiggers do best!” His endless supply of energy goes beyond an energetic personality and often gets Tigger into unexpected trouble. In fact, Tigger often displays signs of ADHD which is characterized by difficulty focusing, inattention, impulsivity, and memory issues.
Tigger does not let his hyperactivity or inattention hinder his love for life. In fact, it is Tigger’s ADHD, or rather his energy and adventurous spirit that helped him build a loyal friendship with Pooh and allowed audiences to fall in love with his character even if he impulsively climbs up trees only to get stuck at the top.
As the protagonist of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo’s kind heart struggles to shine through his physical disability. He suffers from deformations including a rounded back which is likely due to scoliosis often resulting in severe spinal curvature and kyphosis causing a bending forward of the head. If a spinal curve progresses, it can result in a disfiguring deformity like Quasimodo’s. He is subjected to ridicule, seclusion, and societal rejection due to his disability and physical appearance.
Quasimodo’s strength and kind heart is what helps him overcome his disability at the end of the movie. Locked in a tower for many years, he always longed to be free. Quasimodo’s bravery proves to be stronger than the pressure to remain secluded due to his physical disability as he rescues Esmeralda before she is put to death and hailed a hero by the townspeople who once publicly ridiculed him.
Perhaps one of the most notorious Disney villains, Captain Hook, is not a character you would typically think of as disabled, as he wields his hook to protect himself from the crocodile who took his hand. Hook prostheses, like the one that Captain Hook wears, and peg legs were thought to originate during the Dark Ages.
Today, hook hands powered by one’s body are the most popular upper extremity prostheses because they are reliable, durable, and low in cost.
While not having a hand limits his normal mobility, Captain Hook leverages his disability by turning his hook into his greatest weapon in his battles.
The 7 Dwarfs
Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey – we all have our favorite dwarf from Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs. While 7 Dwarfs suffer from short stature, they each have an endearing quirk that allow them to quickly befriend Snow White and ultimately help reunite her with her Prince. Little People of America, the United States’ largest national organization for people with dwarfism and their families, defines dwarfism as an adult height of 4 feet 10 inches or under, as a result of a medical or genetic condition.
The 7 Dwarfs live together in the middle of the woods, isolated from mainstream society when they find Snow White sleeping. The 7 Dwarfs welcome Snow White into their home certain they will keep her safe from the Evil Queen. Despite any shortcomings they may face due to their dwarfism, the 7 Dwarfs discover their superpower in working as a team. Together they take down the Evil Queen and protect Snow White until her Prince kisses her to break the spell.
Ariel dreamily sings about life on land “up where they walk, up where they run, up where they play all day in the sun” and wishes to be “part of that world.” When she meets handsome Prince Eric, she trades in her voice to the evil Ursula in exchange for real legs instead of her mermaid fin.
Ariel’s disabilities begin as she become human – the inability to walk due when she gets her new legs and the inability to talk to her new prince. When Ariel first becomes human, she is thought to have “sea legs” or Mal de Debarquement, imbalance caused by being on a ship and a speech disorder leaving her unable to talk after Ursula steals her voice.
At the end of the film, Ariel’s superpower is her true self. She decides that becoming something she is not is not how she wants to live her life and teaches the audience to accept our bodies just as we are, disabled or not. Ariel reclaims her body and steals her voice back from Ursula transforming her back into a mermaid with no legs as she lets her true self be known to her prince.
When the audience first meets Nemo, we learn that his egg was the sole survivor of a barracuda attack on the nest in a coral reef which destroyed his siblings and his mom. Nemo’s egg was scratched, leaving him with one small, fin which his dad calls his “lucky” fin. Even though Nemo looks different from the other clown fish which are recognizable by their bright orange color and 3 white stripes, it is this “lucky” fin that allows Nemo to discover his inner superman when he finds himself whisked from his home in the ocean to a fish tank in a dentist office. There, Nemo meets Gil and discovers that he, too is different and has a torn fin.
Nemo and Disability
Gil and Nemo don’t let their disabilities hinder their goals. When Gil advises Nemo that “a bad fin never stopped me,” he instills the bravery that Nemo needs to jam the fish tank tube with a pebble so they can swim to freedom.
Thanks to Nemo’s short fin, he found the bravery inside of himself to escape from the fish tank, free his friends, and teach us to “just keep swimming.”
A classic Disney character, Dumbo’s large ears made him noticeably different than the other elephants turning him from a circus performer into a circus freak. While elephants use their ears to radiate heat to help keep them cool and to visually communicate, Dumbo’s large ears resulted in ridicule, teasing, and bullying.
Dumbo overcomes feeling like an outcast by discovering that his ears which make him different and disable him from being a successful performer, allow him to discover his superpower: the ability to fly!
He is introduced to a magic feather that allows Dumbo to take flight, but when he loses the crutch of the feather, he discovers the ability to be great lies within himself as he takes flight throughout the circus becoming the star attraction.
Princess Elsa was born different. She wasn’t like other little girls. Elsa grew up in a Scandinavian kingdom where temperatures can reach below 40 degrees in places like Norway and Iceland. Her ability to shoot magic from her hands and turn her environment to ice and snow in the matter of seconds scared her parents. Elsa was destined to become queen one day and they were afraid of letting her true self known to the public. Elsa’s disability was something to be concealed as much as possible, resulting in years of isolation and only going out in public with gloves on her hands so no one would know about her difference.
In the end, it is love that becomes Elsa’s superpower. Her love for her sister allows her to make the decision to come out of isolation and warm her sister’s heart which eventually melts the frozen kingdom and helps Elsa learn that love can overcome all disability.
Who is your favorite Disney character? What is it about how they use their difference as their superpower that you admire? Share in the comments, below!
WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on October 12, 2015:
hi denise.w.Anderson - I love Nemo, too! His has such a courageous spirit!
Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on October 12, 2015:
I love the movie Finding Nemo. Nemo's courage to do what he knows is right and save Dori helps his father recognize that not all risks are bad. Together, they are able to turn around the fear that had crippled them in the past. It reminds us that emotional disabilities can be even more devastating than physical ones.
WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on October 09, 2015:
hey Chantelle Porter - thanks for your comment! Interesting thought about Merida! It seems like all of the characters have something they eventually overcome in the end. Thanks for sharing :)
Chantelle Porter from Ann Arbor on October 09, 2015:
Fellow Disney fan - Hello! Trying to choose your favorite character is like trying to choose your favorite child. It's simply not possible. Do you think Merida's "disability" was being a girl? I guess it doesn't matter because she prevailed in the end. Great article.
I shared with my Disney group on google+