Disabilities and Dory: How We Can Swim Together

EJ & I love Dory!

EJ & I love Dory!

Disney Pixar’s Finding Dory is a colorful, heartbreaking, and humorous story that offers a window into a successful life of someone with an invisible disability. Dory’s disability is short-term memory loss and Dory rocks being Dory! Finally the leading character in a mainstream movie is smart, funny, capable, talented, and disabled! Thank you, Disney Pixar, for breaking from the traditional mold of characters with disabilities being portrayed as the ogre, villain, victim, or leader of the pity-party. I celebrate the lessons and learning of Dory.

“My name is Dory. I have short term memory loss,” recites and repeats baby Dory for her parents. Dory’s parents teach Dory to self-identify and disclose having a disability so she will be able to reach out and ask for help from others. By introducing herself in this way, those whom Dory meets are better able to understand Dory’s situation, and how and why Dory thinks and acts in her own, individual, particular way. Finding Dory is full of complex characters that have both invisible and visible disabilities, as is true of people in every corner of society. When audiences watch Dory they can see themselves and learn from the behaviors of the fish in the story.

I’m the founder of the Prospector Theater, a non-profit movie theater in Ridgefield, CT. Our mission is to employ adults with disabilities through the operation of a premium four-screen first-run movie theater. Our theater was built to solve a problem: 80% of adults with disabilities in the United States are unemployed. Out of 103 employees at the theater, 70% self-identify with a disability. Our employees, all known as Prospects, work together in a fully competitive and integrated work setting. Watching Dory’s parents make up games, songs, and role-play scenarios with Dory mirrors the work we do at the Prospector Theater. We make creative adaptations that allow people with disabilities to work, and sparkle! 

Many people are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or confused with how to interact with people who have not only visible, but also invisible disabilities, such as traumatic brain injuries, short term memory loss, PTSD, autism, mental illness, hearing and vision impairments, etc. The Prospector’s mission is to educate and empower individuals with disabilities through employment and training.  In so doing, we are educating employees and patrons alike about how to interact, teach, learn, work together, and view one another differently. We are cultivating, creatively teaching, and constantly reinforcing the transferrable and meaningful skills and on-the-job training that each and every Prospect receives. 

Dory’s parents are loving and supportive, encouraging Dory to trust herself and her instincts, and to never be embarrassed, ashamed, or apologetic for her memory loss. After forgetting, Dory says, “I’m sorry.”  Her mother responds, “You don’t need to be sorry, just keep swimming.” In the ocean – as in life – there is no time to blame a disability or feel sorry for yourself; we must keep moving forward. By singing “just keep swimming” in a song with a catchy tune, Dory’s mother helps this message be stored in a section of Dory’s brain not affected by memory loss and she is able to carry the song with her in her head, played by an internal DJ. Making up and singing songs is a great strategy for use with people with disabilities. I have an early memory of teaching my younger sister with Down syndrome how to spell our last name by using a song.  I still carry the tune as if I heard the song this morning. 

The use of individualized learning and strategies for the success of individuals with disabilities is a key to our success at the theater, and is well represented throughout Finding Dory. Dory’s parents invent songs, make up games and mnemonic devices, and customize Dory’s learning from the very beginning of her life. This “outside of the tank” thinking sets Dory up for success, and grants her the opportunity to have an equal chance in her choice of endeavors. Dory’s life learning and lessons are all centered on the goal of teaching Dory how to get home. The learned process of making associations is how Dory uses the shells to find home. Every game has a learning objective, whether she realizes it or not. Her parents were champions of her curriculum of life and they got measurable results; Dory found her way back.  Dory was given the tools and confidence she needed to build self-reliance, confidence, and faith in her own inner voice and ability.

Dory’s parents never gave up on the belief that Dory would find her way back home, and she proved that hard work pays off. Throughout the movie, Dory actualizes her dreams and goals. Rather than giving up, Dory instead uses the tools that her parents imparted to her, and succeeds as the hero of the story.  This wasn’t easy, but then again…what dreams and goals are? The beauty of this movie is in the struggle. After seeing the successes of our Prospects and theater, many people ask us how exactly do we do it.  Like in the movie, Dory finds her way back home thanks to years of hard work.  There is no magical intervention; no superhero swoops in to save the day. Dory is successful as a result of the hard work, sacrifice, and strong foundation she and her parents built and reinforced.

When people see only disability and not the individual before them, often the good, the smart, and the genius in the diversity of thought is lost. Once we begin to celebrate that there are different ways of thinking and solving problems, we build stronger relationships, communities, and workplaces. I have found that people need to be taught and educated about how to talk to, work with, and actively engage with people with disabilities. We see this problem mirrored in the waters of Dory when you notice the other fishes’ interactions with a lost and scared Dory. Fish reacting to Dory’s pleas for help are filled with confusion, sympathy, pity, indifference, avoiding, horror, and in one scene a fish shields her baby fish from Dory as they speed past her.

Everyone in life want to be included in the community and workforce, as the Finding Dory fish want to swim in the open ocean; no one wants to live in a glass box in Cleveland. People with disabilities are important, talented, valuable members of society. People with and without disabilities need to make room and effort to swim together– not because it’s nice to include people with disabilities, but because we are all richer when we do. Marlin has a transformation when he recognizes that Dory’s mindful way of thinking has had spectacular results, “outsmarting sharks, jumping jellyfish, and finding Nemo,” and when he asks himself “what would Dory do,” he is able to escape a glass tank he was confined in, something he was not able to do using his analytical thought process. Neurodiverse thinkers are creative problem solvers and innovators.  Once people are able to lose the false negative beliefs that people with disabilities are broken, lesser or damaged, we can build on the positives and bring out the sparkle in others and ourselves.

Accepting “no,” “can’t,” or “impossible” is accepting a life in the shallow end. Every individual is unique and different; the games, mechanisms, learning methods, accommodations, and strategies that work for one person are not a guarantee for success with another. For this reason, the Prospector has established operating procedures to document real examples of what has (and what has not) worked, and with that, we adapt our own thinking to help others and ourselves. We celebrate and support each individual in a way that is age, ability and environment appropriate, and unique to each situation.  And we keep swimming together.  We can all learn a lot from watching Finding Dory (preferably at the Prospector Theater), and when we are faced with conflict, we can ask ourselves “what would Dory do?”