Closing Down “Islands of Misfit People”: Let’s Give People with Disabilities More than One Dimension

Hello, readers,

I hope everyone has had a restful, joyous Christmas and Hanukkah, and that those celebrating Kwanzaa are thoroughly enjoying themselves today as well. I realize most of us are busy admiring and experimenting with new possessions, figuring out what on earth to do with those leftovers, and jogging off days of cookies, truffles, cakes, and pies. But if you decided to drop by for a visit, or will later, here’s a new post for you. I meant to get it out before Christmas, but you know what they say about good intentions.

One of my favorite parts of Christmas involves nostalgia–the ornaments I made as a kid or bought over the years, the cookie recipes my mom breaks out every year, the annual church Christmas play, and of course, holiday flicks and TV specials. You probably noticed a nod to one of these in the title–the 1960s version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (Classic with a capital C). And you probably know where it comes from. About 2/3 of the way through the film, Rudolph, Hermie, and Yukon Cornelius end up on the Island of Misfit Toys, ruled by King Moonracer, a winged lion. (I suppose he counts as a misfit toy himself, though the winged lion could be a nod to mythology of some sort–though five-year-olds aren’t likely to get that). Now, as a kid, this went over my head, but it occurs to me now: those toys weren’t “misfits” so much as they had only one thing different about them. But the problem was, that one thing often turned them into versions of, well, one-trick ponies.

For those who need a refresher course, and in order to give an explanation, think about it:

  • A water pistol that shoots jelly. On the one hand, that’s actually a pretty neat trick. I mean, how surprising would it be to your water war opponents if they ended up soaked in Smucker’s Raspberry? Victory assured. But on the other hand, it’s highly unlikely, because of that “misfit” trait, that a child would think to ATTEMPT to use water, or something else.
  • A toy train with square wheels. I admit, that could be tough to play with. But with the right surface, it could work. Yet, who’s going to think of that? More to the point, who’s going to think that train could do much more than sit on a shelf?
  • A jack-in-the-box named Charlie. This one, I still can’t figure out. I mean, who says a jack-in-the-box can only go by one name, anyway? (How about a female named Jane or Jenny or Jacqueline)? And, since we extol differences on this blog, why did that have to be the only thing different about him? Couldn’t a child have learned to embrace his name, and other differences too, rather than poor Charlie being a one-dimensional character with the “wrong” moniker?
  • A bird that swims. Again, pretty neat–different. And kids these days love creatures that do unexpected things, or things they don’t look built to do. Look at the popularity of science fiction, alien movies, comic books full of robot denizens, and the like. When you consider that, the bird isn’t such a misfit. But had I had the movie producers’ ear at the time, I might have said, “Why not have the bird dance instead of sing too, while you’re at it? How about a striped or multicolored bird instead of a plain brown, blue, or red one?”

You know where this is going, right?

Yes, part of the point of this post is that people with disabilities are not “misfit” people, though they often are treated as such. And as we have discussed, we need to rethink our “islands,” such as institutions, sheltered workshops, and group homes. But the main point here is, I think people with disabilities often have something else in common with the misfit toys–they’re seen as one-trick ponies. This can come in a few forms. They’re defined by what they can’t or don’t do (I don’t fly; I swim, so no one wants to play with me; my name is wrong; I have square wheels). If their talents are acknowledged at all, they’re often only given credit for one thing they do well (I can still shoot substances, but only jelly). And other differences besides disability, which should also be celebrated, often get ignored. For example, only about 10% of the population has red hair. But upon seeing a beautiful red-haired girl with, say, deafness, blindness, or Down’s, the disability gets the main focus. Not, “Oh, I love your hair–it’s such a great shade.” (One minor note here: I realize that some people with more severe disabilities may have an alleged limited scope of what they can physically or mentally do. But that doesn’t mean they have only one skill).

Yes, the talents of people with disabilities, and their positive traits, deserve all the spotlight time they can get. But people without disabilities are easily seen as multi-dimensional, and I think their counterparts with disabilities are being cheated out of that. So, loved ones of a person with a disability: enjoy the strengths you can see, but while you’re doing that, plumb deep below the surface and find the invisible strengths as well. Or, as with the square-wheeled train, continue to work on making it easier for your loved ones to show their strengths in a world that may not be prepared to see them.

I think we’ll all have a lot more fun once everyone is allowed to play.


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