Concealing, Feeling, and More: What PWDs Can Learn from Queen Elsa

Last November, I wrote a post about how Disney could benefit from creating a princess with a disability. I also recently found out via Disability Scoop that one mom and her myriad of supporters have specifically petitioned Disney to create a character with Down Syndrome. It looks like the nation is waking up to the dearth of royals with disabilities. But then again, is there a dearth?

Some critics and discerning journalists say no. They point out that because Ariel was mute for a good chunk of screen time, she could be considered “disabled.” Vanellope Von Schweetz of Wreck-it Ralph could be considered so too, because she’s a game “glitch” who can’t leave her game, is not allowed to participate in the regular activity of her game (racing) and is bullied. These journalists also claim that Queen Elsa of Frozen is “disabled” by ice powers she can’t control.

I still say none of these characters have completely accurate representations of disabilities, for many reasons (check last November’s archives for a refresher). But these critics and journalists make a wonderful point, especially about Elsa. To kick off November–a month in which things begin to, ah, freeze–I’m going to dedicate a short “bonus round”-type post to what Queen Elsa represents for the community of PWDs and what PWDs can learn from her.

I love Elsa. We have a lot in common. We’re both smart, introverted, perfectionistic, responsible–and sometimes scared as heck. When I saw Frozen for the first time last year, I understood why Elsa was so scared of her ice powers. They could injure, destroy, and even kill. One year later, I also understand something else about Elsa’s problem. The ice powers keep her isolated, scared of being loved and giving love to others. Moreover, that attitude was encouraged because her well-meaning parents isolated her.

And now I think: how many PWDs are in the same situation? How many are scared to socialize, to strike up friendships and love others, because they’re scared to be judged and condemned on some level? How many of us have shut people out and regretted it like Elsa did, but not known how to fix the problem? How many of us have been judged as a threat to others in some way:
-A threat to the status quo?
-A threat to others’ socialization because our behavior is “inappropriate?”
-A threat to the school system because our IEPs, 504s, whatever, means extra work for teachers and administrators?
-A threat to the community, meant to be corralled, controlled, and kept from real life because of what we can’t do, or do differently from so-called “normal” people?

Near the end of the movie, the people of Arendelle even lock Elsa in a dungeon because they fear her ice powers. Now, granted, most PWDs don’t get locked in dungeons, though many go to jail because of their disabilities. Yes, it happens–tune in soon for an explanation of how, why, and what we can do about it. But how many PWDs are being “locked up” every day, barred from activities, independence, and life?

You get it. The way we currently treat disabilities and the people with them has some disturbing parallels to the life of Queen Elsa of Arendelle. But despite her fear, despite her struggles, she remains a strong person who’s able to grow and change. So what can PWDs learn from her?

Don’t shut yourself in or others out. If people are doing that to you, fight to be included, and get allies to help you. Take the risk. Try new things and meet new people.

Trust the people who love you. Elsa had to learn to trust her beloved sister Anna, to understand Anna wouldn’t condemn or fear her ice powers. Find the people who truly love you and have your best interests at heart, and lean on them. That’s not giving up on independence. That’s experiencing love, which is the greatest thing anyone can experience, disability or not.

Acknowledge fear, but don’t stay in it. Elsa had reason to be scared of her ice powers, but eventually learned to control them–with love. Love casts out fear. Learn to say, in whatever way you have, “I’m scared people will judge me. I’m scared of this doctor, this treatment. I’m scared I’ll have to go into a group home when I don’t want to.” Or conversely, “I’m scared of being left alone in an apartment when I turn 18.” Once you say it, find ways to combat the fear, but:

Don’t shove on the gloves. Elsa used gloves to keep her ice powers from freezing and destroying things. Sometimes, that was a good thing, like certain treatments can be good for PWDs. If you have cerebral palsy and need braces to get around, that’s fine. Those are your gloves and can be used the right way. Same if you have Down Syndrome and need a modified school curriculum. The problem comes in when you start hiding behind the gloves and letting them define who you are, or when the gloves start inhibiting your freedom. For example, parents: it never hurt anyone to give your child with CP a break from the braces–those things can hurt! And parents of those with cognitive disabilities: don’t assume they’re babies or toddlers. Don’t shut them out of decisions or disregard their wants and needs.

And yes: Let it go. Be yourself like Elsa learned to do. Learn to look at those who think less of you and say, “You’re entitled to think that, but I’m not at all what you think I am.”



  1. galacticexplorer · November 6, 2014

    Good thoughts! And yeah, I agree that, while Disney has touched on the idea of disability in a symbolic way, that’s not the same thing as presenting persons with disabilities explicitly. The only princess that can come close to that is Ariel, but I personally think that is a terrible example for people to use since she chose her disability for her own gains and knew that it was temporary. Not really a great representation of actual PWDs.

    I actually really liked Vanellope as a symbol of PWDs because she did not choose her condition, she cannot change it, she remains motivated not to let it stop her from attaining her goals, she is understandably resentful of it but in the end embraces it. BUT there aren’t any kids out there who are game glitches, so it’s still not the same thing as featuring a primary character with Down Syndrome or Autism or in a wheelchair or with a hearing impairment, etc. I hope that more people consider featuring PWDs in film just as everyday normal people, although I sincerely doubt that disney will be one of the first to do that. Sadly, they do not seem to be very progressive in that regard, at least compared to many other studios. We’ll see.

  2. independencechick · November 6, 2014

    Yes, we will see. I agree that Ariel is a terrible example because she chose to become mute for selfish reasons. However, I love Vanellope too, even though she’s more a symbol than an actual representation. I think I’ll do a post about her next time I do one of these.

    • galacticexplorer · November 6, 2014

      Cool! 🙂 I’m sure you can lend more insight to it than I can.

  3. independencechick · November 7, 2014

    Ah, well, not necessarily but I do try. 🙂

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