Blog Bonus: What PWDs Can Learn From The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Ding-ding-ding! Welcome to the bonus round!

As you guys know, I love Disney. I loved it as a kid and now as a grown woman, I appreciate it in a very adult way. For example, I now analyze movies and characters with other fans on Disney blogs. I look forward to sharing the classics with my kids, and I think through the traits of the characters I’d want my children to emulate as role models. Some movies and characters, I love. Some I can do without, and some are in the middle.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those middle ones. I enjoy the movie very much, but it is definitely not one I’d let children see. Its villain Frollo is not just dark and power-hungry–he is a city official gone mad, a hypocritical religious zealot who commits horrible acts in the name of God. There are sexual overtones, racial and ethnic slurs, and very negative treatment of deformity/disability. Our hero, Quasimodo, has a hunched back and a swollen eye, and is considered hideous. Worst of all, his guardian perpetuates this idea and isolates him in the bell tower. Quasimodo has no independence and no concept of the world beyond his cathedral home. That is not the kind of life I want any PWD to live, and the way others view Quasi is cruel and narrow-minded.

Yet, I believe older PWDs can learn a few things from Quasimodo–not because he “overcomes” his disabilities in the classic sense, but because he learns to live with them and retain dignity and goodness. So let’s take a look at a few of those lessons, shall we?

Never be afraid to get out there–and disobey if you have to. I don’t advocate disobedience for its own sake. Yet in Quasi’s case, had he not disobeyed Frollo’s command, he’d have stayed isolated and cut off from good experiences forever. The argument there is, “Yeah–he also wouldn’t have been humiliated.” Good point. But at the same time, he met truly kind people–Esmeralda and Phoebus. He learned the truth about Paris and about people. You’ll never know the truth about the world–the good and the bad–unless you experience it. Sometimes, that means breaking the rules: entering general education instead of special ed, asking the vocational rehab coach to back off so you can find your own job, asking for less time in therapy and more time with friends, you name it. Which leads me to…

Be careful who you listen to. Quasi was vulnerable to Frollo’s cruelty and bigotry because his was the only consistent voice Quasi heard for 20 years. I would hope not many PWDs are in a similar position, but the lesson still stands. PWDs are vulnerable to hearing the wrong messages: You can’t. You won’t. You’re ugly and worth nothing. You are a burden. Refuse to listen to those messages, even if they’re inside your own head. Surround yourself with positive messages and influences instead. Capitalize on your strengths as a reminder that you can do things. Develop positive character traits to remind yourself of your intrinsic value. Which brings me to…

Have courage and be kind. Yes, I’m borrowing from the recent Cinderella remake (a good movie as well, by the way). But I think if Cinderella or her mother could’ve spoken to Quasimodo, they’d have said this to him. Quasimodo is lovable because he’s kind (not so much in the book version of his story, but certainly the movie, which is what we’re focused on). He has to muster up courage, but shows plenty of it to rescue Esmeralda and Phoebus, and call out Frollo on his crap. These traits, not some hackneyed inspirational ending, are what make him commendable and yes, inspirational. And one of the things Quasi was inspired to do was…

Stand up for those who cannot do it themselves. Esmeralda, not Quasimodo, is actually the first character to do this. She does a bang-up job of it, as you know if you’ve seen the movie. Yet her willingness to fight for justice in the face of arrest and certain death is what later inspires Quasimodo to stand up for himself, a mortally injured friend, and indirectly, Paris itself. As a PWD, you may think you’re the most vulnerable person on the planet. Sometimes you will be vulnerable. Sometimes you might even be bullied. That’s life. But for every person who gets stepped on, there’s a person who can stand up and say, “This is wrong.” Be that person just as someone else was or is for you. And finally…

Nurture a bright, creative spirit. For much of his movie, Quasi’s world is dark and narrow. His friends are stone gargoyles (whether they’re actually alive is a topic of great debate among adult Disney fans). But, Quasi is a gifted artist. He makes wonderful wooden figurines and gorgeous stained glass prisms. He appreciates–even names–the bells and loves their sound. He knows and loves every inch of his home. These things help keep him positive. If you have a disability, you have things like that, too–strengths, your own areas of creativity, the capacity to see the world in new ways. Use them to lift your spirits to cathedral heights.



  1. galacticexplorer · May 29, 2015

    I confess, I rather love the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I won’t say it’s a particularly great movie on technical merits (although the music is AWESOME). And I agree, it’s probably Disney’s darkest film with some of the most adult themes in it. But I find it a lot of fun… especially the villain. Rather than being motivated by normal Disney villain stuff (money, power, just being evil) he’s motivated by bigotry, religious zealotry, and repressed lust. It’s just so… un-Disney. But I get a kick out of that. And while it may not have tackled those topics in the most subtle or artistic of ways, I still find it cool that they chose to deal with them at all. Some other reasons I like it:

    1) The main character is disabled and not conventionally “attractive”, this does not change during the movie.
    2) The main character falls in love with the female lead, but does not end up partnered with her and instead comes to be happy with a non-romantic friendship.
    3) The music. Seriously. Hands down, best Disney soundtrack of all time.

    Finally, I was raised in a culture of religious zealotry and oppression myself and seeing that depicted in a Disney movie was really very shocking to me when I was a kid. I could tell my parents weren’t 100% comfortable with the content and they clearly didn’t like the movie, but they did not forbid it (it probably helped that the villain was Catholic, haha). Therefore it was one of the few ways that I could see and internalize the message that religious authority could be abusive or restrictive. I also totally missed the sexual subtext when I was a younger kid and thought Frollo’s obsession with Esmerelda was just him being weird. I’m not going to say that the Hunchback was formative to my personality or changed my life. But I do really appreciate that it offered that message to kids, rather than shying away from it and leaving the institution of religion unchallenged. Now that I’m grown, my friends have joked that the song Frollo sings to Quasi about how the world is cruel and dangerous and you have to stay inside could be tweaked only a tad bit to apply to what my parents were teaching me. πŸ˜› It at least gives me a pop-culture reference to help me make sense of my life and laugh at it.

    • independencechick · May 29, 2015

      I love the things you brought up about the movie (and yes indeed, the music is awesome). I can definitely see how it would help you make sense of your life. I’m not going to say this movie is *the* definitive reason, but it’s certainly part of why I grew up to recognize and hate religiously-driven oppression and abuse. I mean seriously, if you want to see me get mad, just watch my reactions to stories of cult and oppressive church victims. As to Frollo’s song about staying inside–yes, absolutely. I think it could also be tweaked to reflect the experiences of persons with disabilities. Consciously or unconsciously, a lot of able-bodied people send them the message they won’t be accepted in the world and thus, are better left safe in their “special” places. I didn’t get that until adulthood, but now that I do–oh, man. It’s really interesting to me because in daily life, you’re probably not going to encounter a Maleficent who can straight up turn into a dragon and kill you if you don’t obey her. But a Frollo? They walk among us and we must be careful of them.

      Margin note: Yeah, what is it with Protestant churches maligning Catholicism? I understand the Catholic Church has done unspeakable things–but so have Southern Baptists, so you might as well throw that card out the window. Catholics were here first–without them, Protestants wouldn’t exist. More importantly, they are siblings in the faith and I don’t know why we can’t separate past behavior from current church members. (Of course, I was fortunate enough not to experience church-based abuse, so if you want to ignore that last bit, go ahead).

      • galacticexplorer · June 3, 2015

        Sorry for the delay in responding. I just moved to a new apartment this weekend and our internet service provider decided to erase my account for no reason and thus I have been without internet access for several days now. I also don’t have a smart phone so I’ve been feeling a bit cut-off from the information and communication highway. Funny how reliant we get on it and you don’t realize it until you don’t have it!

        I agree, I can definitely see how Frollo’s words can be applied to how we treat PWDs. The idea that you can’t expect to be accepted, you can’t expect to have a “real” job, you can’t expect to have “real” life, and you might as well just settle down to being a second-class citizen… man, that would be tough. Frollos definitely exist out there.

        Regarding Catholicism, I don’t think we were intending to single them out particularly… it was mostly that they weren’t considered Real Christians (TM) by my family. But we were One-ness Pentecostals, so according to our silly little cultish denomination, anyone who wasn’t a One-ness Pentecostal was going to hell (yep, even other Protestants because obviously WE were the only ones who got EVERYTHING right, not those 40,000 other denominations which are all filthy heathens.) The one thing that always confused me about that was that, as you pointed out, historically Roman Catholics (and later Orthodox Christians) were pretty much the only body of Christians for many hundreds of years. I wondered: was there a long gap of time when there were no saved people? Because that just seemed incredibly messed up. I kinda skated around this thinking “maybe SOME people back then were divinely inspired with The Truth (TM) and it was just never recorded so they were actually saved despite being Roman Catholics.” It was the only way I could prevent my narrow little view of the world from imploding under the pressure of simple logic.

        Once I got out of the box I was raised in and was able to actually interact with the world at large, I became much more liberal in my view of who was “saved” and who was “Christian”, and I stopped having such an unhealthy obsession with legalism and charismatic “gifts”. At this point, I’m not religious, but I have no qualms with people who believe, in general. But there are certain theologies that I think are inherently harmful, and I gotta say, Pentecostalism is one of them. I don’t know a single person connected with that doctrine who wasn’t horrifically effed up by it in some way. All I can say to curious people is STAY AWAY it’s not safe. Okay, actually I could write an entire book about how dangerous various parts of that theology is, but I’d better not do it here! πŸ˜€

  2. independencechick · June 3, 2015

    Man, the computer thing sucks. I need technology, so I don’t knock it too hard. Without technology I could not write this blog–or anything, for that matter, because my handwriting looks like a kindergartner accidentally got into Daddy’s beer. (Mixture of lowercase and uppercase letters depending on which my hands will and will not form). Glad you’re back online.

    I have my own theological pet peeves, which include assuming whole denominations are not “real” Christians and acting like your denom. is the ONLY one guaranteed eternal life. The denoms. with particularly “cultish” reputations certainly make me wary. I say the more you isolate people and demand they not question you, the less likely it is you truly understand God. I mean, do you seriously think God sits up in Heaven going, “Oh, no, Susie’s wearing PANTS! Johnny’s wondering about EVOLUTION! What am I going to DO????”

    I have had good experience with charismatic gifts, but so far that experience has been limited. I attended a non-denominational Bible study while I was in graduate school where the leader’s wife offered to pray for me in tongues. I was initially kinda creeped out, but I consented. Her prayer language was beautiful and uplifted me. I have, on occasion, asked for the blessing of tongues myself (not there yet). πŸ™‚ That being said, charismatic gifts must be handled with great care because of all the nimrods who misuse them or fake them. Faith healing is a big hot button for me, because of certain televangelists and hacks (cough, cough, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn) who use it to exploit persons with disabilities and diseases. I have prayed for healing from CP before, but the way I see it, God could do that without a preacher or TV star for backup, thanks. And most of the time, I’m okay if He doesn’t.

    If you ever decide to write that book, let me know. I love spiritual memoirs. Have you ever read:
    -Girl at the End of the World (Elisabeth Esther)? It’s about a woman who grew up in a cultic church known as the Assembly, but got out
    -Spiritual Misfit (Michelle De–something–name escapes me, sorry. Look it up on Amazon). Grew up Catholic, decided it wasn’t for her, went on own spiritual journey.
    -Faith Unraveled and Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans). She grew up evangelical in eastern TN and is a veteran of the ’80s-’90s “culture wars.” She talks fairly often about the experience of LGBT Christians, or former Christians who left the church because they’re LGBT. In one chapter of Searching for Sunday, she goes to this faith-based LGBT gathering where people talk about their experiences. My favorite quote came from a guy who said: “I was born black, in a wheelchair, and gay, in Mississippi. What was God THINKING?” πŸ™‚ Not trying to be blasphemous–I think the same thing when I see my Southern family chow down on meatloaf and greens, and I’m craving lasagna.

    Anyway, thought you’d appreciate the thoughts. And hey, if you’ve got any people in your life who are interested in disability rights/issues, feel free to point them here. πŸ™‚

    • galacticexplorer · June 3, 2015

      Haha! You got me to laugh with the pants and evolution thing because MAN that was my life! πŸ˜€ Also, amen to the lasagna vs. meatloaf. I haven’t heard of most of the books you mentioned, but I’ve heard several people recommend Searching for Sunday (a lot of Christians I know really love Rachael Held Evans and her work seems pretty great). I might have to pick one or two of them up eventually once I’m done fully detoxing from Christianity.

      Regarding the charismatic gifts thing, I have sorta mixed feelings about it. In general, when I talk about Charismatic gifts (especially related to Pentescostals) people think of speaking in tongues, and I sorta think of that a lot too since speaking in tongues was considered necessary to be “saved” in my church. I hesitate to tell most of my secular friends that “yeah, I’ve spoken in tongues, many times” because they tend to look at me like I’ve either completely lost my mind or I must have been unspeakably tortured or something. The fact of the matter is, I no longer believe that my experiences were spiritual, but I also don’t feel like my experience with tongues was abusive or particularly harmful to me, if a bit (a lot) weird.

      This is how it worked in my church. Since speaking in tongues is required for salvation, there’s a LOT of pressure to do it. People who have never experienced it often assume or even claim that everyone just fakes it to fit in, but that wasn’t my experience at all. In Pentecostal services, if you’re trying to “receive the holy spirit” you get absolutely mobbed by elders who gather around you and put their hands all over you and rock you back and forth and shake you and scream prayers in your ears (I shudder to think what this might be like for, say, someone with autism and sensory issues). You are expected to hold your hands up and shout and beg and pray as loudly and fervently as you can. This can go on for a looong time. You will be overheated and sweating and dehydrated and shaking with fatigue. You might end up collapsing and lying on the floor (otherwise known a being “slain in the spirit” and was pretty common.) You might lose your voice completely from shouting too much and be unable to speak anymore (this happened to me once). You might be completely disoriented and in a really bizarre frame of mind with all of the noise and exhaustion and heat and bewildering situation. I tried to “receive the holy spirit” several times. The first couple didn’t work. But at some point, I’m guessing, my brain just glitched. I started stammering out all sorts of weird sounds and felt like I couldn’t stop. It was a really weird feeling… it almost felt involuntary. It was also a huge relief because I knew I had finally done what I needed to be saved. Afterwards, your body is so high on endorphins that you feel like you’re on top of the world. I found it relatively easy after that to reproduce the sounds when I wanted to pray in tongues. It would induce sort of a meditative state I could enter when I wanted to pray but couldn’t come up with words. I wouldn’t do it too often, but it was sort of nice to fall back on when I wanted to feel really connected with god. Now, the rituals to get there might sound horrific to some (and honestly, I do think that it could be a bit dangerous) but my experience overall wasn’t particularly negative… just weird.

      On the other hand, when I think of “charismatic gifts” that I DO find harmful, I’m more thinking about people who claim to have gifts of prophecy, or claim “the lord told me to tell you…” or claim to be able to “see the devil in that man” or claim that “I sense spiritual oppression on you” or other such things. When people start talking about how god or the devil is talking to them about other people, I get scared. If god is talking to YOU about YOU… fine. I have no major problem with that. But when people think that god is talking to them about someone else, people get hurt. Seriously, horrifically hurt. I really appreciated that moment in C.S. Lewis’ “A Horse and His Boy” when Aslan rebukes one of the characters for asking Him to explain to them another person’s journey and life. Aslan makes it clear that he speaks to people about themselves and their story, never about someone else and their story. And that, I think, is an amazing piece of wisdom. I think CS Lewis recognized the danger of claiming that you know the mind of god regarding another person.

      Pentecostals are really big into “spiritual warfare” and think that God or the devil is behind literally everything that happens. They think that they can discern who is behind what actions and circumstances and respond with requirements and demands on others that are soul-crushing. Faith healing is one (“the sickness is caused by devils, god says the cure is to pray”). But it shows up in many ways. If you are commanded to be under a “spiritual authority” and they claim “god tells me that you need to do X”… well, you can imagine how easy it is to be abused by that sort of system. Who wants to say “no” to god? When you actually buy into that sort of thing 100%, you become an instrument of your own oppression… you will allow all sorts of horrible things to happen to you because “god says so” and if you ever feel like something is wrong and start to question, there will be lots of Christians around to say “that’s just your weak flesh talking… you have to crucify yourself!” so you literally work on torturing yourself to death while others tell you what god wants from you.

      I can’t even put in words how devastating it all is, and how horrible it is to start to realize that it’s wrong, because you have no escape from the shame. You find you have no where to turn and no one who understands because you allowed all of this to happen to you because you honestly were suckered into thinking it was godly. I’ve had secular therapists sneer at me for attempting to bring this up and tell me basically “what the hell is wrong with you? Grow up” because they don’t understand the power dynamics of this sort of system. On the other hand, when I turned to a Christian counselor, they just encouraged me to dive deeper into the system that was killing me. THAT is why I am scared of Pentecostal theology. The speaking in tongues was innocent enough. Being required to let other people dictate the minutiae of my life, being told I was not allowed to want or need anything because my wants and needs were “of the flesh”, being suckered into believing that everything that happened to me was caused by god or devils, being controlled, abused, and isolated, having my family ripped away from me, being stripped of any sense of normalcy… that is what nearly killed me. And all of it stemmed from the theological idea that “god told me X about you.” If there is one theological idea in the world that I could see stamped out forever, that would probably be it. I would be so bold as to suspect that it’s nearly impossible NOT to hurt people with it. And now that I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty sure it probably takes on its own nasty appearance when applied to people with disabilities as well.

      ANYWAY. I totally wrote a novel anyway. I guess this just touched a really personal issue and sometimes it’s hard not to let your feelings out when there’s so much pain and frustration there. Sorry for going on and on… it’s not really on topic so if you don’t want to keep the comment on your blog, I’ll understand. πŸ˜› Thanks for letting me speak though, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      • independencechick · June 3, 2015

        This is a bunch to take in and I’ll probably have to reread it, but I’m honored you would share your story. It’s a story more people need to hear, especially those who have grown up around people who misuse the “God told me” thing. I talk to God, and I believe He talks to me. But I am very careful about saying, “God told me to do/say ___” because of what you mentioned. And even though the supernatural world and spiritual warfare are real (at least IMHO), they should *not* be used against people. Some things happen because God allowed it. Some happen because Satan exists. And some happen because that’s the way the world works. As in, don’t sit there and tell me, “God made me anorexic” or “the devil made me anorexic” when you haven’t eaten more than 400 calories per day for a year.

        I am so sorry for your pain and what the church did to you. If I could heal it on my own, I would. But I don’t have the charismatic gift of healing ;), so I hope you’ll accept my prayers instead. I’m not praying for you to be “saved” or reenter the church–simply to feel safe and loved when you hurt.

        The “receive the Spirit” thing when juxtaposed with autism and sensory issues–man, oh, man. I don’t even want to consider what that would do to someone with those issues. It would probably cross into spiritual abuse, and at that point I’d be ready to kick somebody’s you-know-what clear to Siberia. I could tell you truly receiving the Spirit is not like that–but I’m not a God expert, so what do I know? All I know is, my God does not condone abuse and probably looks down on the things you described and says, “That big show really bugs Me.”

        BTW, do you think people with autism would be offended if I wrote about that? I’ve written a lot about what the church can do to change its perception of disability, but not much about what the church *should* be teaching. For example: teach that the Spirit is present, but ditch the screaming and the touching and the brouhaha.

        Since you mentioned it, I feel comfortable saying I have spoken in tongues before. I had no prompting and was alone when I did it. I simply wanted to experience the beauty I had seen and speak to God in a new prayer language in an effort to get closer. I don’t know if my experiences were authentic and I haven’t done it in years. But I do think when you approach something like that with a sincere heart, just because you want to experience the divine, you get better results.

        I don’t know what receiving the Spirit will look like for you, or if you’re even ready for that. But I know God loves you and has angels watching out for you. (That’s what you get for corresponding with a big Touched by an Angel fan). And BTW, some Southern Baptists disapprove of that show. I had to pray through my attraction to it. What I found, though, was that if it cemented my belief in real beings, and cemented my desire to know God, then I was okay.

        Off to do some more writing–in PANTS.

  3. galacticexplorer · June 4, 2015

    In PANTS??? *gasp* Bring me my fainting couch!

    Thank you for listening and responding to my looong ramble. I am glad you think it’s valuable for Christians to hear. I think so too, although I’ve found very few who are interested in listening. It’s amazing how much seething hatred there is in the church for people like me, and I never knew it until I stepped outside of the tribe and tried to speak up. It’s always a breath of fresh air when I find those who are still within the church but are willing to listen and help. After all, I can’t change the church from the inside anymore, but you can. And I may no longer be a believer, but I do want to church to be a safer, better place for those who are believers, as well as those who aren’t.

    I couldn’t tell you if people with autism would be offended, but as long as you don’t make a lot of assumptions or presumptuous statements, I wouldn’t think so. Another Christian blogger that I follow was recently telling me about how her children are often not welcome in church environments because of their different behaviors (I think I might have already mentioned this to you?) And this isn’t just something that affects autistic people; many other people with disabilities probably face the same things. And, somewhat tangentially related, my wife and several other people I know have also talked about how loud music at church was a trigger for their anxiety disorder, to the point that they would have to stand out in the lobby during the worship service (also to protect their eardrums). I think there are a lot of ways that churches might want to examine their practices and see if they are making attempts to be inclusive. I study this in regards to college classrooms. I think churches and other organizations could consider the same things.

    Oh, and just so that I admit the good with the bad: one thing I will say for Pentecostal services is that they are NOT boring. Especially as a kid, being able to run up and down the halls of the sanctuary or jump around and dance in the pews without getting scolded was pretty awesome! πŸ˜›

  4. independencechick · June 4, 2015

    That *sounds* pretty awesome. The very first church I went to as a kid was fine, but its population was heavy on elderly folks, so no jumping and shouting there. The first time I ever heard of anybody speaking in church was in the book Addy’s Surprise of the American Girl Addy series. Momma takes Addy to church for a pre-Christmas service, and the congregants do stuff like saying “amen” when Rev. Drake says something good. I was amazed this was allowed. When we switched churches a couple years later, I got a little bit of culture shock. There was children’s church, and people came to summer barbecues and ran around yelling and laughing. I remember telling a Sunday school teacher, “Wow, this is a wild church”–to which she laughed her head off. πŸ™‚

    I think you did mention the friend whose children are not welcome at church, but thanks for pointing it out again. Churches need to address that and quit looking the other way. As for the loud music, I can empathize. I don’t have anxiety or other triggers, but our church’s music has gotten pretty loud lately, and our worship leader likes to wail notes. It actually drives me nuts, and sometimes I wish I could go, “Would you calm down–I seriously cannot concentrate.” But as I read once, if you find a perfect church, never go. You’ll spoil it.

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