Inside Out and Back: Allowing PWDs to Express Everything They Feel

Happy June, readers!

As you might be aware, this month marks the one-year anniversary of Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out. When I saw the trailer last year, it inspired me to imagine what my own emotions might look like and to share those imaginings with friends. Today I want to share them with you as part of a post I hope will be more lighthearted than the last few.

Joy: My Joy is a tiny little pixie of a thing, because good things come in small packages. She wears a multi-colored jewel tone dress, with a particular emphasis on emerald, since that’s my favorite stone. She has chocolate-colored upswept hair which usually holds a pencil, since writing makes me happy. She can often be seen reading/carrying a book, and speaks with an Irish accent since Ireland makes me happy. She sings often and wears little gold glasses.

Sadness: Sadness wears a dark denim skirt, argyle tights patterned in amethyst and sapphire, and a purple ladies’ necktie. She also wears a gray sweater covered in clear crystals. If I’m crying happy tears, the crystals light up; if my tears are sad, they fade out. Sadness wears big clunky shoes and long white opera gloves, which makes it hard for her to use her feet and hands. This represents my cerebral palsy because, as much as I try to have peace with it, it sometimes makes me sad. Sadness also wears glasses, but they’re bigger than Joy’s; more a dark, round librarian style. She sighs a lot, is dreamy and mopey, and likes to be by herself. She doesn’t have an accent but does use a whispery voice.

Fear: Fear is a proper, uptight lady who runs a tight ship. She’s dedicated to keeping everybody safe and under control. She’s seen what can happen when the other emotions lose it, and it isn’t pretty. She speaks with an RP British accent, keeps her blonde hair in a bun, and dresses in military dress greens or blues with highly polished brass buttons. Fear also drinks a lot of cocoa and iced frappe drinks. If something is truly scary, she gets a big caffeine jolt and it’s, MAYDAY, MAYDAY! Otherwise, she’s just slightly jittery.

Anger: Anger is a bit of a cross between Southern belle and spunky cowgirl. She wears a straight, dark-wash denim skirt and a white top patterned with red, gold, and silver sequins. As befits her motif, she has red hair in a big poufy style (think Reba McEntire, the early years). She usually stays quiet because she knows that, bless their cotton socks, people just can’t handle her at full volume. However, when she does get mad, it’s ugly. She will rip her scarlet nails into you until you howl like a wounded dog. She has snakeskin boots and a red cowgirl hat she wears just for those occasions, and naturally, she uses a Texas drawl. She also wears fire-red lipstick.

Disgust: Disgust is kind of my snarky one-liner side. She wears a white dress covered with polka dots in bubblegum pink, lemon yellow, creamsicle orange, and lime green, as well as a bubblegum pillbox hat. That hat goes over well-coiffed hair in a black pageboy, flipped up at the ends. Her shoes and lipstick always match–bubblegum pink. Disgust speaks in a New York accent, because after all, who knows sophistication and taste better than a New Yorker? As the only true “Yankee” on board, she’s also not above telling the other emotions to get real now and then.


So, why did I tell you all this and what does it have to do with PWDs? Well, recently I got to thinking about PWDs’ emotions and how much they are controlled. I mean, what do we do when a PWD’s Anger comes out? Yes–we squelch it. We say it’s a symptom of “noncompliance.” Sadness is also “noncompliance,” or not worth dealing with. A PWD’s Joy is often squelched as well. As a matter of fact, I think we spend a lot of time telling PWDs, consciously or not, that it’s not okay to feel anything.

Sometimes though, we take the opposite tack. That is, we get too hung up on how PWDs feel, and why. For example, let’s say little Riley has a disability (see what I did there)? Her preschool teachers are always quick to tell Mom and Dad that “Riley had a bad day” because some snot-nosed classmate took her toy, or because she didn’t want to do therapy. As Regina of Once Upon a Time said in the recent fifth season, “Oh, I get it. When you get upset, everybody rushes to help. But when I get upset, I get a time-out!”

What’s up with that? Or as Emma Swan would say, really? Since when did emotions, healthfully expressed, become a license to say, “You can’t participate/you must be monitored/your every action must be reported”?

I’ve got a better idea. Instead of monitoring PWDs, instead of telling them how to feel, let’s just accept how they’re feeling and teach them how to express that. Let’s start saying, “It’s okay to have a great day. It’s okay to have a terrible, horrible day. And you know what? it’s okay if your day was just ‘normal.’ We feel what we feel.”

In addition to that, let’s respond better to those feelings. Let’s give PWDs safe places and ways to get angry. You say, “Well, I can’t let Luke punch the wall and curse in my classroom.” Fine–where can he do it? Let’s learn what gives them joy, and stop using those things as incentives on behavior plans. In other words, let Grace collect stuffed cats, or read books, or swing on the swings at recess, because she wants to, not because she earned it. When they’re sad, let’s hold them and say, “Why are you sad, Michael? What can I do to help?” Let’s say, “It’s okay that you’re upset. Take some time, cool off, and come back when you’re ready.”

A lot of people, whether or not they have disabilities, distrust emotions. Emotions should not rule us, but they are important. They are in fact vital. God gave them to us, in my view, partly because He Himself is emotional, too. Let’s celebrate them, and give them a positive place in the narrative of persons with disabilities–and in the narrative of all people.

Bonus Exercise: Get creative. If you like, sit down and sketch/write descriptions of what your own emotions look like. They can be male, female, both genders, human, animal, alien, whatever. Go nuts, and have fun!



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