Last week my daughter and I sat down to watch the 1937 ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’. She’s going through a bit of a princessy phase so having decided enough was enough of Frozen, we travelled back to the first ever feature-length Disney animation. I hoped I would learn something new, or at least that we would find some good, wholesome messages somewhere in there. A princess who also happens to be a sweet, young girl without ridiculous curves, overdone hair, make-up and unnecessary sparkles. That was enough for me to stick around for a bit.
Anyway, somewhere in the depths of my memory I knew this movie had something to do with Angelman Syndrome. This time last year, when we first started trawling the internet for anything we could find about it, I remember being struck by some fascinating famous facts: Ian Rankin (author) has a son with Angelman Syndrome, Colin Farrell (actor) has a son with Angelman Syndrome and Walt Disney is very likely to have created a character with Angelman Syndrome. Enter the dwarves. Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy… and then there was Dopey. As soon as Dopey came on screen I knew it was him. My ears pricked up, my eyes opened wide and for the next 90 minutes I actively watched a princess movie with my daughter.
Without forcing you to go off and watch the movie yourself (although, if you have a spare hour and a half I do recommend it) here are some of the features that Dopey has in common with our fellow Angelman Syndrome peeps. He smiles A LOT, he is happy the majority of the time, he is a bit wobbly on his feet, he trembles when he goes to hold the candle, he has a seizure in his sleep, he is very affectionate and goes back for several kisses from Snow White near the end, he doesn’t speak, he eats soap, he drools, he flaps his ears when he is excited (note: our children flap their hands and arms, not ears), he is funny and Snow White absolutely ADORES him.
Okay, so Walt Disney’s choice of name for him isn’t the greatest advertisement for Angelman Syndrome, although I do wonder whether the word ‘dopey’ meant the same in 1937 as it does now. However, I think it’s slightly better than the name he had before he settled on Dopey: Seventh. We know that Angelman Syndrome was given its name in 1965 after Dr Harry Angelman and before that it was known as ‘Happy Puppet Syndrome’ so, I wondered if is it possible that Walt Disney or one of the animators knew someone with Happy Puppet Syndrome? If not, how did they create such a perfect depiction of so many of our children?
I guess we may never know but there is one thing that I can take from this movie that pleases me more than anything else. One thing that Walt Disney advocated for way before his time and, with this, almost 80 years later he still swims against the tide of so many so-called ‘professionals’.
Whatever your theory is on whether or not Dopey has Angelman Syndrome, I think we would all agree he has special needs of some kind. He comes across as cute, silly and is the butt of several jokes in the film but here’s the important thing: he’s part of a group. Part of a team. He is expected to join in and is involved in everything the dwarves do together. He helps, he works and he is included. He’s as much an integral part of everyday life as any other individual in that little company of men. He was chosen by his creator to be in that troop. And lets face it, his creator could’ve chosen numerous other character names (word has it that names like Awful, Blabby, Dirty, Gloomy, Jaunty, Jumpy and Shifty were in the running) but our little Dopey made it through.
At the end of the film Snow White rides off into the sunset with her Prince Charming and it’s time for the dwarves to say goodbye. They each take their turn – except of course Dopey who has had more than his fair share of turns. He comes back again and again for an extra kiss and cuddle from Snow White and that unmistakeable, overpowering affection that is written in the blueprint of every individual with Angelman Syndrome is right there. That burning desire to be right up close to someone who blatantly adores the socks off you. I saw my boy in that moment and I felt proud that someone just like him was seen by one of the most influential moviemakers of all time as important enough to be chosen to be one of his seven.
When the dwarves introduce themselves to Snow White and she calls them each by name, he is introduced to her by another dwarf.
“This is Dopey. He don’t talk none.” says Happy.
“You mean he can’t talk?” asks Snow White.
“He don’t know. He never tried.” replies Happy.
“That’s too bad.” smiles Snow White.
I love her reaction to this. It’s the equivalent of saying, ‘Oh, well, let’s carry on regardless’.
And so we do. We carry on, we do life, we include, we have high expectations and we presume competence. We absolutely expect that every word, every skill, every opinion, every dream, every wish, every joke, every pleasure, every bit of personality is in there somewhere. We know it’s a challenge to tease it all out, we know it’s a massive undertaking that can only be done with a village of incredible people who are all singing from the same song sheet. We know we will be up against professionals and well-meaning advisors and those who are more experienced than us. We know we will look stark raving mad at times for believing these often unimaginable things about our people. But we do it.
Walt Disney didn’t leave Dopey at home that day. He sent him out, gave him the gift of family and brotherhood, let him love and be loved, genuinely believed he could deliver and then sat back and watched in awe as his sweet little man accomplished each task in his own time and in his own way.
In his own time.
In his own way.