***HEY, YO. There are some spoilers in here. Just sayin’.***
I like you. A lot.
My early childhood was spent in stuffy computer labs, arguing about Oregon Trail. Somehow, we all knew that those five pixels were supposed to be a bear. I can still feel the suspense, watching that one pixel move towards the five pixels, wondering if we had successfully shot the bear and wouldn’t starve. I am that generation, who learned now to program games into a T-91 calculator (yeah, I was a math nerd) and still remembers Atari. Now, it seems like every kid has an iPad and video games give me the jitters with how realistic they look.
You, Pixar, were part of that change. I was 14 when Toy Story came out. You took the graphic animation game and went next level. I was still young enough that Toy Story actually made me feel badly about all the toys I no longer used. I was busy kissing boys and stealing cigarettes but still had my cabbage patch kid on my dresser. Ok that is a lie, because I already thought it wasn’t cool to have toys out, but I had Karna Diane somewhere, I swear. Since then, I’ve watched every single Pixar movie and pretty much enjoyed them all. You’ve kept me happy thinking that there were some people out there who could still really imagine the shit out of things, you know? I’m under no illusions that you aren’t a big company with big company issues, but I like that you’ll touch topics like class struggle, environment and capitalism.
I’m adulting now. I have four kids and, surprise, they really like movies! They especially like your movies, Pixar. It is like you are aiming for their demographic, or something. So I took my kids to see Inside Out last week. It was good. Until it wasn’t.
There I sat, at the peak of the story arc, watching Joy and Sadness hang on for dear life while their buddies inside headquarters tried to figure out how to break open the glass and let them in. It was tense. Would they make it in? Would Riley get back in touch with all her feelings? Disgust had a righteous idea when she made Anger so mad he broke the glass open. Clever.
But why, Pixar, why???
Why did you have to make her call him a moron and then make that mocking impression of him saying “duuuuh”? Why did you have to make people with intellectual disabilities the butt of the joke? I know it is supposed to be all very haha because of course Disgust is Anger’s friend and doesn’t really think he’s like that, but don’t you see what is wrong there? In such a seemingly well thought out movie that seeks to remove stigma against mental health issues, couldn’t you have thought that scene out more carefully?
Look, try a little test. If Disgust had turned to Anger and started making fun of him for being effeminate, and then did the stereotypical limp wrist gesture, would that seem right? Or, what if Disgust had started to talk about how crazy Anger is, how irrational, how unhinged and how he just probably forgot to take his meds that day? Or, what if Disgust had started going on about Anger being short and unattractive, about how no one would ever want to spend the rest of his or her life with such a little, red, stubby dude?
Feels wrong, doesn’t it, Pixar? I think you know this, but let me just be clear: It is wrong to use one group of people to signify and embody what is supposedly is lesser or undesirable. That kind of humor steps on groups of people in order to elevate another and creates stigma and discrimination.
There are actual, live people who can’t help saying “duh” when they speak and sometimes have their mouths open. They are not doing it to be amusing to others, they are doing it because that is how they are. There are real human beings who will score below average on an IQ test. You made a joke at those people’s expense and left that joke completely unexamined.
All across this country, parents are fighting to have their children with disabilities included in classrooms with their peers. Kids are bullied and hurt. Adults are passed over for employment, or paid pennies on the dollar simply because of their disabilites. People are denied life saving medical treatment.
Pixar, for that one moment, you helped make that stigma and discrimination happen. When words moron and idiot are thrown around like nothing, kids learn that it is ok to insult someone’s intelligence. Young kids learn that a good way to make someone mad is to call them stupid and pretend to look like someone with an intellectual disability, because of course it is awful to be that. If brains were really like you depicted in Inside Out, every kid who went to go see your movie would have had a little glowy memory stored that they might bring up the next time they heard the words “special ed” or tried to talk to someone with a speech impediment. And the memory wouldn’t help the kid be kinder or more inclusive, trust me. What Disgust said to Anger was the basic equivalent of using the r-word, simply without uttering the word.
And you know what? I bet in every theater in which Inside Out plays, there are probably multiple kids watching who are getting special education services, or some kind of therapy. What are you saying to those kids, Pixar? That someone should rightly and understandably (literally) blow his top when told he was like them? My son with Down syndrome was sitting right by me that day, thank goodness he’s not old enough to understand, but his sisters were.
You could have done that scene a hundred different ways. You could have had Disgust outright ask Anger to open the window and if he said he couldn’t, had Disgust get all over him about not even being able to perform his one function—getting angry. You could have had Disgust provoke Anger by telling him that it was his fault they were even in that predicament since it was Anger’s idea to run away. You could have had her go after some characterization that was a choice like being unkind, lazy, or rude. Shoot, you could have just had her make fun of his style.
These moments are little, I admit it. It isn’t like the punch to the gut that I feel when I hear short bus jokes or see that stranger stare at my child like he’s contagious. Instead, jokes like the one you made in Inside Out are like little paper cuts. Little stings that remind me that the world thinks that my kid’s existence is something that no one wants. In case I forget, you know. Wouldn’t want that.
Let’s not break up, Pixar. You seem like a decent force for good. After my son was born with Down syndrome, I had a whole new appreciation for Finding Nemo. There are clearly folks over there who have given some thought to what disability means or doesn’t mean (I even personally know of some). You messed up this time though. I loved Inside Out but that scene was a little slice that bled.
So please, create more dignity for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, not less. Don’t let me or my son die of a thousand tiny paper cuts.
Imagine that someone—let’s call her F. Poe Tenshal—tells you that your baby needs to run faster when he grows up. Ms. Tenshal says that in the world, people need to run at a certain speed in order to do things. Important things. Ms. Tenshal enrolls you and your baby in a program. This program, she says, will allow your baby to reach his fullest, fastest potential. His true self. His best self.
Little do you know, there are two versions of this program.
In version A, you both arrive in some sweet new kicks, you’ve had a power breakfast, a good night of sleep, you are feeling good. The program staff start learning all about your baby, find out what he likes, doesn’t like, his goals, quirks and fears. They start helping him with his running form, it turns out that if he just lifted up his knees a little higher, his stride would get a little longer, and his time would improve. Then your baby gets a little older and it turns out what he really loves is jumping. So they spend a lot of time playing jumping games. And sure, your kid might get tired and discouraged sometimes, but the program is there with support, building him up with praise.
Version B starts off much the same. New kicks, breakfast, rested, ready to roll. But then you get out onto the tracks, and this dude—let’s call him Sergeant Payne—gets all up in your kid’s biz, telling your kid that if he doesn’t get those knees up the future is toast. He’s all in your kid’s face the whole time. Get those knees up! We are gonna get you running just like the other kids. Jump? No, people out there need to run, jumping is just for people who can’t run. Knees up! Despite his frequent claim to care about your son’s future, Sgt. Payne never seems to prioritize anyone’s enjoyment the program, rather choosing to focus on getting the exercises done no matter what. Sometimes your kid sees the Sergeant approaching and bursts out into tears. But you keep going, because well, you don’t want your kid to be a slow runner. All you ever think about lately is how slow he will run, and you wish you could fix it.
This, my friends, is how I’m starting to see therapy for kids with disabilities. There is therapy that builds us up, and therapy that tears us down. I think there are probably a lot of versions out there that do both at the same time. And through it all, I have kept wondering, does all this therapy actually do anything? Does it really change the course of my kid’s development?
Therapy works, except it doesn’t. But it does. Wut?
At this point, I’ve become online friends with hundreds of parents who have children with Down syndrome. I have yet to see any correlation between how much therapy a kid is doing and what that kid’s development looks like. In the United States, children are generally offered quite a bit of therapy. It isn’t uncommon for a kid with Down syndrome to get occupational therapy (OT), physical therapy (PT), speech therapy (ST), and other “extras” like swim or horse riding lessons (aqua and hippotherapy, respectively). In California, you also get something called an Infant Development Specialist (IDS) to come to your house, ostensibly for a broad overview kind of look at your baby’s development. Standard frequency is once a week, so even without the “extra” activities, that turns out to be quite a bit of therapy. In some other countries, kids are getting therapy once a month, if that. I’m not a computer and have no solid statistics, but if therapy really “worked”, one would think that there would be some general patterns. Yet I see nothing.
The thing is, a lot of therapy for kids with developmental delays is just really thoughtful play. I admit that there are a handful of times I have heard friends talk about therapy and thought, ok, that would be hard to replicate at home, but I’m talking something like 99% of therapy being quite ordinary. Stacking blocks, matching shapes, and eating Cheerios. Sure, maybe some foam blocks for weak hands, talking shape sorters for a little extra hint, or cheerios with ranch sauce because that’s the only flavor a certain small someone will accept. But still, it is mostly just regular kid stuff. By and large, the suggestions and ideas our therapists’ years of experience and my intuitive mama observations were not all that different. Sure, there were times that the therapist suggested specific ideas that were helpful, but did they somehow make or break his developmental progress? Doubtful.
As a general matter, I wonder if therapy (including therapy-like tools such as Gemiini, Talk Tools, or neurodevelopmental approaches) works mostly through a secondary effect phenomenon. Participation means a lot of time spent thinking about child development. Take even twice a week therapy, for example. (Which, for the record, could be considered fairly average or low on the scale in the United States.) Just having that therapy twice a week will cause a parent to repeatedly think about the therapy, plan on, recount (to a partner), and question the concepts introduced. That is a lot of mental energy geared towards developmental progress of a child. It would be easy to guess that so much energy would translate into a benefit for the kid, not because of the therapy itself, but simply because of the extra attention that happens in addition to the actual therapy.
Put it another way. There are 168 hours in a week. The average 1-3 year old sleeps 12-14 hours a day. So let’s say your kid clocks in at 12 hour mark. That is 84 hours a week spent awake. At the higher end, say you’re doing therapy five days a week, an hour each time. Five 1 hour sessions of therapy only totals 5.9% of that kid’s waking hours. A kid who only gets therapy once a week is spending only 1.2% of his awake time in therapy. Then say, you go full hog and have your kid in therapy for ten sessions a week, which is 2 sessions every weekday. Two therapy sessions a day is A LOT. That is still only 11.9% of their time. And trust me, if you’re doing ten sessions of therapy a week, you are busy.
Unless you’re talking about ABA therapy (and that is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, whooee), I just am not seeing how MORE THERAPY = FASTER DEVELOPMENT. Because let’s face it, for kids with Down syndrome without an additional diagnosis, therapy is mostly to address low tone and speech issues. What could happen during that handful of hours a week that is going to make your kid walk? Or talk? More likely, it is the other 79 hours a week that a kid spends cruising around furniture to get his mom’s smartphone that has been left on the coffee table, listening to his sister talk about Elsa’s ice powers, or picking up blueberries one by one because they are so darned delicious that will drive most of his development. And as much as therapy focuses a child’s parents on certain aspects of that child’s development, it works, but not because of anything magical about the therapy itself.
(I’m gonna say now: PLEASE DON’T GET MAD AND SAY I’M BASHING THERAPY. My kid is in therapy. I like our therapists. I know parents who do a ton of therapy, some who do none. I see in each and every circumstance why those parents have made the choices they’ve made.)
The secondary effects of therapy can be a mixed bag.
So therapy helps parents tune into their kids. That is positive. I think it also helps create more of a village for kids with disabilities. In a world where kids with disabilities are so often passed over, it can be hugely positive to have someone with a ton of experience come into a family and say, “Your kid is capable and worthy.” One of our therapists in particular has been this for us, and I love her dearly for it. She saw LP for the bright, hilarious kid that he is, and that fed my mama soul.
I think sometimes kids act differently around people inside versus outside of the family and that can be good and bad for therapists. Sometimes LP has been really resistant to playing with therapists (those people with bags of fun toys could be up to no good, I guess). Other times, he’ll be more willing to play a certain way with our therapists than he is with me or his sisters. I notice that most with his speech therapist. He pulls out a lot of words for her that he won’t for me.
There are some other negative secondary effects of therapy as well though. As positive as it might be for a parent to tune into their child’s developmental delays, it can also be really damaging. When LP was around a year old, we decided to cut back on our therapy from once a week to once a month. I could tell that everyone thought it was unusual, but I felt like the amount of therapy was doing more harm than good at that point in our lives. I didn’t feel like it was changing LP’s development; he was doing what he was capable of, nothing more and nothing less. In the meantime, I was growing resentful of the constant tallying of what he was or wasn’t doing, and especially of being compelled to constantly think about what he wasn’t doing. I had no need to be in denial, but it was really disheartening and frustrating to dwell on his delays. It just was what it was, and in the meantime, I realized that I was fixating so much on him being a slow runner, that I missed that he was interested in jumping. As parents we only have so much space in our minds, filling it with what our kids can’t do might crowd out energy to help our kids do what they can do.
The biggest thing that was bothering me was that the girls were starting to ask why their brother had therapy. Frankly, I didn’t have a great answer. I could imagine other circumstances in which I could say, “Your brother needs help with xyz and so Lisa is here to figure that out with us.” But for his particular constellation of existence, I didn’t feel like I could honestly say that. I didn’t think the therapy was actually changing him, so why exactly was a therapist coming to our house once a week?
Plus, it wasn’t just that one hour. It was the half hour before that I was yelling at kids to clean up the living room and while I threw that huge pile of laundry into the guest room. And the entire morning that I lost because there’s not enough time to go to the grocery store before therapy, but after therapy I had to feed the kids lunch and then it is nap time, then I had to pick up your oldest from her friend’s house, then figure out dinner, so the day was effectively over.
Then, in my dark twisty moments, I’d look at someone else’s kid with Down syndrome who was doing something my kid wasn’t and then wonder, oh no, have I made a huge mistake, am I screwing up my kid forever? I’m pretty sure that was just the mommy guilt whispering bad things in my ear.
Banish the mommy guilt, don’t let therapy run your life.
We are lucky to live in a time when a person can get online and instantly connect to thousands and thousands of people in the same life circumstances. For a parent of a kid with disabilities, that means that they can access an impressive hive mind when it comes to therapy-like ideas. The stuff that therapists do is, once you really look at it, relatively intuitive. Is your kid reluctant to crawl? Try putting them at a slight decline so that gravity helps them along. Do you want your kid to get better at using a pincer grasp and they love fruit? Give them a bunch of pomegranate seeds every day. Does it seem like your kid isn’t drinking very well because they can’t feel the liquid? Try something really cold, or fizzy, or even a little (not too) spicy soup.
Out of ideas, confused, frustrated? By all means, go talk to your kid’s therapists. But also, just step back and remember that all kids are developmentally frustrating to themselves and their parents. Right now, Sparrow can only crawl backwards. She is constantly getting stuck under furniture and screaming bloody murder. So every now and then, I put some exciting toy in front of her, put my leg perpendicular to hers for support and gently tap her knees to encourage her to move her legs forward. She does it a few times, falls on her belly and then gets excited that she got closer to the toy. I’m quite sure that if Sparrow had 47 chromosomes, there’d be a lot of talk about “working with her” and “making a plan” and “getting to the next step”. But I’m just trying to help her figure out how to do something she desperately wants to do—crawl forward. Chipmunk and LP both never crawled but scooted on their butts. Every time Chipmunk did it in public, people would comment on how cute and funny it was. Every time LP did it, people would look at me with questions in their eyes, wondering if it was “normal” or not. You get my point. A lot of normal human development is varied, because our bodies and minds are varied. You look out for habits that might be damaging in the long term, but the rest is all good.
Therapy can be great. Therapy can suck. When it is good, do it. When it sucks, do less. When in doubt, trust your child’s process. Kids with disabilities have valuable processes, too.
Before we start—there are a couple plot hints I discuss here that I don’t think give away the movie, but take away a tiny bit of its suspense. I emphasize, tiny. Minuscule, really, electron-sized. I’ve warned you though, so my conscience is clean.
Watching “Where Hope Grows” made me feel like I was at the mercy of an inexperienced dance partner who, despite the best of intentions, kept stepping on my toes. Sometimes it was just a minor irritation, and sometimes it downright hurt.
David DeSanctis (Produce) is a wonderful, talented actor. There were beautiful moments when the actors danced just right and the chemistry felt genuine, mostly in scenes just between DeSanctis and Polaha. The rest was a mess of formulaic plot device and stereotypes.
The plot rushes Calvin through a completely unbelievable about-face from his years of destructive drinking to sudden sobriety, responsible parenting, and even being an advocate who tries to get others to let go of the r-word. In the rush, Chris Dowling employs a steady stream of overused tropes to illustrate a heavy-handed Christian message of faith and redemption.
Aging washed up baseball player struggles with old demons. Alcoholic father sobers up within days for his unusually mature for her age daughter. High school jock pressures girlfriend to have sex, then threatens violence when he can’t get what he wants. Cheating wife learns her lesson a moment too late. And, last, but not least, a broken man finds redemption by learning deep and simple life lessons from a disabled friend.
On the topic of disability, the good intentions of the movie are plain. It makes a play for the value of inclusion, tries to challenge the use of the r-word, and Chris Dowling obviously writes the character with Down syndrome in a way that takes aim at negative stereotypes. DeSanctis’s character lives independently, has a job, a great sense of humor, and a lot of self-awareness. As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, none of this shocks me but I do understand that for others some of this might be a surprise. So while touting abilities isn’t the most effective way to advocate for inclusion in my book, I did appreciate what the film was attempting.
But every time the film tried to take on any issue of importance I cringed. When Calvin lectures the black grocery store manager about the reasons not to use the r-word like “we” don’t use the n-word, I was honestly not sure whether Calvin meant the royal “we” or was referring to white Americans. Either way, not great. It felt like the dialogue was being forced into a moral fantasy of sorts, but just as that satisfying imaginary tell off works out so perfectly in our heads it never does in reality. Did Dowling never consider that it might be tricky territory to stake his point of the offensive nature of the r-word by having his white character lecture a black man about the n-word? Not to mention, unlikely to happen at all.
It is hard to miss the obvious juxtaposition of Calvin’s daughter Katie and Milt’s wife; both plot lines play out some pretty banal moralization about sex and marriage. Calvin’s potential love interest is a bland but pretty character who is conveniently not only friends with Produce, but also pops up at the local AA meeting. Neil Genzlinger of the NYT had it right: “This is a common and loathsome element in these types of films: If a fallen man will only embrace Jesus, a luscious romantic reward could be his.”
I tried getting over these (sort of not) minor irritations, as well as the numerous other trite moments like the “main character hits rock bottom and drinks himself to oblivion on a baseball diamond under the pouring rain” scene, or the “smash every bottle of booze you’ve got and never look back” scene, or even the hugging and the Rain Man reference. The makers of the film seemed to have their hearts in the right place, and my pleasure at seeing DeSanctis’s acting made me want to forgive the rest.
But by the end, it felt too much that disability was a literary device and inclusion merely a side benefit. In a film about brokenness and the power of faith, Produce is written in an almost otherworldly way. In fact, he doesn’t even have an actual name. I kept waiting for the moment when Calvin would ask him what his real name was and the teachable moment that would follow, but it never came. Instead, Produce is a Christian Obi-wan Kenobi, ever-wise and promising salvation if only the broken Calvin could see the world through his nameless eyes. His unfailing honesty, loyalty, and faith are good traits, to be sure, but I found myself unable to be pleased at this supposedly positive portrayal because it seemed to stem from a lack of natural human complexity, rather than simply superior moral character. Produce gets threatened, mocked, ignored, and disrespected, and yet he stays the course without batting an eye. Even if I am to believe a person could be so unflinchingly good, I cannot believe that it doesn’t come with great effort and sacrifice.
In fact, I found Produce’s rendering entirely too close to the angel imagery that is so often thrust upon people with disabilities. If you are not familiar with the angel phenomenon, it is the idea that people with Down syndrome (and other disabilities) are spiritually pure beings in broken bodies who are put on earth to lead the rest of us closer to God. When Produce is literally handing out the Word of God as he struggles to live, I half expected to see a halo over his head.
It felt like the message was that people with disabilities should be included because of what they can do for others, not simply because it is the right thing to do. Because what happens if the individual isn’t a spiritual stalwart? What happens if he isn’t independent, costs money to support, or isn’t perfectly charming under stress? I absolutely think that an argument in favor of inclusion is that it benefits all, but that’s not the main reason inclusion is important. Inclusion is important because it is right, end of story.
I’m much more a fan of how “Glee”, “American Horror Story”, and even “Shameless” treat the topics of Down syndrome and disability. They make their points without needing to get up on a pulpit and spell it out to their audiences, and because of that, their characters have room to be more fully human. Even when they do get up on the pulpit, they’re examining that pulpit as they’re up there.
I know that some think that “Where Hope Grows” is shattering stereotypes, but I think that the movie does the opposite. The derivative plot line ends up inadvertently reinforcing the stereotypes it seeks to break down. Something like a meat company that advertises by claiming “We’ve got the cleanest beef in the business, no salmonella here!” Unfortunately, all one walks away with are the words “beef” and “salmonella” bouncing against each other.
I wish the film had focused on the one thing it had going for it, which was the chemistry between DeSanctis and Polaha. Without needing to check off a laundry list of moral lessons, the film could have been an understated, thoughtful look at redemption, faith, and the power of inclusion. I kept thinking of “Spring Forward” and how well that movie had shown two equally flawed characters who offer each other their strengths and support their weaknesses. There is no such equal footing in “Where Hope Grows.”
I’d still recommend seeing the movie because DeSanctis is such a wonderful actor. My toes feel beat up, but I’m ok with that, because DeSanctis is worth it. Just don’t expect a cinematic masterpiece. Maybe this review will spur you to see it for yourself so you can tell me I’m wrong. In that case, you’re still supporting DeSanctis, and we get to discuss how the film could have done better. That seems like a win-win situation. I’ll see you in the comments.