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giant lit up dragon

How to Train Your Dragon and Evolving Ideas about Disability

Have you seen How to Train Your Dragon?  It’s a rare cinematic gem.  It captures the essence of person-centered thinking, disAbility, and so many other relevant movements in the community living world that embrace people’s possibilities as opposed to their limitations.

A brief synopsis: nerdy Viking kid, Hiccup, befriends a dragon, the traditional nemesis of his people.  Together they take down the root of all evil, a great big ugly brute of a dragon, and create a cultural revolution in favor of accepting people (and dragons!) who are different. People celebrating and embracing alternative abilities is a major plot theme for the film.

giant lit up dragon
Photo by Rene Mensen via Flickr

The movie has a truckload of empowered characters that are rocking life with a disability. They aren’t objects of pity, considered ‘other’, or brushed to the sidelines.  They make the movie happen!

Consider Toothless, the nimble and mischievous dragon that Hiccup befriends. He may have a prosthetic limb but that doesn’t stop him from taking down a monstrous, size of Texas, big bad, nasty dragon.  Toothless is fearless, confident, and a great friend.  It’s easy to see that his fellow movie characters have respect for his abilities.  They’re confident that he can do things despite his limitations.

Gobber the Belch, the village blacksmith, right hand man of chieftain Stoick the Vast, and Dragon Training Drill Sergeant, also has a prosthetic limb.  He is shown to be one of the movie’s most courageous, intelligent, strong and well respected persons.  No attention is paid to his disability, only his abilities. Except when he is subduing an unruly dragon, to great effect I might add, with his wooden peg leg.

Hiccup, the movie’s main character, approaches disability in the way I wish everyone approached persons with a disability.  He’s empathetic, constantly open to new possibilities and defies conventions through a rare combination of logic and heart.  His ability to see possibilities as opposed to limitations turns an ancient enemy into a powerful ally and friend.

I recently read an article on Disability Scoop talking about how children that are friends with other children with disabilities are far more likely to embrace inclusion and see people’s potential, not their limitations.

How to Train Your Dragon is an excellent cultural reference for how people are seeing beyond labels.  Seeing people as individuals and celebrating their skills, instead of relentlessly focusing on what they can’t do.  This film embodies the spirit of what we should be teaching our children; that we’re stronger with diversity, that everyone has skills that contribute to a greater whole, and that great friends come in all shapes and sizes.

Movie number two is set to premier in June.  Check out the trailer!  Are you excited?  I am!


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  1. I taught in a school board that integrated all children into the mainstream classroom: physically challenged, developmentally challenged, hearing impaired …and every year of my teaching career I had at least one student ( some years three!) who needed significant support. The wonderful thing was, every student learned to become a support to every other student regardless of ability. And if you were new and not sure of how to connect with a specific student, someone always stepped up to the plate to include you…and often it was the student with the obvious physical or mental challenge. I always told my students that I learned more about compassion and empathy through them and and so much about myself through them than any university course I had taken. Masters Degrees mean little before a person who is challenged and needing a listening heart!

    • Learning in an integrated classroom is what got me interested in working with persons living with developmental disabilities. Listening hearts make the world a better place. Thanks for the comment Bernadette.