This month, Warner Bros. released the new ‘Witches’ movie, which portrays Anne Hathaway’s character, the Grand High Witch, with ‘deformed’ hands in an attempt to make her appear more scary and creepy. For those of you who have who have read the Roald Dahl book, that portrayal of the character was never referenced.

When the film was released, it received backlash from the disability community and I believe the backlash was warranted. It was so disappointing to see Hollywood miss the mark so badly, especially during a time where so many people are striving towards a more inclusive society.

To be clear, this wasn’t about showing someone with a limb difference. The movie tried to portray limb difference in a negative light. What makes it more damaging is that it’s a children’s movie and the worst possible outcome would be that millions of children will now see people who are missing their hand or fingers as ‘not human’ or even, as witches. It has the ability to impact the way able bodied people view people with a disability and it also, devastatingly, has the ability to affect the way people with a disability view themselves.

For a period of time, I was involved with Mad Max 4: Fury Road where Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa, had a limb difference. In that film, she was portrayed as a warrior and a hero and is starkly contrasted to the way in which Warner Bros. has portrayed the Grand High Witch.

Anne Hathaway has issued a formal apology, which came across as very genuine and that is a step in the right direction. Even still, damage has been done. At no point during the course of the filming did anyone consider that it was a problem and so while we are grateful for her apology, the focus should be on healing the pain that has been caused to the disability community. I don’t think it’s appropriate to strive for a ‘cancel culture’, but I think this is a moment for education, inclusion, empathy and empowerment. There is still a lack of awareness about disability representation and a negative stigma associated with disability. 

It was a reminder to me that the portrayal of disability and our use of language is so important and we still have a long way to go. I know this can be a tricky area, so at the end of this post I’ve included a guide to what is ok and not okay to say when discussing disabilities. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it’s a start.

To all the children who have a limb difference and might have been affected by this movie, know that you are beautiful just the way you are and that being different will enrich your life in a way that being the same as everyone else never would. Also, know that there are so many children and adults out there who are passionate about inclusion and equality. Surround yourself with those people.  

A Guide!

First, it’s important that every communication is approached with respect and kindness. It’s also OK if you make a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. If you think you’ve caused offence, just offer an apology. I often find that a sense of humour and a willingness to communicate makes things much, much easier!

  1. It’s not your right to know. A lot of people who have a disability will be happy to answer your questions, but it’s not your right to understand why that person has a disability or what their disability is and so just bear that in mind when you’re asking specific questions.
  2. Stay calm. Always be very considerate of the extra time it might take someone with a disability to do a task or to say something. Give them the time they need and stay calm. Do not get awkward or jittery.  
  3. Get the language right. You don’t have to find a different word to describe ‘disability’. In my experience it only leads to more offensive language like ‘deformity’, ‘victim’, ‘crippled’, ‘defect’, ‘suffers from’, or ‘handicap’. Disability isn’t a perfect word, but it’s better than all of those. Most people refer to themselves as ‘a person with a disability’ rather than someone who is ‘disabled’. Having a disability is just a part of who that person is. It does not define them.
  4. It’s called the ‘Paralympics’. This is very specific, but if you’re talking to someone about the Paralympics, that is what it’s called. It’s not called the ‘other Olympics’ and the Olympics is not called the ‘normal Olympics’. Just use the words ‘Olympics’ and ‘Paralympics’.
  5. We are not necessarily your inspiration. Tonnes of people who have a disability are hugely inspirational, because they have done things like solved complicated engineering problems, competed for their country, become the top of their field, but they are not inspirational just because they got up in the morning and did basic day-to-day tasks. Suggesting otherwise comes across as condescending. An example: don’t congratulate someone who is in a wheelchair just because they got the bus to go to work.
  6. Your children will be curious. That’s ok! It’s very normal for children to be curious, so if your child asks someone with a disability a question, don’t feel like you need to butt in or distract them. It makes the interaction more awkward and it suggests that you think disability is a bad thing. A lot people with a disability, including myself, are very pleased to be the way we are! We are also happy to educate.
  7. Your tone is important. Use a normal tone of voice when talking to someone with a disability. Once at a swimming competition, a race official entered my personal space in a very loud voice explained that ‘this race was a 50 metre freestyle and all I had to do was swim as fast as I possibly could to the end of the pool’. I probably don’t need to explain why that was offensive.
  8. Be kind. If someone is missing their right hand, you can still shake their left hand or the end of their right arm or their prosthetic. Just act with kindness and get a sense of what the person with the disability is comfortable doing. If it’s not possible to shake hands, make sure you acknowledge the person with a very big smile! Obvi this advice is for post-COVID times.
  9. Make decisions with a lens of diversity. If you are planning a meeting or event, make every decision with a filter of diversity. Consider what changes you might need to make so that people with a disability are not going to be excluded. Even if you have no idea whether there will be people in the room with a disability, you should think about this. 1 in 5 people have a disability, so there will be someone with a disability in the room. Even if you’re unsure if there will be someone with a hearing impairment, you should consider getting a Auslan interpreter as a standard practice. If a barrier is unavoidable, and you know it will affect someone, make sure you let the person know ahead of time and do everything you can to make them as comfortable and included as possible.
  10. Make eye contact. Always look at and speak to the person with a disability, don’t just look at their interpreters or people accompanying them.
  11. Don’t over analyse. Don’t stress about using common expressions when speaking to a person with a disability – like asking someone with one hand if they ‘need a hand’ (this happens to me 500 times a day and I revel in asking the person if they have a spare or if they’ve taken mine).
  12. Asking to help. Don’t assume that a person with a disability needs your help, but always be willing to provide it if you’re asked. I have lived for 32 years with one hand and so I have figured out how to cut my steak without a waiter needing to remove the cutlery from my hands and cut it up for me, thank you very much.
  13. Don’t stare. If you are really overwhelmed by the fact that someone has a disability, still stop staring and then go and speak to someone about why it is affecting you so much.  
  14. Don’t make comparisons. If you’re talking to someone with a disability, don’t try and make analogies with other disabilities or let them know that you know someone else who has a disability. You might have brown hair, but you’d be pretty uninterested if someone told you about every other person they knew who had brown hair.
  15. Don’t suggest reasons for why I might be disabled. If you’re interested in knowing why someone has a disability, don’t proffer options. For example, people often ask if I’m a ‘thalidomide’ baby. ‘Thalidomide’ became a banned substance for pregnant mothers in the 1960s and I was born in 1988, so it’s offensive on multiple levels!
  16. Let’s make the world a more inclusive place! If you’re a parent or an educator, please just teach children from a young age that everyone is different and that makes society beautiful. My 2 year old daughter knows that I have one arm and now without even thinking, she will just say ‘that’s the way it is’ when someone asks me about my disability in her presence.