Disability in Wreck-It Ralph5 min read

At first glance, the movie Wreck-It Ralph appears to be a pos­i­tive step for the role of dis­ability in movies. The first movie’s depic­tion of Vanellope being excluded from the fic­tional society of Sugar Rush because of her “glitch,” and then learning that it is not a bad thing, is much better than having her be “cured” of the glitch would have been.

Ralph being defined as a “bad guy” but not actu­ally being bad despite society telling him that he is cer­tainly res­onated with me as an autistic person and could be seen as an alle­gory for the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment.

However, there are a couple things that the movie could have done better.

Ralph’s mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the words “Hero’s Duty” as “Hero’s Doody” being played for humor legit­imizes a very real form of microag­gres­sions against people with speech imped­i­ments, and Vanellope’s glitch turning out to be a super­power implies that dis­abil­i­ties should be useful or pro­duc­tive in order to be worthy of accep­tance.

Speech imped­i­ments are a dis­ability, as defined by the Social Security Administration in the United States. There are many dif­ferent types of speech imped­i­ments– much more than just stut­tering, the most well-known speech imped­i­ment.

I have a speech imped­i­ment that causes me to speak with a strong accent that is not related to any for­eign country.  This speech imped­i­ment is prob­ably related to being autistic.

When Ralph tries to say “Hero’s Duty” to refer to one of the games that is cen­tral to the film’s plot, Vanellope hears it as “Hero’s Doody.” Even after Ralph cor­rects her, she con­tinues to make crude scat­o­log­ical jokes about Ralph’s mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion– which is a mere annoy­ance to Ralph but would have been emo­tion­ally crushing to me if I had been on the other end of the exchange.

Because for me, it would be like Trump mocking a dis­abled reporter’s hand move­ments. I am always scared of acci­den­tally saying some­thing that sounds sexual or scat­o­log­ical and having people laugh at it.

A quick look at YouTube com­ments for a video clip of that scene reveals that there are a lot of people who find Vanellope mocking Ralph’s mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion to be funny. As someone with a speech imped­i­ment that causes me to mis­pro­nounce words as if I had a thick for­eign accent from a country that does not exist, I did not find that scene to be funny.

In fact, I hated it.

Even though Ralph does not really have a speech imped­i­ment, the movie sends a mes­sage that it is okay to make fun of people mis­pro­nouncing words– a direct con­tra­dic­tion of the film’s mes­sages about dis­ability accep­tance.

When people have laughed at things I mis­pro­nounced, it has always hurt, even if they meant well. Some of my closest friends who were oth­er­wise good allies to neu­ro­di­ver­sity have done it. I didn’t stop caring about them, much like how people in other mar­gin­al­ized groups often put up with microag­gres­sions from their more priv­i­leged friends.

I will do every­thing I can to avoid talking to strangers on the phone. The way my voice sounds is one of the rea­sons I hate the nature of my exis­tence in this world, and one of the most frus­trating aspects of social accep­tance is get­ting people to acknowl­edge that this even mat­ters at all.

There may be some people with speech imped­i­ments who have learned to accept others laughing at them, or even laugh along with them. But I am not one of them, and you should not laugh at others’ mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tions any more than you should laugh at the way a dis­abled reporter waves his hands at a press con­fer­ence. Unless they have told you without any pres­sure that they are okay with jokes being made about it, that is their choice to make, not yours.

As for the movie’s main disability-related plot­line, it is heart­ening that Vanellope’s dis­ability of “glitching” during game­play was not por­trayed as a neg­a­tive or devaluing.

In my opinion, the movie did well at showing the angst and self-hate she expe­ri­enced from how others treated her because of it. However, the problem with Vanellope’s glitch turning out to be a super­power that made her better at racing is that not all dis­abled people have hidden abil­i­ties.

Yes, there are autistic people who are great com­puter pro­gram­mers or tal­ented artists. Stephen Hawking was a great sci­en­tist who had ALS and grad­u­ally lost con­trol over his motor func­tions but con­tinued to come up with new sci­en­tific ideas with the aid of assis­tive tech­nology.

But there are also people whose chronic ill­nesses pre­vent them from having the energy to keep up with a reg­ular work schedule, and autistic people who are not savants and have immense dif­fi­culty finding non-technical jobs because they lack the type of “people skills” that allistic people demand.

Indeed, some autistic people have crit­i­cized the stereo­type in media that fic­tional autistic char­ac­ters are high in the type of intel­li­gence mea­sured by IQ tests, whereas in reality, autistic people are just as diverse in their levels of the trait nor­ma­tively defined as “intel­li­gence” as anyone else.

For those of us who can turn our dis­abil­i­ties into super­powers, that is a good thing, and I sup­port you in doing what you can to sur­vive in an ableist world, but we should not leave behind those of us who cannot.

To con­clude, Wreck-It Ralph is still a good movie that teaches a pos­i­tive lesson about accepting dif­fer­ence, and I think the world is better off with it than without it. However, it could have been better. Despite pro­moting accep­tance of a nonex­is­tent dis­ability like Vanellope’s glitch, Wreck-It Ralph nor­mal­izes a behavior that stig­ma­tizes speech imped­i­ments, a very real type of dis­ability that has made many people’s lives harder, including my own.

Hopefully one day we can all take a long, hard look at soci­etal atti­tudes that mock speech imped­i­ments and col­lec­tively repeat Ralph’s sig­na­ture line, “I’m gonna wreck it!”


Fleschner, Stark, Tanoos & Newlin (2019), Are Speech Impediments Considered Disabilities?

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  1. I’m curious for a dis­cus­sion on the sequel. I feel like the sequel touched on many more trigger sit­u­a­tions, like loving some one dif­ferent than you and even how the least expected dif­fer­ences can be the most pow­erful (like the glitch but from Ralph’s side.) I think it also estab­lishes Venelope and Ralph’s rela­tion­ship on a deeper level. I liked it more than the first…one of the few sequels I can say this about.

  2. I can see why this would be so painful for you, but fwiw, I didn’t take it as a joke about a speech imped­i­ment — don’t “duty” and “doody” sound iden­tical no matter who says them? I thought it was meant as basic grade-school poop humor.

    1. Yes, they do. “Duty” and “doody” sound iden­tical in an American accent (which is what Ralph used). So Ralph didn’t mis­pro­nounce the word. And Vanellope likely knew what “duty” actu­ally means, but was being a smar­tass. Vanellope does tend to be a smar­tass a lot. It’s part of her per­son­ality. So that didn’t bother me.

      That said, one thing that does bother me re: speech imped­i­ments and weird pro­nun­ci­a­tions is the insis­tence I see in some anti-racist arti­cles that someone pro­nounce cer­tain names cor­rectly, with “cor­rectly” meaning “cor­rect enough to sat­isfy the person whose name it is”.

      Now, I know that it can be a form of racism when one does not bother to even approx­i­mate for­eign names, and I know it can be hurtful when someone finds that lit­er­ally everyone they meet out­side their direct com­mu­nity always gets their name wrong.

      But these some­times exacting stan­dards re: pro­nun­ci­a­tion can be a serious problem for people who either have out­right speech imped­i­ments or simply pro­nounce sounds with an ever-so-slight dif­fer­ence most speakers of the per­son’s own lan­guage don’t notice. Like me. A as a kid in early ele­men­tary school, I didn’t pro­nounce the short “u” sound the same way others did (couldn’t no matter how hard I tried — it was sort of a weird mix between the “u” from a spe­cific New York regional accent and the “u” from — well, an American accent I per­ceive as more generic but I can’t say how typ­ical it actu­ally is — and I still don’t pro­nounce it much dif­fer­ently) and this led me to trouble with a girl with an Americanized ver­sion of an Indian name, Sunya.

      I pro­nounced her name with a short u (and not an o) and she thought I was pro­nouncing her name as “Sonia”. I was not. I tried repeat­edly to pro­nounce her name right, then echoed her “Not Sonia, SUNya” phrase to show her I was trying — no dice, so I even over­cor­rected and empha­sized the “u” in such a way that she thought I was saying “Sahn-ya”. Again, I was not pro­nouncing the “u” in her name any dif­fer­ently than I pro­nounced other short “u” sounds. And short of pro­nouncing her name with a delib­erate nose wrinkle every time (so as to better mimic the nasal way she pro­nounced the short “u” sound) I could not phys­i­cally pro­nounce her (Americanized) name to her sat­is­fac­tion. And even if a nose wrinkle had enabled me to get it, it would have a) been uncom­fort­able to say and b) been taken as a repeated microag­gres­sion, not without reason. So I knew that wasn’t an option because while I hadn’t yet fully grasped why wrin­kling one’s nose at other people was wrong, I knew the idea made me uncom­fort­able.

      And it did not occur to me simply to offer to pro­nounce “Sunya” in a bas­tardized Indian lan­guage fashion, as “Soon-ya”. I could have man­aged that — not the exact Hindi or Bengali vowel, obvi­ously, but I could have man­aged a generic American-accented “Soon-ya”. But I was too young and unin­formed at the time to sug­gest that — I’d just thought “Sunya” pro­nounced with a short U sound was what her name was. And shortly after, I went through a regres­sive period in which I stopped saying a lot of words (which, not coin­ci­den­tally, were words I pro­nounced slightly dif­fer­ently from the other kids) for years — and it hap­pens, in case any are won­dering, that the words in ques­tion included “tree” and the quin­tes­sen­tially “white” name “Tchaikovsky” (the last of which is a known gotcha in one of those arti­cles, a gotcha that does not work on someone who was once too ner­vous to say “Tchaikovsky”).

      And I don’t actu­ally know if I had gotten better at pro­nouncing a short “u” in a normal way or if I am simply exag­ger­ating in my memory how dif­ferent my “u” sound was as a result of that repeated series of cor­rec­tions.

      I think a better way to handle this would be to see if at least the person pro­nounces the for­eign name with vowels that one knows that person is capable of pro­nouncing — if the sounds one uses to pro­nounce a for­eign name broadly match all the sounds that exist and the name and are con­sis­tent with the same sounds that person uses in other words, and no nicknaming-without-permission is involved, then that can be said to be a cor­rect pro­nun­ci­a­tion of that name. And of course, if someone has a speech imped­i­ment that neces­si­tates nick­names, that should still be allowed too, again with the nick­name being as close as pos­sible.

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