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?