Those who are deaf and hard of hearing have been underrepresented in media for many years. Though they have been portrayed in some high-profile titles as of late—e.g., CODA—GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV report for the 2021–22 season found that series regular characters with disabilities decreased to 2.8 percent.
Disney Junior is doing its part in increasing representation, however, with the introduction of Mickey Mouse Funhouse’s first deaf character, a small gnome named Fig, making a move in the right direction with the help of writer Kate Moran.
“The character of Fig came about because I have several cousins who are deaf and hard of hearing,” Moran says. “When we were kids, as hard as it was for me to find representation that I could relate to on-screen, my cousins never saw anyone like them ever. So, I always knew I wanted to write stories, and I had promised them early on that, in my world, in my stories, there would be characters like us.”
When writing for Mickey Mouse Funhouse, Moran notes that Fig’s storylines are not necessarily centered on his deafness. “My focus was on making Fig an interesting character with agency and independence, who happens to be deaf,” she says. And she certainly achieved making Fig an interesting character. Being deaf in a children’s show is noteworthy enough, but Fig is also a drummer and music enthusiast.
The inspiration for Fig’s musicality came from Moran being a fan of two deaf drummers. One suffered profound hearing loss later in life and another was born deaf, but both play the drums in a similar way through feeling the vibrations of the percussive beats.
Of course, a major part of a deaf person’s life is the way in which they communicate with the world around them—namely, through sign language. “Our characters only have four fingers, so that can be very challenging,” Moran points out. Consultant Delbert Whetter, a deaf producer who is part of RespectAbility’s entertainment media consulting team, would review the scripts and animation to ensure the American Sign Language (ASL) was correct—or rather, as correct as can be, given the circumstances. “He made sure that the ASL would read properly on-screen and made adjustments [to account] for the fact that they only have four fingers,” Moran says.
Even with the use of ASL, it can be difficult to communicate with hearing people, who often do not know any sign language. Therefore, it was important to make sure “that [Fig’s] sister Olive is there to help work as a translator, which is very common when you have a hearing sibling,” Moran notes.
Moran, Whetter and others on the team did their best to portray Fig and his experience of deafness as authentically as possible in order to properly depict the very normal existence of deaf people. “It’s really important to portray the wider spectrum of what is normal,” Moran says. “When we walk out of doors, it’s a big world.” In children’s worlds, specifically, they don’t always get to meet people who are different from them, as some may have to attend certain types of classes or even completely different schools, she notes. Her goal is to show children that “they have these differences, but they’re just like you. They’re normal, too.”
When children see representation on screen, whether it is representative of them specifically or not, it helps broaden their world view. “Hopefully, children have some understanding when they do meet somebody who is deaf or hard of hearing,” Moran says. “They can understand, ‘Oh, OK, I saw Fig on Funhouse, and Mickey and Minnie have a deaf friend. I know what deafness is.’ And this will encourage them to still attempt to communicate and make friends.”
While various diversity and inclusion initiatives have made headlines the past few years, Moran notes, “I really want to push for making sure that when we do talk about diversity and inclusion, we remember to include people who have different abilities as well and neurodivergents. That’s also a part of the bigger world.”
Moran is helping the industry make a step in the right direction. With Fig (and his sister Olive) set to appear in more episodes of Mickey Mouse Funhouse, children will be more exposed to those that are different from them, and deaf and hard-of-hearing children will see themselves represented on-screen.