Normalising disabilities in Arab societies through cartoons
London - In Arab societies, people with disabilities have lived largely in the shadows and, until recently, their condition has been one of quasi-invisibility. It is easier to deny the existence of a condition than to have to deal with it.
However, in Jordan, three people came together to start an animated cartoon series dedicated to educating, entertaining and inspiring disabled children.
Team Hero, the brainchild of Reem al-Franji, Khalid Abu Sharif and Mutaz Jarrar, features characters with different disabilities, showing how a child with a certain infirmity can be a hero in his own way.
In a region in which many people are unaware on how to deal with disabled children, the project aims to introduce the right etiquette. This way, children without disabilities can be heroes by treating disabled children with kindness.
Franji’s engagement stems from personal experience: She is the mother of two children with special needs. “When I joined a parent support group through an NGO [non-governmental organisation] to work with children with disabilities, I realised that there is a need to be more positive in looking at disabled children,” she said in a Skype interview.
Abu Sharif observed that “there is only one other cartoon that is linked to special needs and it does not really discuss the issue. It just has a character with Downs syndrome and it shows their daily adventure but it doesn’t really educate the kids about it.”
Although the cartoon is focused on characters with disabilities, there are other issues addressed, Abu Sharif explained.
“We want to take it a step further and educate children about mental and physical disabilities as well as social issues such as children’s rights, racism and integration. We want to have an emotional engagement with the child so they feel empowered and may bring a lesson home.”
As Team Hero targets children aged 6-10, bright-coloured animation seemed to be the most suitable medium to engage them.
“We use jokes and cute teddy bears to keep the child interested. We also want to show our characters to be funny, to show that people with a disability can have a sense of humour,” Franji said.
Animation comes at a high cost requiring a lot of effort and time. The project’s biggest challenge is budget although the producers obtained sponsorships from several parties, including UNICEF Jordan.
Scriptwriting and preparation of each episode require a lot of research to make sure it relates to real experiences of children with a certain disability, Abu Sharif said.
“We assembled a team of specialists in child education to review, guide and counsel us because there is no room for error. We research their (children’s) background, families, parents… We go the whole nine yards,” she said.
“Every child is different as there is a big spectrum within each disability. Not every episode is exactly what every child has experienced in their lifetime,” Franji added.
Although the programme creators are Arab, they stress that disability is not linked to a certain ethnicity or race. “We have Arab-looking characters and one white-skinned character with ginger hair,” Abu Sharif said.
It took three-and-a-half years to complete season one, which consists of 13 10-minute episodes available in Arabic and English. The team members initially used their own funds to build the project. They hope the cartoon series will be enough of a success to enable them to leave their jobs and dedicate all their working time and effort to the project.
“A TV show usually has a whole list of staff names at the end whereas we only have three names on this cartoon but we take pride in doing this with such limited (human) resources,” Abu Sharif said.
Team Hero is more than just a cartoon; it is a series of life lessons. The makers hope to educate the public enough to know there is more to disabled children than their disability.
“A vast majority of children with special needs and disabilities in the Middle East remain uneducated,” Abu Sharif said. “Schools reject these children because other children do not know how to deal with them. There is a specific culture around special needs which creates a forced distance. We want to tackle this. We want to break it down.”
All Arab states are signatories of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which requires governments to amend or introduce legislation that ensures persons with disabilities do not face discrimination or exclusion and are afforded equal opportunities, especially in education and employment.
With armed conflicts raging across large swathes of the Arab world, the prevalence of disability is likely to grow and force government to catch up.
For more information about Team Hero, contact Mutaz Jarrar at email@example.com.