Finding Dory and Overcoming Disabilities

I had the opportunity to take my daughter to watch Finding Dory for Father's Day. It was her very first movie at the theaters and my wife and I were a bit nervous of how she would behave through it, but she did surprisingly well. Since she loves Finding Nemo, she was captivated by the familiar characters and fell in love with a few of the new ones, namely Hank the "Ock-a-pus", which she kept repeating after the film (and everyday since…like ten times). 

I was caught up by this story with preexisting positive emotions. Finding Nemo was the first movie I took my little sister to see with my very first paycheck when she was 8 years old. Watching the sequel now with my daughter and having it be her first trip to the movies was heartwarming. Mix that with the opening scene of Dory losing her parents and it makes for some serious waterworks.  

While I don't want this to be a spoiler review, I do want to express the importance of the story’s three parts, it’s theme of child disability and the ingrained lesson of self-reliance. 

In this film Dory gets caught in the Marine Life Institute, an animal hospital/natural habitat exhibit. Through the Institute’s loudspeakers the audience hears the voice of actor and spokesperson Sigourney Weaver repeating the company’s mission statement: rescue, rehabilitation, and release. These stages not only emphasize the process for helping disabled animals, but serve as a euphemism for a child's process of becoming self-reliant despite the challenges or handicaps that may have been placed on them physically, mentally, and/or emotionally. It's a tremendous message that speaks to the heart of parent and child alike. 

Rescuing is a prevalent theme in the story for our leading characters. In Finding Nemo we witness a child in need of physical rescue from exterior forces, and a parent's need for rescue from an internal force: the inability to let go.  Dory helps Marlin rescue his son Nemo, who was taken by a scuba diving dentist who claimed to have discovered Nemo struggling for his life out on the reef and "rescued" him. The dentist noticed Nemo's little fin, the disability he was born with, and believed he needed to be rescued when in fact Nemo was simply proving to his friends, his dad, and himself that his disability was not a hindrance to him by swimming a far distance to touch the diver's boat.

We see this same idea of rescue being played out again in the sequel. In Finding Dory,  young Dory is in need of not just physical rescue, but mental rescue. Dory was born with her own disability (short term memory loss). She never truly learned to manage it due to the involuntary separation from her parents. One year after Dory’s adventure with Marlin in Finding Nemo, she gets lost on a new journey to find her parents. Through her journey she discovers that she can rescue herself and manage her own disability. Even though she is at times fearful of being alone and possibly forgetting her mission, she still does not allow her disability to get the best of her as it did so many times in the past.

Parents want to rescue their children, not just from disabilities, but from everything. It feels natural to protect them. There were some tense moments in the movie when my daughter got scared and turned around to cling to my neck. Her tight grip made we feel like a rescuer. As the movie illustrates though, children will one day need to learn how to rescue themselves, which Dory demonstrates when she learns the skill of self-analysis to help aid her memory. She does not need to be mentally rescued anymore, but becomes self-reliant enough to be the rescuer, as she has proven to Marlin during the first movie and proves now to herself in the sequel. 

Rehabilitation means to restore to health or former life after imprisonment or illness. The preparation of this process often takes place outside the normal living quarters. Nemo's rehabilitation came after spending time in the "eternal bonds of tank hood" with the dentist's aquarium fish. Marlin rehabilitated after his long adventure across the ocean looking for his son. In Finding Dory, the blue tang fish had to go back home to rehabilitate. She was a nomad without a home for a long time and could never learn to become self-reliant without the support of her family and friends. 

Children need the love of their family to encourage them and empower them. Without this, a child lacks an important tool in developing independence. Dory could never find someone to care enough about her to help her rehabilitate, until she met Marlin and Nemo. The familial bond created among the group sparked a deep memory of her actual family. Inspired by this powerful memory, Dory begins her rehabilitation process. 

As I was holding my daughter in the theater, It struck me that one day I would have to release her into the world and she will have to learn how to make healthy choices regardless of anything holding her back. 

What a most difficult job this is for a parent! We tend to be just like Marlin who yearns to protect his son from the "big bad ocean" and who worries about Dory's disability getting in her way. Knowing that you cannot always be there to protect them, even those who struggle with a disability, is the rehabilitation process of all parents.  Parents know that establishing good healthy habits is key to self-sufficiency. Finding Dory showcases this brilliantly by allowing the audience to witness Dory's parents create consistent habits from early childhood. They sing songs to her (Just Keep Swimming), they place shells across the ocean that lead to their home and remind her to follow the shells if she ever gets lost, and most importantly they repeat this process. By repeating these healthy habits they bypass her short term memory and sink in to her pre-frontal cortex (or whatever part of the brain that can hold habits for a fish) which ultimately brings her back to her family in the end. 

Habits are powerful in children.  I witnessed a habit loop play out in front of my eyes with my two year old daughter last weekend. My wife and I have done our best to stick to a routine when it comes to putting her to bed. She eats dinner, she takes a bath, she brushes her teeth, she says her prayers, she reads a book, and then she walks to her bed to fall asleep. It may not be 100% perfect every time and we may alter the sequence slightly, but last weekend I saw how my daughter’s brain works when it comes to habits.

As I was feeding her in her chair my wife was reading the news update regarding the tragedy in Orlando. We suddenly stopped to pray, offering a moment of silence for the victims and their families. We said a “Hail Mary”, which is the prayer we usually say right before we put her to bed. She participated as she usually does and closed the prayer with her ominous “AMEN” swinging her hands over her head and chest to make the form of a squiggly cross. My wife suggested to add an “Our Father” as well, but Imma’s brain immediately began to go through her habitual routine. She stopped eating and insisted on reading a book. With her “Kite” book close at hand, she grabbed it flipped through the pages and immediately said the word “bed” pointing to her room. She was ready and willing to go to bed at that exact moment. It was because of our consistent practice of routine (steps of sleeping) and reward (sleep) that propelled her forward even when it wasn’t time to go to bed. 


Finding Dory is a beautiful extension to a film layered with emotionally charged parental suffering and decision making. It's a permanent reminder that a disability is only as crippling as one makes it out to be. With the proper support network and intrinsic motivation, self reliance can be attainable for those whom others deem it impossible. 

P.S. I haven't even discussed the slap in the face the movie makes to Sea World. Rescue, Rehabilitate, and Release. Think about that in terms of Sea World. 

Further Reading

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