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Aspiring teacher doesn’t just ‘wish upon a star’ to influence change

by Kevin Civiletto, ’15

Most young people long for a role model. Whether it’s their friends and family, or their favorite singers, actors or athletes, children often want someone to admire and emulate. Also, finding a role model with similar characteristics to your own can be comforting and reassuring.

However, for some, finding someone to look up to is harder than for others. What if there was no one quite like you on TV or in the movies? What if you began to think that no one shared your story? Burgandi Rakoska, a junior Early Childhood Education major, found herself in that predicament, and she’s striving to ensure that future kids don’t have similar discouragements.

This past fall Ms. Rakoska, who had just transferred to Fredonia from Jamestown Community College’s Olean campus, created an online petition urging the Walt Disney Company to create a disabled character. With the help of her friends and family back home in Olean, as well as her new Fredonia friends, her petition reached almost 200 signatures within its very first day. Then — as if she’d been sprinkled with a little pixie dust — her story took flight, buzzing across campus and grabbing the attention of Buffalo’s NBC affiliate, WGRZ-TV, just days later.

Burgandi lives with Spina Bifida, a developmental disorder of the spinal cord, in which parts of the spine remain unfused and not fully formed. According to the Spina Bifida Association, it’s the most common permanently disabling birth defect in the U.S. Those afflicted can experience a variety of disabilities. In Burgandi’s case, she requires a wheelchair.

Despite her challenges, she is using her disability as a platform for positive change, aiming to see more disabled people represented in the media, including a more diverse line-up of Disney characters.
“Representation is a huge thing,” she stressed. “It decreases the stigma between human differences.”

She also believes that the ability of children to relate to characters in their favorite movies builds self-esteem and confidence and encourages the acceptance and understanding of others.

The Disney Renaissance refers to that “magical period” from 1989
to 1999 when Walt Disney Animation Studios experienced a creative rebirth, rolling out several animated classics like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” Children fell under the Disney spell, entranced by the beautiful characters and their stories. Burgandi was no exception. Yet, despite escaping into the worlds of these stories, she couldn’t help but notice that there were no characters quite like her.

While the thousands of existing Disney characters explore many personalities, races and situational conflicts, Rakoska thinks a character with a clear, visible disability would add to that diversity.

“Showing different personalities is great,” she said, “but you need something physical — a character that people can see and say, ‘Yes, that person looks like me. I can be that person!’”

One challenge Burgandi has faced with her movement is deciding what disability the character should have. “It’s hard to choose what handicap would be the most representative [of the entire disabled community],” she admits. “I think everyone would be naturally biased toward their own challenges, but I think a character would need to have an obvious, physical disability.”

Some have pointed to recent attempts, such as the icy Queen Elsa from “Frozen,” who acts as a metaphor for mental illness, and the lovable clownfish, Nemo, who overcame the limitations of his underdeveloped fin in “Finding Nemo.”

“We need more than a metaphor. We need more than a fish,” Burgandi explained.

Disney has increased the diversity of its characters recently, most notably in the 2009 hit, “The Princess and the Frog,” which featured Disney’s first African American princess, Tiana — and coincidentally, included Fredonia alumna Jennifer Cody, ’91, among its voice cast. This progress gives Rakoska hope that a disabled character isn’t far off. Still, drawing from the lesson of Tiana’s tale, she wants to give Disney an extra nudge.

“Tiana’s story taught me that, as good as wishing upon a star is, you have to work hard to make that dream happen,” she said.

Burgandi attributes her success to the support of the Fredonia community. She marvels at strangers who have stopped her in the hallway to express their support. As her petition approaches 7,000 signatures, she has been shocked by the response, having done all of this on a whim. Although she hopes her efforts will get the attention of Disney executives, she believes it will serve a purpose, regardless. “Worst-case scenario, the conversation is still out there. It’s on at least 6,000 people’s minds,” she said proudly, before borrowing a quote from the visionary Walt Disney himself:

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”


posted @ Thursday, January 22, 2015 12:42 PM by Pamala Colon

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