Children with special needs face a lot of barriers in their daily lives as they try to adapt their physical, cognitive, and behavioral differences into a society that is not always as accepting as we would like. Yet these children are not so different from their mainstream peers. They harbor the same hopes and fears; they want the same things for their lives. For Anthony Smith, a 4-year-old with a hearing impairment from Concord, NH, that was one thing: being a superhero. But superheroes, Anthony told his mother, Christina D’Alessandro, don’t wear hearing aids. Boy, was he wrong. Anthony suffers from a genetic condition known as mosaic trisomy 22. He has no left ear and a severe hearing deficit in his right one. Because of this condition, Anthony needs to wear a Blue Ear hearing aid. However, in his effort to emulate the comic book super heroes he loves, Anthony refused to wear his hearing aid. That’s when Anthony’s mom rolled the dice and wrote an email to Marvel Comics' fan mail account. Realizing that it was highly likely that her message would end up in a spam folder, D’Alessandro asked if, by any chance, there was a hero with a hearing aid. She was shocked when Marvel editor Bill Rosemann responded with a digital image of Hawkeye (of Avengers fame) who did indeed wear a hearing aid as a result of getting an arrow to the ear in a 1980s storyline. Rosemann ended the letter by saying, “Print that out and show it to Anthony and tell him that superheroes definitely wear blue ears. And he can become an honorary Avenger by wearing this." But It Doesn’t End There… [caption id="attachment_1502" align="alignright" width="190" caption="Image courtesy of Marvel Comics via Robot6"][/caption] While the efforts of Rosemann are heroic enough, the people at Marvel took it one step further, led by assistant editor Nelson Riberio. When Riberio heard about Anthony’s story he decided that not only do superheroes wear hearing aids, at least one superhero isn’t super without his. Enter: Blue Ear. The team at Marvel, in true Avengers fashion, banded together to spread the word of Anthony’s story and his mother’s efforts to get him to wear his hearing aid. Riberio, using the name of Anthony’s device as inspiration, drew a new super hero named Blue Ear who not only used a hearing aid to “answer the call” to help, but prominently featured the device on his person. From there, Riberio passed the torch to Bullpen artist Manny Mederos who combined the 1980s version of Hawkeye with a revamped picture of Blue Ear, who was now a child with super powers. Not surprisingly, the artwork and the new superhero went over big with both Anthony and his peers at Hear in New Hampshire, a school for children with hearing impairment based in Hooksett, NH. The students requested a Superhero Day and have been enjoying pretending to be Blue Ear ever since. The connection between their struggles and that of a real superhero has inspired these kids as much as the artists and editors at Marvel. As Rosemann explains,
I must admit that we get our fair share of negative letters, often insulting a creator’s efforts. On the other hand, occasionally we will receive a personal letter, telling us how Marvel’s characters and creators inspired someone to help others or overcome real world struggles. Those are the types of letters that express the true heart of what Marvel is all about … and in this case, when Christina made the simple request to help her child … well, how could we not act? After all, didn’t Stan Lee teach us something about great power and great responsibility?[caption id="attachment_1503" align="alignleft" width="204" caption="Image courtesy of Marvel Comics via Robot6"][/caption] Marvel and the Special Needs Child In fact, Marvel comics has a rich history of supporting characters with special needs, great weaknesses, or disabilities – think of the blind Daredevil or Iron Man’s heart condition. And this is not by accident; it is all by design. When Marvel comics began back in the 1960s, there was an express effort to go beyond what Rosemann calls the ‘square-jawed’ heroes that came before. Instead, the idea of overcoming adversity to become not only human, but super-human is a theme that speaks to children of all ages who face all sorts of trials. In this light, Anthony’s story, though truly heart-warming, is not really that unique. Instead, special needs children and others struggling with harsh realities that are beyond most of our comprehension are able to find solace in the superheroes of Marvel and other fictional characters who represent them.
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