Almost everyone knows the colourful street and its funny housemates. This year, Sesame Street celebrates its 50th anniversary. The day was celebrated at the Elbphilharmonie on January 28. But this was not the only highlight: A new housemate is moving into the colourful street and her name is Elin. Elin is in a wheelchair and will be a permanent fixture on the German Sesame Street starting in the fall. The seven-year-old was officially introduced on March 19. Our author Lara went there to get to know the fluffy new housemate and her characteristics.
“I would have liked to have a doll with a disability in my childhood”
Inclusion moves into the German “Sesame Street“
The set at Studio Hamburg glows with bright colors, and the first glance at the green and yellow Sesame Street sign evokes a nostalgic feeling. Nothing seems to have changed here since the first episode 50 years ago. Even though the street always seems to stay the same, this is not true for the topics on Sesame Street. Sesame Street wants to accompany children as they grow up and teach serious topics in a playful way. The set is as colourful and diverse as the puppets. Elin is the new addition and is intended to bring more diversity to the iconic street. She is seven years old and uses a wheelchair. However, her disability is not to be the focus of the series. Elin can be a role model for many children, but also adults, mainly because of her many interests. She is talented with her hands and can lose herself completely in a task, even if it doesn’t always work out the way she imagines. Elin is brave and likes to talk too fast sometimes, which can irritate Sesame Street resident Elmo in particular. Her disability is a part of the bright girl with the two pigtails, but it’s not her whole life.
Representation in everyday life
The idea for the doll was initiated by the Equal Opportunities Officer René Schaar. He himself was born with a disability and would have liked to have had such a doll in his childhood. He approached the editorial team with this thought a year ago and the idea took off. The vision has become reality and Elin is now a permanent fixture. In recent years, children with disabilities have been guests on Sesame Street from time to time. But it is important that children come into contact with people with disabilities on a daily basis, says program director Frank Beckmann. NDR doesn’t just want to emulate a trend, because “it’s not about the quota here, but about the good idea” Frank Beckmann says. There are currently over 200,000 children living with a disability in Germany, so a character with a disability is important to show that this is nothing unusual and is part of the reality of life, René Schaar tells us.
The scripts and plots were therefore developed in close consultation with people in wheelchairs. This is also evident in the wheelchair itself. It was handmade and the castors can be moved. Attention was paid to detail and care was taken in the NDR workshops to ensure that the wheelchair matched the real proportions as closely as possible. However, this should not be in the foreground, because “the disability should not be a sword of Damocles,” says René Schaar. For Elin, the wheelchair is merely an aid and not an obstacle.
Elin’s character is predetermined to a certain extent by templates. However, the two players have a lot of freedom to develop the doll further. This is what gives the characters their special charm and makes them seem so alive.
A glimpse behind the curtains
Elin is played by Iris Schleuss and the hand player Charlie Kaiser. Iris Schleuss plays the head and voice and Charlie Kaiser the hands. Fun Fact: Charlie Kaiser plays Ernie’s right hand in the show.
Playing presents the artists with special challenges, because Iris Schleuss sits under the small wheelchair and Charlie Kaiser has to play backwards (see photo). The interaction between Iris Schleuss and Charlie Kaiser is what gives life to the puppet built by the Jim Henson Company.
The response on social media is great
In the social media, the presentation of the new doll is celebrated and joyfully received by many people. Under the #Elin, many people on Twitter and Instagram express their joy about the new addition. Increasingly, however, there are also comments calling the brown-haired girl an unnecessary new addition and accusing NDR of unnecessary political correctness. Under the Tagesschau feature about Elin, there are many dismissive, ableist and insulting comments against a disabled doll on Sesame Street. The comments sadly show how important Elin is. The doll offers children a character in which they can find themselves. Because a disability is nothing extraordinary, but a part of everyday life and so it should be reflected in productions for children. More diversity is needed, and with Elin, another important step has been taken.
Elin does not remain the only highlight of the anniversary season
NDR is still filming at Studio Hamburg until March 30. The new episodes will be available from fall 2023 on ARD Mediathek, KiKa, NDR television and at sesamstrasse.de. We can look forward to a regular production with innovations such as the show “Prima Klima,” where Elin will make her first appearance and be challenged by Krümelmonster (Cookie Monster). In this series, climate and environmental protection issues are addressed in a playful way. But in typical funny and entertaining fashion, celebrity guests such as Olli Schulz will be featured. Entertainment not only for the very young, but for everyone.