A muppet with a disability moves into the German Sesame Street: Elin. She is a young girl who likes tinkering with tech, talks a bit much, sometimes mixes up words and uses a wheelchair. Elin is now a permanent and regularly appearing character in “der Sesamstraße” on the German TV channel Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR).
Same Street Around The Globe
Who hasn’t at least once heard of the Sesame Street? Who doesn’t know the cult characters, Ernie and Bert? People of all ages can relate to the colorful, quirky, and fun muppets that live on the most famous street around the globe, Sesame Street. The show combines live-action, animation, and puppetry to educate children in basic academic and life skills, for instance, literacy, problem-solving, and socialization. It is probably the only street known across the whole globe and one of a few shows that managed to survive over decades. Thirty countries co-produce their own version of Sesame Street, all with a slight change in muppets and the stories they tell, which are adapted to the cultural background of the country. For example, Sesame Street in India is called Galli Galli Sim Sim.
The German Sesame Street
And it all started in the US! The first episode of Sesame Street was aired in 1969, and since then, PBS has produced 53 seasons! Behind all Sesame Streets across the globe stands a non-profit organization that ties them all together: The Sesame Workshop, a US non-profit supporting children in 150 countries across the globe. Without them, the German Sesamstraße would not exist. Some of the most popular characters are Elmo, a red muppet monster, Big Bird, a pompous yellow bird, and the Cookie Monster, a prominent and fluffy blue muppet. Germany’s Sesamstraße features most of the characters from the US original, with some additional ones, for example, Samson, a huge, brown bear-like character, and, of course, the most recent development Elin, a girl who uses a wheelchair.
The most significant difference between Sesame Street in the US and Germany is that they target different age groups. “Our American colleagues start at around two years of age, while our narratives in Germany require the children to be around four to five years old. Additionally, in the US, they use more didactic elements than we do in Germany,” Dirk Junk, Sesame Street Producer, explains. Each episode of Sesame Street is complexly crafted to convey a core message to the audience. The producers pick one specific topic, which will then be split up into several segments consisting of puppetry and documentary clips, all to educate children in a fun and exciting way. That’s Junk’s job. He develops the content for the episodes. A dream job? He laughs. “Yes, it is so much fun! Even though I haven’t planned to become part of the Sesamstraße, I am really happy here.”
Building a Role Model
On April 12, 2022, producer Junk received an e-mail from Equal Opportunities Officer at the NDR René Schaar, who asked Junk how he felt about diversifying their muppets. One day later, during a conference with editor Holger Hermesmeyer, Schaar brought up Ameera, a green muppet that is a part of the Sesame Street of North Africa and the Middle East. “Ameera loves math and sciences and plays basketball but also uses a wheelchair. And we needed a character like that in Germany, too.” Schaar stepped out of his usual role at the NDR, where he is responsible for the diversity and equality of the channels’ employees, but not the content of the TV program. “I didn’t really have the capacity to develop a new character for the Sesamstraße, but since this was so close to my heart, I just did and still continue doing it on top of my regular job,” Schaar, who lives with a limb difference himself, says. After Schaar discussed his ideas internally with the team at NDR, they reached out to the Sesame Workshop. Together, they brought the new character Elin, a girl with a disability, to life. One year after Schaar’s initial input, the muppet was finalized and ready to be played.
First Disabled Muppet
Elin will be a permanent character in the German show. She isn’t only occurring once for the annual celebration of the international day of People with Disabilities but will be included in all activities at the Sesamstraße. “And there is no particular focus on her disability. You can see that she has one, but it is not constantly discussed in the show,” Schaar says. Elin’s disability is a part of who she is but not the center of attention, even though some episodes try to naturally bring in topics such as accessibility. For instance, in one episode, Elin and her friends are building soap boxes, but there is no hill around, so they discuss they might need a motor or won’t be able to compete. Elin says she’d prefer a chain drive like those on bikes to protect the environment. Her friends agree. However, they all stare at Elin, questioning how she would ride a bike since she cannot paddle with her legs. Finally, they realize even though Elin cannot ride a regular bike, she can certainly use a hand bike. Her disability is casually mentioned in that context, but then everyone moves on to build their soapboxes for the competition, and Elin gets one with a hand drive. “It was long overdue that a disabled character moves into the German Sesamstraße because the show might be the very first time children come in contact with the topic of disability, and then we want to present it in a potential-oriented, positive but non-inspirational, solution-oriented, pragmatic and unemotional way,” Schaar states. “We need to break the taboos around disability and show that living with a disability isn’t sad or unfortunate; it can be cool!”
Who Is Elin?
Elin is Elmo’s best friend. She loves technology and everything that has to do with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). She’s a bit cheeky and sometimes thinks too fast, so she cannot find the right words. “Elin loves to tinker, which is unfortunate for her parents because once she lost one wheel of her wheelchair. But she promised to never do that again,” Schaar laughs. Additionally, Elin has Turkish roots. Her grandparents immigrated to Germany from Turkey. “This opens up other options for us to discuss different areas of diversity in the future,” he adds. The NDR finished filming its 50th season at the end of March 2023. Elin makes her first appearance with Krümelmonster (Cookie Monster) in a game show episode called Prima Klima, which addresses environmental issues and protection.
Nothing About Us, Without Us
Schaar brings in his personal experience to ensure Elin accurately represents people with disabilities. “Every time someone says to me, ‘Oh, René, I really couldn’t live your life. It must be so hard,’ I just want to show them what I do every day and be like, ‘I don’t know. It’s actually quite nice to be me,'” Schaar laughs. In order to ensure Elin depicts people with disabilities well, he interviewed other disabled people from within the community. He shaped Elin to be the character on TV he always wanted to see when he grew up. And Schaar continues to involve the disability community in his work. When they told him the muppet’s size didn’t match up with the proportions of the wheelchair, the team of the Sesamstraße reworked the wheelchair to make it look more accurate. “To be fair, it’s also a matter of functionality because the puppeteer has to sit between the wheels to direct Elin’s movements and expressions,” Schaar gives behind-the-scenes insight. Once the first episode was written, Schaar received the script and, again, re-connected with activists all over Germany to ask them whether the storyline was plausible and authentic.
Diversity & Inclusion
Sesame Street has been widely praised for how efficiently it is preparing young children for school and promoting diversity and inclusivity. “All Sesame Streets around the globe share that they are normalizing differences. However, the Americans began a lot earlier to highlight people from varying marginalized communities,” Schaar says. It’s not new that they talk about topics around LGBTQIA+, and immigration has always been at the core of the TV show with muppets in different colors and sizes. And with characters such as Elin, finally, they are ensuring children with disabilities will feel seen and represented as well. “Elin is an extraordinary muppet we’d love to move into other Sesame Streets as well,” Junk shares. And we agree! With 20 percent of the world’s population identifying as disabled, Elin is more important than ever. “We want children to not only have a good time watching the Sesamstraße, but we also want them to understand that the world is colorful and diverse and to feel empowered by every one of our episodes,” Junk ends.
Cover: Image: NDR/Thorsten Jander