The Netflix retro sci-fi hit "Stranger Things" brought a lot of wonderful things into our lives — including the phrase "cleidocranial dysplasia."
When I watched the show, I just assumed that Dustin's oft-repeated comeback about his "cleidocranial dysplasia" was a just fancy scientific way of saying "late tooth development" or something.
But turns out, it's actually an incredibly rare congenital disorder that affects one in a million people. Symptoms can include underdeveloped bones and joints, absent collarbones, shortened limbs, skull deformities, and, yes, dental abnormalities like adult teeth that fail to come in when they're supposed to.
Which is really all just a fancy scientific way of saying that Dustin is awesome.
That might seem like a deep-cut from a totally random medical text. But there's a good reason it was mentioned in the show.
Gaten Matarazzo, who played Dustin on the show, has cleidocranial dysplasia in real life.
While his is a more mild case — he really is missing some teeth, which makes him speak with a lisp, and he's missing his collar bones, which means he can do some crazy things with his shoulders — that doesn't mean that his life has been easy.
The 14-year-old has had to endure several surgeries, and it's also made it harder for him to find work as an actor.
"It was always because of my lisp, and me being shorter and having the teeth issue, that was always the reason they couldn’t cast me,” he explained in an interview with BBC Radio.
"They couldn’t write in a disability into the show because they had already written the script."
That made it all-the-more powerful when the Duffer Brothers, who created "Stranger Things," not only cast Matarazzo in the show, but also embraced his condition and made it a part of the character. (Of course, that wasn't the only part of his character that the writers embraced...)
Matarazzo is using his newfound fame to raise awareness about this rare condition too.
"I just want to raise awareness for it and let people know that it's not something they should be afraid of showing," he told the British talk show host Jonathan Ross.
That sudden limelight has also had a tangible impact on people like Matarazzo. "It really helps them come out of their shells a little bit. Because a lot of people have it much worse than I do and it affects them much worse than it does me," he told the Daily Beast. "Because this was in the show and this is the first time they’ve heard of it outside the doctor’s office, it made them feel really good and it inspired them."
I'm watching Stranger Things, & a boy has cleidocranial dysplasia. I have ectodermal dysplasia. The former toothless are being represented!— Beth Sulsky (@Beth Sulsky)1469670188.0
Despite the setbacks that he's faced in the past, Matarazzo's success today is a moving reminder that representation for folks with disabilities is important.
In addition to "Stranger Things," he's even appeared on Broadway several times, and let me tell you: This 14-year-old kid with missing teeth, and a lisp, can belt out show tunes like there's no tomorrow.
There was a time not too long ago when all this would have been impossible. But thanks to people like Gaten Matarazzo, representation is making the world brighter — and fairer — every day.