Christmas is approaching, so in a light hearted post, I thought that I would tell you everything that you need to know about disability and this midwinter celebration. On International Day of People with Disability on 1 December 2017, I encouraged people to think about disabilities for more than just one day a year. So here are 12 facts you might not know about disability – one for each of the 12 days of Christmas – to get you started.
On the first day of Christmas … think of Father Christmas. This nice chap, who struggles down your inaccessible chimney, is actually the ultimate exploiter of short people. He keeps short people, patronisingly called his “little helpers”, in freezing factory conditions at the North Pole. Although you may argue that Santa’s little helpers are in fact elves, the Oxford English Dictionary does not agree. According to this authority on the English language, elves are ‘of dwarfish form’ – meaning that they’re modelled on people of short stature.
On the second day of Christmas … it’s Boxing Day. The day’s link with disability lies in its association with charity. The traditional celebration of Boxing Day includes giving money and other gifts to charitable institutions and needy people, known as ‘the deserving poor’ in Victorian times and those who went ‘cap in hand’. The largest group of those who went cap in hand were ‘the handicapped’.
On the third day of Christmas … think about Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. He’s the character from Christmas literature that disabled people love to hate. Sentimentalised, with a crutch and iron frame supporting his limbs, Tiny Tim has been described as proof of Victorian emotional excess and the model for all the poster children of our time. He is also said to be the “cripple who accepts his suffering and is sweetly grateful for the charity of the non-disabled.” No disabled person should have to accept their suffering!
On the fourth day of Christmas … think of Charles Dickens. Here was a man who unashamedly used disability as a literary device wherever and whenever he could – and often at Christmas. As if Tiny Tim wasn’t bad enough, there’s also Bertha, the little blind daughter of toymaker Caleb Plummer in The Cricket on the Hearth. She is tricked into believing the life of poverty that the two share is in fact one of wealth and ease. It is a tale of deceit that patronises blind people and is modelled almost entirely on the medical model of disability rather than the social model.
On the fifth day of Christmas … think of how many places are accessible to disabled people. Here’s a list of the top five accessible festive days out for disabled people. There should be more places that are easy for disabled people to visit at any time of the year!
On the sixth day of Christmas … think Victoriana. The Victorians loved the festive season and also had a fascination with disability presented as seasonal entertainment. One of the most celebrated of these entertainers was Tom Thumb, a short person brought over to the UK by circus impresario PT Barnum for the purpose of amusing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
On the seventh day of Christmas … think mistletoe. You probably think that this winter plant is merely a historic fertility rite, something under which you kiss. Mistletoe is in fact part of Nordic negativity about blind people. According to Norse mythology, the blind god Hoder was tricked into firing a mistletoe-tipped arrow, thus killing his sighted brother Balder. Should we boycott mistletoe this Christmas and show solidarity with Hoder? And no kissing, OK!
On the eighth day of Christmas … let’s hear it for Leppalaudi. Staying on the theme of Norse myths, Iceland has its very own Christmas Santa story that incorporates a disabled character. He is the disabled troll Leppalaudi, who is unable to leave his bed. His wife Gryla steals naughty children to provide food for herself and Leppaludi.
On the ninth day of Christmas … think Christmas entertainment. Panto time is great! Oh no it isn’t! But how many pantomime productions are disability-friendly? Thankfully, an increasing number of production companies are recognising the need, such as this one in Swindon which provides a ‘Relaxed performance, a Sign Interpreted performance and an Audio Described performance.’ Oh yes, they do!
On the tenth day of Christmas … think Saturnalia. The Romans had their own seasonal entertainment based on Saturn, their god of agriculture. However, contrary to popular myth Saturnalia isn’t so much an occasion for honouring Saturn, but rather to defy him and his forces of limitation, including disability. Defy your disability? Is this the sort of positive message we should be sending out to disabled people?
On the eleventh day of Christmas … think carols. Although Christmas carols are part of the festive season, the singing of these seasonal ditties shouldn’t be thought of as excluding deaf people. There are several all-deaf or sign-assisted choirs in the UK. Ding dong merrily and mind those harmonies.
On the twelfth day of Christmas … think of reclaiming the festive season for disabled people. There’s so much negative stereotyping going on that it’s about time disabled people found something positive to celebrate. I’m talking Christmas presents and the power of the Purple Pound! What about a wheelchair-using Barbie doll? Yes, toymaker Mattel rolled one out in 1997. There is also reputed to be a wheelchair accessible doll’s house as well as a toy bus with a wheelchair ramp. But hurry – there are less than 250 shopping days left until next Christmas!
While this has been a slightly light hearted look at Christmas and disabilities, the sense of isolation and loneliness that many disabled people can feel throughout the year is even more pronounced at Christmas when we are force-fed images of stereotypical happy families. If you know someone who is living with a disability and who will be on their own this Christmas, the smallest of gestures can make a big difference.