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12 days of disability Christmas

by Ian Cook

12th December 2004

Yo ho ho! Yes, Christmas is here and what better way to mark the occasion than to let Ouch take you on a journey through the festive season, telling you everything you need to know about disability and midwinter celebration.

So be lighthearted and prepare to discover 12 little known facts about disability - one for each day of the festive season ...

On the first day of Christmas ...

... think of Santa Claus. But remember, as you prepare to tuck into your plum pudding, that this seemingly nice hirsute chap who struggles down your (inaccessible) chimney is none other than the ultimate exploiter of short people. Santa Claus keeps short people - patronisingly called his "little helpers" - in freezing factory conditions at the North Pole. Although some may argue that Santa's little helpers are in fact elves, the Oxford English Dictionary will have no such etymological cop out. According to our foremost authority on the English language, elves are "of dwarfish form" - i.e. they're modelled on people of short stature.

On the second day of Christmas ...

... it's Boxing Day. Nothing to do with disability, you might think. But you'd be wrong. 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, or those folks who went cap in hand. And the largest group of those who wenleft in hand were "the handicapped". That's you, that is.

On the third day of Christmas ...

... think of Christianity. It's what Christmas is supposed to be all about, and what better way to mark the contribution of Christianity to disability than to recall the words of disabled Tiny Tim as told to Bob Cratchit in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. As Cratchit says: "He told me coming home that he hoped people saw him in church because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see." Oh dear.

On the fourth day of Christmas ...

... think even more about Tiny Tim. After all, 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." Dear me.

On the fifth 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 time. 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. Yes, it's a highly implausible tale of deceit that patronises blind people and is modelled almost entirely on the deficit model of disability rather than the social model. No child should be allowed to read this, especially at Christmas time.

On the sixth day of Christmas ...

... think Victoriana. The Victorians didn't just love the festive season, they 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 P.T. Barnum for the purpose of amusing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (himself the inventor of the Christmas tree). And you thought Tom Thumb was just the name of a cigar that your Dad used to smoke during the festive season.

On the seventh day of Christmas ...

... think mistletoe. You probably think this winter plant is merely a historic fertility rite, something under which you kiss. Well, think again. 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. So disability activists should boycott mistletoe this Christmas and show solidarity with Hoder. No kissing, OK?

On the eighth day of Christmas ...

... let's hear it for Leppaludi. Staying on the theme of Norse myths, Iceland has its very own Christmas Santa story that incorporates a disabled character. I'm talking, of course, about disabled troll Leppalaudi, who is unable to leave his bed and his wife Gryla. Gryla has a reputation for stealing naughty children to provide food for herself and Leppaludi. The two trolls have 13 sons - the Jolasveinar, or the Christmas boys - who share many of the negative characteristics of their parents. Over the years they have become milder characters, wreaking nothing more than minor havoc on the Christmas preparations. Today they even leave little presents for good children, a reminder that good behaviour is essential around Christmas.

On the ninth day of Christmas ...

... think Christmas entertainment. Yes, it's panto time! Hurrah! Well, no, not really hurrah. Pantos are guilty of at least one form of disablism - heightism. They encourage audiences to see people as essentially comical because of their height. Take Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At least three of the group - Grumpy, Dopey and Sneezy - are negative stereotypes. Jack and the Beanstalk, of course, has the opposite form of heightism - giantism - as its plot revolves around a giant guilty of eating human flesh. Fee, fi, fo, fum. I don't think so.

On the tenth day of Christmas ...

... think Saturnalia. The Romans had their own seasonal entertainment based on Saturn, their god of agriculture. Howeveer, contrary to popular myth Saturnalia isn't so much an occasion for honouring Saturn, but rather to defy him and his forces of limitation - which includes disability. Defy your disability? Not the kind of positive message one would wish to send out to disabled people these days.

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. No excuses. There are several all-deaf choirs in the USA - the Covina Apostolic Church in California, the Apostolic Lighthouse in Vandercook Lake, Michigan and the Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore. 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 - and disabled children in particular - found something positive to celebrate. I'm talking Christmas presents! 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! Remember, there are fewer than 250 shopping days left until next Christmas!

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