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Tanni Grey-Thompson

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Tanni is Britain's most successful and best known wheelchair athlete. She has won countless gold medals and blitzes the London Marathon almost every year, amongst other events. In recent years she has been branching out into writing and broadcasting.

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It's a disability nativity conspiracy!

19th December 2004

'Tis the season to be jolly, and all that rubbish; eat too much, attend some awful panto performances and sit through some even worse school concerts.
Now I know that I will probably change my mind on the latter event when my own little angel is starring as a sheep in her school's version of the nativity play, but I have recently started to believe that Christmas is also the time of conspiracy theories. Nothing complicated like who shot JFK - no, my theory relates to how the disabled child in mainstream school always manages to get the best parts in the end of term fiasco. Not only do I believe that there is a conspiracy to give them the best roles, but I believe that the degree of impairment directly relates to the quality of the part that they're given.

The following theory has been carefully and scientifically worked out. It makes sense to me, at least. The fact that my husband, who is a scientist (chemical not sociological), hasn't disagreed with me only gives weight to my claims. So here goes. Pay careful attention to what I'm about to say, because as in all academic papers you may get confused by the posh language.

At the age when I could just hobble about, I was one of the second angels from the left in the nativity play. I wobbled on to the stage, holding the hand of my best mate Sue. She dragged me to the spot where I had to stand and look angelic, and then held me up for most of the event. What a sight I looked, wearing my purple striped nightie and my version of Pedro boots. I had lied to the teacher and claimed that I had a white nightie, but unlike the other kids who had turned in up various colours of pyjamas, I didn't get told off. It was because they felt sorry for me. You could hear the whispered asides: "Poor love, doesn't know what colour white is ..."

When I started having to use a Rollator, the angel/fairy option went out of the window and I was promoted to being a Christmas tree. Not just any old tree either, but the magical one that was secretly decorated under a green cape. At the end of the story I appeared in all my glory, as the other trees came and 'dressed' me (or rather undressed me) by taking off the cape. That way, you see, they could have me on stage, but I didn't look too disabled.

So what happened when I became a permanent wheelchair user? You know what's coming. Yes, I was upgraded to Mary. For most of my school career I was the one who played her, and I know that in most cases it would have been the prize role. I'm sure that there were many parents who would have loved to have a go at me and my mother for the way in which I always stole the part. But how can you have a go at a cripple kid? That would have been too harsh, especially at the time of year when we are all meant to be nice to each other.

However, I didn't want to be Mary. I wanted to be a cow, or a wise man, or even the innkeeper. But in that day and age disabled people didn't have any employment rights; as my Dad rightly told me, I would have been lucky to be washing dishes in the inn, let alone own the place. My Dad was always honest with me.

So, Mary I was. And there I would be, draped in some blue dyed sheet, complete with a battery-operated light tucked into the folds of my dress. The effect of the torchlight was to try and make me look angelic and serene, but I think that I looked more like a leftover bit player from The Exorcist. As I was wheeled on stage by Joseph, the whole audience would go "Aaaahhh ..." I remember thinking that their reaction should have been more like "Yuk!"

You see, the teachers knew that however bad the Christmas play might be - and in many cases they were really, really bad - if you gave the plum role to the crippled child then they were bound to come out of it OK. There wouldn't be a dry eye in the house, and said teacher would get a pat on the back for their brilliant methods of inclusion.

I have carried out a detailed survey of my disabled friends (OK, I spoke to three people) and when I mentioned my theory, they all looked at me and said, "You're right". So I know that I'm on to something.

To any disabled child who is offered the chance to be Mary (or Joseph), my advice is: rebel now. This could be your contribution towards changing the perception of disability. Or you could just take the part and smile ...


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