By: Catherine Kudlick
If Americans decided they needed a holiday for celebrating disability, most would put Christmas at the top of the list. 'Tis the season to help the less fortunate. But in December 2016 this impulse needs a refresh.
It all begins with Charles Dickens’ iconic tale “A Christmas Carol” (1843). Lithograph of Tiny Tim
For those who have forgotten, blocked it out or - more amazingly still - managed to miss one of the countless renditions at this time of year, here’s the gist: a grumpy miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley draped in chains because of his greed. Scrooge, who among his other endearing qualities, hates Christmas (“bah humbug!”) finds out that in order to avoid Marley’s fate he must learn from each of three spirits who will teach him about his selfish life. The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him that he used to be a nicer person, while the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him what is presumably his own funeral where there are few mourners other than business people who hope for a free lunch (this isn’t a metaphor).
At the emotional center of the story, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge what it means to live in poverty. He takes him to the home of his underpaid and overworked employee Bob Cratchit where he witnesses the spectacle of a struggling family burdened by their small crippled boy. Tiny Tim’s debut:
“God bless us Every One!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all. He sat very close to his father’s side upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.
"Spirit," said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, "tell me if Tiny Tim will live."
"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
Tiny Tim melts the miser’s heart, inspiring him to send a turkey anonymously to the Cratchit family, and by the end of the story he becomes a second father to Tim, whose words close the novella, “God bless us Every One!”
Thanks to Dickens, a sweet, helpless disabled child enhances the Christmas spirit.
And thanks to a disabled child, “A Christmas Carol” proved to be a publishing success that helped Dickens save his flagging career while also fueling various industries. Over the years it has sold in the millions, and in 1901-2009 the novella spawned illustrated books, scores of live action and animated movie and tv versions, along with countless local theater performances. As Paul Longmore put it in his book on telethons where lengthy footnotes catalogue all of this, “Americans saw a lot of Tim.” (p. 154)
Over the years “sympathy entrepreneurs” would capitalize on this success to raise money for charity, often placing disabled children like Tiny Tim front and center. In fact, the first MDA telethon aired in 1952 on a local Washington, DC station and lasted fourteen hours during the Christmas holiday season. Promoters ultimately settled on Labor Day weekend where it remained a staple of the American pity diet for a half century that finally ended in 2014. Still, an enduring image of helpless pathetic crippled Tiny Tim returns every year to reinforce similar thinking about too many disabled people today.
Ok, some will accuse me of being a different version of Scrooge for calling out well-meaning responses to those in need. After all, a selfish man was transformed by his meeting with a disabled person, and thanks to this, he’s poised to do much more good for others down the road.
But here’s the thing: what of Tim himself? What was it like for him to be both pitied and a burden? What of today’s Tiny Tims who are bombarded with this sappiness every Christmas? And what of grown-up Tim at 40, 50, 60, or 70?
As a new government takes office and takes aim at various disability support services, may those soon-to-be Scrooges in power be visited by these three spirits:
The Ghost of Disability Past: Thanks to disability rights they see Tim starting to participate at town hall meetings, shop online and off, work at a steady job, devise an innovative piece of software, create kick-ass art, save someone’s life, make a partner happy, pay taxes, teach a child to read….
The Ghost of Disability Present: Tim signs yet another change.org petition about saving the disability safety net and takes to the streets with his disabled brethren to draw attention to themselves because after exhausting every possible option, they have no choice for survival.
The Ghost of Disability Yet to Come: Tim is in a nursing home, un-noticed and alone, his rickety splintered crutches in the corner. He tries to say “God bless us Every One, but it comes out as “God help us, Every One!”
And here’s the happy ending: Americans realize that people with disabilities are the canaries in the coal mine: unraveling our society's safety net affects people with and without disabilities and their families. The entire nation rallies in support, mobilizes Congress, and ultimately melts the heart of the Scrooge in Chief. Few realize that Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” as a wake-up call for well-meaning people to push back against capitalist greed. But it also ensured his continued success, which means the famous author owes Tiny Tim big time. So, much as stories like this appear to be about helping the less fortunate, we must acknowledge how the many Tiny Tims make it all possible.
To learn more:
Paul K. Longmore, Telethons: Spectacle, Disability, and the Business of Charity, Oxford University Press, 2016
Martha Stoddard Holmes, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture, University of Michigan Press, 2009
What Would Christmas Be Without Scrooge?: