I hate Tiny Tim.
TT is on the ropes in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol. Sickly and dependent, TT is getting shakier and shakier on that homemade little crutch. But he is saved from death by old Ebeneezer Scrooge, who sees the light in the nick of time.
Now, before you go apoplectic at my assault on wee Tim, think about how he helps shape some of society's most cherished attitudes -- charity, pity (for poor little TT), for example. Tiny Tim, plucky, sweet and inspirational, tugs at the public heart.
TT has become Disabled Everyone in popular culture. TT is Jerry's Kid.
Society idealizes this sentimental image of disability as a pitiful child in desperate need of help. People feel better when they give a few bucks or a little toy for a kid with a disability.
As an enduring symbol of modern Christmas time, Tiny Tim resonates with a deeper, darker meaning for people with disabilities. The problem is that not all people with disabilities are children, but we all tend to be treated as if we are Tiny Tims.
When I'm in the stores and malls this time of year I get a lot of smiles meant for TT. How do I know? Well, I am a middle-aged bearded and balding adult in a power-driven wheelchair. People, mostly women but some men also, flash smiles at me. Not the kind of smiles most men would hope for from a woman, nor the neutral courtesy smile exchanged by strangers passing on the sidewalk, but that particular precious smile that mixes compassion, condescension and pity. It's withering to the person on the receiving end.
I hate it.
I hate it because this Tiny Tim sentimentality stereotypes people with disabilities and contributes to our oppression. When you think about a person with a disability as someone to feel sorry for, as someone to be taken care of and looked after, it is difficult to think about hiring them as a teacher, an architect or an accountant. That's part of the reason why the jobless rate among working age people with disabilities consistently hovers around 70 percent.
And because family, friends and reborn Scrooges nourish and protect Tiny Tim, the rest of society doesn't have to worry too much about making sure people with disabilities have equal access to education, adequate housing, transportation, and other public facilities.
What about the highly touted Americans with Disabilities Act, you ask? Good question -- and good law for the most part. But complaints about violations of the ADA are piling up faster than federal agencies such as the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can handle them.
Inadequate resources are available to enforce the law. And local authorities moan and groan about unfunded federal mandates that they can't afford to implement -- such as providing access to all citizens.
Every year this country spends more than $200 billion on programs that essentially keep persons with disabilities in a state of dependence, severely restricting us from getting a good education, going to work, or even getting married.
Not all of that money could be saved by removing the penalties on people with disabilities, but billions unquestionably could be saved. Not only would people with disabilities gain independence, but thousands of us would become taxpayers instead of tax users.
These are serious issues affecting people with disabilities and our struggle to be included fully in American life. Remember this the next time those facial muscles begin to activate that Tiny Tim reflex.
TT belongs to Christmas Past. And that's no humbug.
Friday, December 15, 2006
It's nostalgia time. Again. The following is a piece I wrote several years ago for MAINSTREAM magazine (I was the editor). I trot it out every year or so. Enjoy.