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Disabled People Are Not Your Holiday Inspiration

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A teen gives a Christmas present to his friend who has a disability. Santa shares sweets with a boy who uses a feeding tube. Such stories of “holiday cheer” are highlighted on a CBS feature called “The Uplift,” with attendant news articles. While everyone needs hope during the holidays, few contemplate the damage such depictions do to disabled people. Firstly, “The Uplift’s” coverage reinforces tropes that marginalize people with disabilities. Secondly, the series reduces us to objects of pity and inspiration. Lastly, it promulgates a pattern of pigeonholing that does not cohere with our contributions to the community.

In the first story, a tall high school senior gives a gift to his best friend, a classmate with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder. That CBS never divulges the much shorter student’s age, despite his having facial hair, plays into pernicious stereotypes about people with disabilities. Its coverage is reminiscent of campaigns like Jerry’s Kids, a now-defunct telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association to benefit “children of all ages.” Disabled people have long been conceptualized as “adult children,” regardless of our years on Earth. Having disabilities doesn’t mean an individual is merely capable of the functions of a child, but the “Uplift” story only bolsters this shibboleth.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to dismiss the damage done by CBS’s disability dynamics. “Just be kind. Talk to them, get to know them, they have the most amazing stories you’ll ever hear,” the high school senior pronounces, his affect effusive. To the contrary, not all disabilities are the same, and not everyone shares his classmate’s penchant for storytelling. The non-disabled student takes his experience with one disabled person and turns it into a universal descriptor. For many of us in marginalized communities, the “they” he refers to is painfully obvious — it is “The Other,” familiar in phenomenological discourse. By defining the disabled as “not us,” the able-bodied can portray “them” as both separate and subordinate to the dominant culture.

In other words, at the same time as the senior advocates inclusion, he reinforces our status as objects of inspiration and pity. The video camera’s presence promotes the same separation by making the disabled classmate into an object to be filmed. While it’s commendable to conjure the comfort of companionship during Christmas, the video is both self-congratulatory and objectifying.

Kinship with our community is not a favor. As people with disabilities, we have much to offer, and we prefer sincere friendship to gifts bestowed out of the need for recognition or pity. While the high school senior may truly feel a bond with his disabled peer, it would be prudent for him to reevaluate how he behaves towards him.

A second CBS “Uplift” video narrates how much a disabled boy with a feeding tube’s family was touched by the actions of Santa, who agreed to share milk and cookies with the former while he was getting his picture taken. While everyone needs holiday cheer, I can’t help but wonder why the family should have been grateful, beyond the boy’s being treated with the same decency as any other young person. Just as it’s ludicrous to laud a white Santa for displaying expected empathy toward a Native American child, a Black child, or an Asian child, the same is the case for sharing milk and cookies with a disabled child. After all, Santa is supposed to make all kids feel welcome around Christmas. That people performing their jobs or offering friendship to our community are lauded as holiday heroes or saints is a lamentable commentary on the treatment of disabled people in American culture.

Too often in the U.S., those with disabilities must beg for anything we receive — whether it’s accessible accommodations or livable incomes. That we should have to grovel before society’s powerbrokers for the crumbs we may collect — whether it’s a Christmas gift or a few extra seconds with Santa — is as nauseating as it is dehumanizing. Those of us with disabilities have many contributions to make. We are your companions, we are your colleagues, we are your CEOs — and we should be celebrated for who we are as people, not as passive objects of pity or holiday inspiration porn.

Getty image by Salajean.

Originally published: December 21, 2018
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