Autistic Future
December 25th, 2016

The Harsh Realities of Rudolph

an image of Rudolph from the 1964 claymation special

The hol­i­day clas­sic Rudolph the Red Nosed Rein­deer is time­ly this year. The (affil­i­ate link) beloved hol­i­day spe­cial has a facial­ly pos­i­tive mes­sage about dis­abil­i­ty and diver­si­ty, but the sto­ry con­tains an unspo­ken para­ble about dis­abil­i­ty in our soci­ety that may be a lit­tle too dark for the hol­i­day sea­son. The sto­ry tracks The Rudolph spe­cial, of course, describes how a young, mag­ic rein­deer from the North Pole finds a valu­able role in his com­mu­ni­ty despite being ini­tial­ly ostra­cized for an unusu­al phys­i­cal fea­ture: a glow­ing red nose. In the course of his jour­ney to find a place in the world, Rudolph comes across the castoff inhab­i­tants of the Island of Mis­fit Toys and even­tu­al­ly arranges their res­cue. The sto­ry is sur­pris­ing­ly pos­i­tive, sur­pris­ing­ly open to dif­fer­ence, con­sid­er­ing that it is a com­mer­cial piece from the mid-six­ties, in that it has a pro­tag­o­nist with a kind of dis­abil­i­ty, and he finds social accep­tance because of, rather than despite, his abnor­mal­i­ty once he man­ages to find a way to contribute.

This is a true sto­ry for some peo­ple in the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty. A dis­abil­i­ty can be a gift amidst the over­whelm­ing career options avail­able today. Hav­ing clear weak­ness­es rules some things out, allow­ing the indi­vid­ual to focus on strengths. A dis­abled per­son who can get by well enough, and make enough mon­ey to pay for oth­ers to cov­er areas of life in which they are impaired, can avoid the sys­tems of dis­abil­i­ty alto­geth­er and live a very com­fort­able, ful­fill­ing life with min­i­mal has­sle. For the Rudolphs of the dis­abled world, this is a heart­warm­ing com­ing of age sto­ry. It teach­es good lessons about play­ing to one’s strengths, find­ing a niche, and the social val­ue of con­tribut­ing. It’s a primer on career devel­op­ment for any child with a dis­abil­i­ty who will prob­a­bly be more-or-less ful­ly independent.

Absent from the sto­ry is what hap­pens to peo­ple who will always need some degree of sup­port, who may not take on spec­tac­u­lar­ly essen­tial and promi­nent roles in their com­mu­ni­ties, who, unlike Rudolph, are not in the cat­e­go­ry of dis­abled-with­out-real­ly-being-all-that-impaired. We don’t see what hap­pens to peo­ple who are more dif­fer­ent and whose dif­fer­ences may not car­ry obvi­ous, prac­ti­cal advan­tages that make them, per­haps, more use­ful than their typ­i­cal peers. The clos­est this Christ­mas spe­cial comes to deal­ing with it is an after­thought, the cred­its show­ing the mis­fit toys being deliv­ered to chil­dren, which was added on some time lat­er. The mis­fit toys’ out­comes hap­pen off screen. We nev­er see whether, returned to chil­dren, they thrive or even­tu­al­ly end up back on the Island of Mis­fit Toys, which may be some­thing like an insti­tu­tion. Since there is no sign that they get any sup­port, or that effort goes into find­ing place­ments that will work for them, it’s prob­a­bly safe to assume that the out­comes are poor.

This dis­tinc­tion is lit­tle dis­cussed out­side of the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty, but it mat­ters, espe­cial­ly now, because ben­e­fits cuts may be loom­ing. There are dis­abled peo­ple who would not notice even sig­nif­i­cant changes to fed­er­al ben­e­fits pro­grams, those that are dis­trib­uted based on dis­abil­i­ty or those that are just means-test­ed. There are also dis­abled peo­ple who need things like Med­ic­aid-fund­ed ser­vices or SNAP to get by. These cat­e­gories have fuzzy edges. Changes in cir­cum­stance or what kinds of needs are con­sid­ered nor­ma­tive can move an indi­vid­ual from one to the oth­er, but the cat­e­gories mat­ter despite their arti­fi­cial­i­ty. The lat­ter group, peo­ple who need ben­e­fits, and those who love them, are afraid because of things that our new lead­ers are say­ing. It’s under­stand­able for a Christ­mas spe­cial to gloss over some of life’s com­plex­i­ties, but peo­ple who need ben­e­fits pro­grams don’t have that lux­u­ry. They do not want to be thrust into a new real­i­ty where it is not clear that any plan exists for meet­ing their needs like the mis­fit toys dropped down the chim­neys in the clos­ing cred­its. Not every­one has an out­come like Rudolph’s, so we need a safe­ty net to assure that every­one gets an accept­able, humane, dig­ni­fied outcome.

As you enjoy the rest of the hol­i­day sea­son with your loved ones, please try not to for­get peo­ple in the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty who are anx­ious­ly await­ing what Con­gress will do in Jan­u­ary. Resolve to help some of the most vul­ner­a­ble Amer­i­cans get through what may be a hard time in the new year and as long as it takes to ensure that their needs are met. It isn’t hard to help. Sign up for action alerts from dis­abil­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions so that you know when to call your leg­is­la­tor. Learn a lit­tle bit about things like SSI, SSDI, SNAP, Medicare, and Med­ic­aid, what they do, and who they serve so that you can speak in an informed way if the top­ic of ben­e­fits comes up in your dai­ly life. Do as much or lit­tle as you are able, but do not despair or become over­whelmed at the scale of the prob­lem and decide to do noth­ing at all. Peo­ple are wait­ing, per­haps ner­vous and dis­tract­ed from the hol­i­days, hop­ing that things will be alright, count­ing on you to make it so.