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.