Tiny Tim and the Blind Boy: Why the Types of Stories We Tell About Disabled People Matter

Earlier this week, a new acquaintance, who’d just learned about my background as a special needs parent and my writing on the subject forwarded me an email message he’d received from a friend. He thought maybe I would want to include it on my blog or in my book. He was right. I do want to write about it, but maybe not for the reasons he thinks. Why don’t you check it out first. It’s entitled, ‘The Blind Boy and The Hat’.

On Thanksgiving morning there sat a blind boy on the steps of a city building with a hat by his feet.  He held up a sign which said: “I am blind, please help.” There were only a few coins in the hat. A woman was walking by. She took a few coins from her pocket and dropped them into the hat.  She then took the sign, turned it around, and wrote some words. She put the sign back so that everyone who walked by would see the new words.
Soon the hat began to fill up. A lot more people were giving money to the blind boy.  That afternoon the woman who had changed the sign came to see how things were. The boy recognized her footsteps and asked, “Were you the one who changed my sign this morning?  What did you write?” The woman said, “I only wrote the truth. I said what you said, but in a different way. I wrote, ‘Today is a beautiful day, but I cannot see it.’”
Both signs told people that the boy was blind. But the first sign simply said the boy was blind. The second sign told people that they were so lucky that they were not blind. Should we be surprised that the second sign was more effective?

Author Unknown

If right now you are feeling grateful for not being blind, then this story did exactly what it was supposed to do, which is make abled-bodied people feel good about themselves at the expense of the disabled. But you probably didn’t realize that’s what had happened until I pointed it out to you. I wouldn’t have picked up on it either until ten years of watching people treat my sons with pity, and as less than perfect due to their disabilities, educated me.

The woman who changes the language on the blind boys sign is represented as almost a savior in this story; it’s her truth telling that helps the boy get enough money to survive. But in order to save the child, she devalues his existence to the rest of society.

“Today is a beautiful day, but I can’t see it.” That’s not his truth, that’s her perception of his life. It assumes a blind person can’t enjoy a beautiful day because he can’t see the sun shining. That attitude also assumes a deaf person can’t enjoy a beautiful day because she can’t hear the birds singing, or a disabled child in a wheelchair can’t enjoy a beautiful day because he can’t run around a playground with his friends. This attitude says the disabled person is less than an abled-bodied person, period. This attitude ignores the blind, deaf, Autistic, and the many types of disabled people who every day live full happy lives. Living a full, happy life is not a matter of luck, it is a matter of choice. Don’t be grateful for your life because it’s not that of a disabled person, be grateful because you can be, regardless of your circumstances in life.

By writing “the truth” on the child’s sign, she’s forcing her view of his value on other people without input from the child himself. This fictional story describes the real life abelism most disabled people deal with on a daily basis; i.e. able-bodied people telling the disabled how they should feel about their disability, and how they should be grateful for any help and pity non-disabled people grant them. These “saviors” don’t realize that disabled people DON’T need able-bodied people speaking for them. Most are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves and making their needs known. The disabled need to lead the conversation about acceptance, not be dragged along.

The attitude that being disabled is BAD, slowly and insidiously, leads to people to believing that aborting children with Down Syndrome and offering people euthanasia because its cheaper than long term care is merciful and compassionate. If you’re horrified right now because you don’t think that feeling good about yourself because you’re not blind will send you down the path to euthanizing your grandma, please take a deep breath and keep reading.

A great, and timely example, of a better representation of a disabled child in a story is Charles Dicken’s beloved Tiny Tim from ‘A Christmas Carol’. Everyone who reads ‘A Christmas Carol’ sympathizes with Tiny Tim and the whole Cratchit family because of their poverty and how their material circumstances mean Tim cannot receive the care he needs. We know Bob Cratchit needs a better income to support his family, an income that Scrooge can afford but chooses not to pay. The amazing thing about the Cratchits however is that despite the injustice they are a happy, loving family, Tiny Tim especially. Scrooge can’t help but be moved by a family that has so little but whose life is so much fuller than his. The potential loss of Tiny Tim is felt deeply by Scrooge, despite early proclamations by him of the need to decrease the surplus population of the poor if there’s too many. Scrooge comes to see the value in every life, regardless of status, ability, wealth, income, etc., and that his own worth is not greater than anyone elses despite the immense fortune he’s amassed. Tiny Tim is one small player in Scrooges visions, but it is his contagious joy and zeal for life that helps change Scrooge for the better. At no point does Scrooge feel grateful for not being disabled, instead, he discovers a longing to have what Tim and his family have. We celebrate with Scrooge not because he is a savior to Tiny Tim in the same was as the woman in the first story, but because he changes his attitudes and actions and becomes a kind and generous man to all, in addition to properly compensating Bob Cratchit. Life stops becoming an ongoing loss/profit analysis to Scrooge, but something you pay into 100 percent not counting the costs.

The blind boy is the stereotypical disabled person often presented in the media. He is as miserable as we expect and the story strips away his dignity and demands we pity him. Tiny Tim is the opposite. He does not meet our expectation and it is his unbridled enthusiasm for life, not any special achievement, that helps change Scrooges mind, and can hopefully help change our own. Assume that every disabled man, woman, and child you meet loves life as much as Tiny Tim. See the value in every life and how the loss of even one such as his is a painful loss to all of society.

Now it’s your turn. Link up below and be sure to include a link back to this post so your readers can find the rest of the Quick Takes. I look forward to reading your posts.

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  1. YES! Such an excellent post. Thank you for articulating so well what those of us who live with the disabled already know firsthand. They are fully alive and live a wide range of human experience, just like the rest of us — including great joy and delight in creation.

    And God bless us, every one.

  2. Since I’ve lost my hearing this has happened to me a lot. People talk around me, or they talk to people about me, but they won’t talk *to* me. They’ll ask my parents questions about me, when I’m right there, and all I need my parents to do is tell me what the person said (and that’s not applicable in all cases!).
    The other thing that gets missed is that–you can’t miss what you’ve never had. I knew I was missing some things, hearing wise, but things like birds? That left me so gradually (higher pitches go first) that I didn’t know I was missing them. So I still enjoyed a gorgeous day. This is actually what I run into the most–people thinking that because I have CF, that I can’t enjoy my life. Um, I enjoy it plenty!

  3. This is a fantastic post. Thank you for your thoughts. Have you read The Cricket on The Hearth? It offers a fascinating next step of illustrating what you’ve pointed out in A Christmas Carol. One wonderful character is blind and her father lies to her to try to give her a happy life. He comes to regret and it becomes clear that once she knows things as they really are, her joy is deeper because now she can see. So beautiful.

  4. This is such an excellent post. As an autistic woman with two autistic kids I see this attitude in so many organizations and charities that claim to advocate for autistic people but who paint our lives as being miserable and/or as being a burden and a source of misery for those around us (and this is consistent with how people with disabilities are thought of in general – I just am more sensitive to it, and exposed to it more frequently, with regards to autism). What people don’t seem to understand is that it’s not that disability doesn’t come with difficulties, just that those difficulties don’t take away our ability to love life, love people, be loved ourselves, experience joy, have purpose, and find fulfillment. And like anyone, sometimes we need help – but that doesn’t mean we want to be pitied, condescended to, spoken for, or stereotyped. So, thanks for sharing these two contrasting examples and explaining why the difference in attitude is so important!

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