Disability does not automatically equal charity. Except, for an awful lot of people, it does.
That’s the problem…
A new lot of people found my “justice not charity” post on Instagram this week – I guess because of Children in Need, a massive yearly charity telethon here in the UK. I wrote it when I found out about the Blind Workers’ March – that disabled-run organisations were campaigning against charity back in the 1890s.
Even now, mentioning charity in anything other than glowing terms feels risky as a disabled person – I mean, how can you possibly be negative about charity?
And many of us rely on charity – have relationships with charities. It’s twisty, and complicated. We all know how quickly we can be filed in the “bad disabled” folder if we question it.
The trouble is, when a group of people – disabled people – are associated with charity for hundreds of years, it affects us.
It affects all our interactions. The plumber. The postman. Friends and relatives. Everyone’s go-to reference point for disabled people is steeped in charity – from tradespeople to the people we’re closest to. And charity is about a lot of things, but equality is not one of them.
So even though we pay the same for services as everyone else, everything is weirdly clouded by the expectation we’ll be grateful. We’ll probably just be pleased for any old tap or light fitting. (In fact, do we really need a hot tap that works in the first place? Sorry – sore point…)
Because when disabled people are on TV, that’s what you see. Gratitude. Which also means that’s what we’re teaching disabled children we expect from them – to perform their disability, emote “correctly”, and be grateful.
We all want to feel superior to someone – that someone’s worse off than us. And these days, disabled people are it. Especially since Africa proved to be inconveniently online, and African people rightly took umbrage at being our “at least we’re not…”
So here we are. Argh.
Given how carefully we have to tread when we talk about charity, I’m enormously grateful to these disabled people for writing about it – they’re very worth reading:
- On Instagram, @pacingpixie writes: Dear Disabled kids, when you see this year’s ‘Children in Need’ campaigns please remember that you are not the problem, however many times they play ‘Fix You.’ You are not broken... You can find the whole post here.
- Doyenne of Instagram and disabled mother of a disabled child @nina_tame says:
Don’t let the glitz, glam and glitter distract from the fact that this isn’t bloody Dickens times. Kids shouldn’t have to dance for their suppers. The whole post is here – she also has a video on it.
- @disabled_eliza appeared on Children in Need as a child – in a children’s choir. Reflecting now, they say: Disabled children shouldn’t have to go on TV looking “sad” and “pitied” to be able to access basic tools like wheelchairs or support. Full post here.
- @cathyreaywrites – in 2021, Cathy Reay wrote Pssst! Disabled kids are not a feel good mascot. Pass it on. You can see her Instagram carousel here, and the original twitter thread it’s based on is here.
- In the Guardian in 2018, journalist Frances Ryan wrote: As a disabled child growing up in the 1990s, I found watching Children in Need uncomfortable. I could never understand why newsreaders had to put on a costume and dance just to give people like me basic support… It is as if we are in a collective state of hallucination in which we have convinced ourselves that it is perfectly normal for a developed global economy to turn to a partially sighted yellow bear to help feed our children.
If you’re interested in the twentieth century history of disabled people organising against charity, I heartily recommend the BBC drama When Barbara Met Alan.
– Lucy Catchpole
1. A photo of me – a white wheelchair user with long brown hair – in my garden. My text over the top reads ‘Disability does not = charity’
2. A black & white photo of men marching in 1920 – they’re wearing suits, coats and very dapper hats. The men at the front are holding a rumpled sign reading ‘Justice Not Charity’. My text reads ‘Disabled people carried ‘Justice Not Charity’ signs a long time ago – in 1920.’ And ‘The Blind Workers March 1920’ at the bottom.
3. My text reads ‘Disability and charity – it’s complicated.’ The image is the mid-section of one of those vintage charity collection boxes – they were all over the UK in the 1980s, often outside shops, but come from an earlier era. They’re essentially life-size statues of children. This one is a boy with an underarm crutch and callipers, holding a box marked ‘Action for the crippled child’ in one hand. This is the box you’d put your money in, meaning everyone dropping money in this collection box was acting out giving charity directly to a disabled child.]