Stereotypes, disability, and teaching moral problems

Wireless Philosophy recently released a video – written and narrated by Molly Gardner (UNC) – on the nonidentity problem. Before I say anything else, I’d like to make very clear that this post isn’t a criticism of Gardner – her explanation of the problem is beautifully clear, and she didn’t do the illustrations, which are what I’m going to criticize. While I’m not the biggest fan of setting up the nonidentity problem in terms of maternal responsibility – given how much everyone already loves to heap judgement on pregnant women – it’s definitely the standard way of presenting the issue, and the narration does a wonderful job of clearly articulating the basic points.

What bugged me about the video wasn’t the narration, but rather the illustration. Gardner describes two women who desire to have children with poor health (notice she never mentions disability at all). The illustration of these two children is this:

Screenshot 2015-04-09 10.41.35

The mothers are modern women in business suits. The doctors are modern doctors in white coats. What is this picture of a disabled Victorian street urchin doing in the middle of this video? (Although, to be fair, this could also be a picture of a disabled hipster. It can be hard to tell the difference.)

The answer, of course, is that this isn’t just any Victorian urchin. This is a readily identifiable disability trope – one that will instantly set many disabled peoples’ teeth on edge. This is Tiny Tim! Tiny Tim has a distinctive look:

He is even instantly recognizable in mouse or frog form:

Okay, so what’s so bad about Tiny Tim? He was a sweet kid, right? The problem with Tiny Tim is both the way he’s presented – the sweet, tragic disabled child who exists to teach a moral lesson (by dying, obviously) to the non-disabled main character – and how archetypal he has become in non-disabled peoples’ minds. Tiny Tim is the cheerful overcomer – his life is sad, but he will make the most of it, so that, e.g.:

“He hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant for them to remember on Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

An image of Tiny Tim isn’t the image of normal, happy, well-adjusted disabled person. It’s the image of everyone’s favorite maudlin stereotype of disability.

But why does it matter? It’s just a cartoon, right? It matters, in part, because the way we see Tiny Tim affects the way we see normal, everyday, often fully grown up and very much non-Victorian-urchin disabled people. (So much so, indeed, that in a video filled with otherwise modern illustrations, to the go-to depiction of a disabled child was Tiny Tim.) And the way the Tiny Tim stereotype permeates peoples’ perceptions of disability drives disabled people up the goddamn wall. Here, for example, is what disability blogger stothers has to say on the matter:

I hate Tiny Tim.
TT is on the ropes in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Sickly and dependent, TT is getting shakier and shakier on that homemade little crutch. But he is saved from death by old Ebeneezer Scrooge, who sees the light in the nick of time.
Now, before you go apoplectic at my assault on wee Tim, think about how he helps shape some of society’s most cherished attitudes — charity, pity (for poor little TT), for example. Tiny Tim, plucky, sweet and inspirational, tugs at the public heart.
TT has become Disabled Everyone in popular culture. TT is Jerry’s Kid.
Society idealizes this sentimental image of disability as a pitiful child in desperate need of help. People feel better when they give a few bucks or a little toy for a kid with a disability.
As an enduring symbol of modern Christmas time, Tiny Tim resonates with a deeper, darker meaning for people with disabilities. The problem is that not all people with disabilities are children, but we all tend to be treated as if we are Tiny Tims.
When I’m in the stores and malls this time of year I get a lot of smiles meant for TT. How do I know? Well, I am a middle-aged bearded and balding adult in a power-driven wheelchair. People, mostly women but some men also, flash smiles at me. Not the kind of smiles most men would hope for from a woman, nor the neutral courtesy smile exchanged by strangers passing on the sidewalk, but that particular precious smile that mixes compassion, condescension and pity. It’s withering to the person on the receiving end.
I hate it.

But all too often when we talk about disability in ethics – and especially when we teach ethics – we fall back on the most hackneyed stereotypes and cliches about disability, precisely as this video does. And no wonder – those stereotypes are powerful, and they produce powerful moral reactions. But some of the reactions they provoke are harmful, especially – as is more and more likely to be the case, given the widening access for mainstream eduction that disabled people are achieving – there’s a disabled student in the class.