The holiday season is upon us. Opportunities abound to volunteer for a variety of good causes. It makes me cringe because during my lifetime I have been part of these “good causes” – some times part of “the needy” that the rest of humanity is encouraged to help and other times part of “the help.” I cringe because I have made many mistakes, regardless of my group identity from year to year, as I shifted from “the needy” to “the help.”
Please don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with helping others. It is something I consciously instilled in my children as they grew up, each holiday season choosing the projects to which we would donate our time and resources. Like others, I often purchase holiday gifts that support entrepreneurship of women in underdeveloped countries, disability groups and an assortment of charities. These things are nice and right and good.
What is NOT nice and right and good is when our actions stem from us drawing a mental line-in-the-sand placing “those people” we are “helping” on the other side – over there, away from us. Often we are not even aware when our attitude slides into this direction because it is such a prevalent societal attitude that it actually seems to be right and good when, in reality, it is nothing more than ableism dressed in pious clothing for the holidays. Sometimes when ableism is tied to holiday cheer and goodwill it is easier to rationalize and to call it by other names such as the Christmas spirit or to think it is part of peace on earth and good will towards all men.
Regardless of what you call it at holiday time or at any other time of the year there is a way to figure out if what you are doing is ableism or considerate and helpful. Anytime there is the proverbial line-in-the-sand creating any us versus them groups you are dealing with ableism. Sometimes ableism is easy to actually see with your eyes and other times only you know because ableism is in the way you think and feel. This is tricky because when you are caught in it the ableist thinking and feeling seems right and good, especially since ever so many people in our society participate in this status quo.
Here are some examples from my own life along with examples of both my ableist thinking and hopefully, some more recent nonableist thinking:
Toy donations where you purchase a toy and place it in a collection bin to be given to a “needy” child who somehow qualifies to receive a free toy.
My Ableist Thinking: It is good to give to poor children. It is not their fault their parents don’t know how to handle money or can’t keep a job.
Then, I remember when I was poor with three small children. I learned many things such as there is no good way to handle money when you have none and you cannot hold a job without reliable transportation and child care – both of which cost money you need to first earn to be able to purchase.
Today’s Thinking: It’s nice for all kids to have toys and gifts for Christmas.
Food drives where you donate specific food used to make up baskets or give money to the organization making the baskets to use in purchasing the food.
My Ableist Thinking: Parents should not have more kids than they can feed, but it is not the fault of the children. Those poor kids! I will gladly give to help them.
Today’s Thinking: Nobody should have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. In a country with our resources this is wrong.
Adopt a family where you purchase gifts from a wish list for each member of a family. Typically clothing sizes are included in the information. Sometimes giving groceries to make a holiday meal is part of the gift.
My Ableist Thinking: I wonder how parents get in the situation where they sign their family up to be adopted by a stranger just to get gifts and food. After all Christmas comes every year. It isn’t like a surprise that catches you off guard. If these people were smart they would have planned ahead for extra expenses of the holidays.
Then I was a mom with three small kids leaving a shelter to make my way in the world. Unbeknownst to me the shelter automatically enrolled us in an adopt-a-family program. I was embarrassed to accept thick, warm, stylish new winter jackets for my kids from the person who adopted my family. I invited the woman delivering the coats inside to warm up. I discovered that she herself went out and bought the coats for my kids. When I asked her what made her decide to do that she simply said, “Everybody in Wisconsin needs a warm coat for the winter.”
Today’s Thinking: I am so glad to be part of this world and can pay it forward because the truth is everybody in Wisconsin does need a warm coat for the winter.
Plain and simple; we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. Our attitudes are like markers used for drawing lines that reflect how we will approach and interact in the big wide world on the other side of our skin. When our attitudes draw circles, making us part of the human race, we are inclusive. When our attitudes draw lines putting any group of people on the other side of that line away from us we are playing with ableism.
This means that the very same actions we muster up when helping the poor and disabled can come from a place of inclusion or from a place of ableism. One attitude shares joy and life, the other a crushes with a heavy unworthiness sometimes drawing out a smoldering anger in others. Will your attitude draw circles of holiday meaningfulness where you include yourself in what already is or will your attitude draw lines that allow you to help those poor and disabled people on the other side?
JUDY ENDOW, MSW