Each year the country comes together in mass acts of philanthropy, raising money in all kinds of inventive, extraordinary and impressive ways to help children who are less fortunate than they are. Each year a significant amount of money is raised and invaluable services provided by charities are secured for another year. Each year I am left with a lingering feeling of discomfort at the underlying messages behind these acts of altruism. Should we pity disabled children? Is this the message that we want to give our children, disabled or otherwise? And if these services are essential, life changing, and in some cases life saving, should they not be provided by the State rather than charities? The second concern sits more comfortably, this is a political question about the type of society we want to live in and what it consists of. The first concern is more difficult to unpick.
My son attended a preschool for deaf children run by a wonderful charity that taught him invaluable listening skills and gave us confidence as the parents of a deaf child. For us, the service provided was essential at a time when we were in need of support and reassurance as well as practical strategies for language development. The first Easter we were there my son came out of his session very excited clutching a pile of Easter Eggs. The eggs were donated by a local business to be distributed to the deaf children. This was not the first time I had been made aware that the way my child is seen by others is different from the way I see him, we had been offered condolences, pity and admiration at how well he ‘copes’ in a range of situations by strangers and acquaintances. It was, however, the first time I was faced with the notion that he is part of a group identified as needing charity. A poor little disabled child. Whilst we ate our way through the chocolate we discussed the public perception created by our reliance on charities to provide essential services.
This is not a new concern, disabled groups have long campaigned for an end to the portrayal of disabled children as children in need of pity. The organisation Disabled People Against Cuts doesn’t pull any punches, describing the “sickening demonisation of disabled children as vulnerable and in need of charity”. In 1992 over 1000 disabled activist wearing ‘Piss on Pity’ t-shirts protested against the Children in Need telethon. Similar campaigns have used slogans like ‘nothing about us without us’, ‘access all areas’, ‘piss on pity’ and ‘choices and rights’. These all represent a rights approach to disability, and this is an approach that is at odds with the messages being broadcast on the Children in Need telethon. Mik Scarlet, a disability blogger, suggests the message, whether overt or covert is:
“Poor little crippled kids need your help. Their lives are so awful that without your money they will only be sad and their future is bleak. Give generously. Your money will make their tragic lives a little better. Poor little things, it so sad that they are the way they are. Aren’t you lucky?”
This tragedy model of disability promotes the idea that disabled people are victims of circumstance deserving of pity. By depicting disabled children alongside children who have experienced poverty, famine, child abuse and the loss of a loved one, Children in Need gives the tacit message that disability is a tragedy and that disabled children are victims.
So where are the alternative messages that disabled people themselves are trying to put across. In the words of Peter Gibson
‘Disability pride is about presenting ourselves as capable, confident, diverse citizens who are part of the universal experience of living. Notions of tragedy are contradicted by the movement saying, “We’re not super-crips overcoming challenges nor are we tragic heroes; rather we’re people just living our lives and we’re proud of who and what we are.”‘
To criticise Children in Need and other similar efforts is not to argue that charities are of no value nor is it to deny that charities provide invaluable services, support and care. They clearly do, and many charities are extremely proactive in promoting inclusion, equality and rights. Nor is it to argue that charitable acts or fundraising are anything other than positive, caring acts which enrich our society and raise desperately needed funds. Rather, it is to argue that charities need to be extremely careful in the image that they display of disability and disabled children/adults. Whilst images of sad children whose lives are bleak without outside intervention are good for fundraising, once the telethon is over, the legacy for the children portrayed in this way is of tragic victims to be pitied. This is the legacy that endures for the other 355 days that are not Children in Need day.
This criticism of Children in Need also raises concerns about the funding of public services. Can we raise questions about what Children in Needs means in terms of how services currently provided by charities are funded or about who should provide them? If they are essential services, as many of them clearly are, then it is not unreasonable to suggest that they should be provided by, or at the very least funded by, the state through the tax system. Not only is this more in line with the kind of society that we should be aiming for, it is also far more equitable and sustainable to pay for these vital services through taxation rather than through sitting in baths of baked beans.
Furthermore, in a comment piece in the Guardian published over a decade ago, Rebecca Atkinson suggested that the portrayal of disabled people on Children in Need was as “the benefactors of the selfless benevolence of others“. This may lead to the feeling that individual civic duties are met once money has been donated to Children in Need or whichever charity it is. In turn, this makes it less likely that the kind of integrated, inclusive society which would actually negate the need for many of the services provided by these charities, at least in terms of overcoming barriers, can be achieved. Better perhaps to formalise this relationship, at least in relation to the provision of essential services, by way of the slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need“.