With Christmas swiftly approaching, I was planning to entertain you this month with a warm, uplifting festive story about Eddie the paraplegic elf who gains a job in Santa's toy factory thanks to a grant from the government's Access to Work scheme.
However, at the present time I'm feeling a distinct sympathy towards Scrooge. I've just finished writing a ridiculous number of Christmas cards, my carer is suffering from writer' s cramp and it wouldn't surprise me if she sued me for industrial injuries.
Yes, for us crips Christmas isn’t exactly a time of undiluted joy and pleasure. For a start, it’s an exceptionally expensive period – and I’m not talking about the usual extra costs of buying presents and food. On Christmas day, boxing day and New Year’s day, care agencies usually charge double their usual rates - one agency I use even charges double plus 20%.
They have to do this in order to encourage their carers to work on days when most people want to be with their families. Of course, it’s understandable that carers should expect an incentive to interrupt their holidays. But that doesn’t prevent Christmas being a financial headache for disabled people on tight care budgets.
Alternatively, you can minimise your care costs by going to stay with any relatives or friends who are willing to assist you, and this is what many disabled people do. I’m lucky in that I have a strong rapport with my parents and I can spend Christmas with them. But I feel sorry for any disabled people who are forced at Christmas to rely for care on relatives whose company drives them up the wall.
And then there are the higher Christmas fares imposed on us by taxi companies. London wheelchair users like myself (especially those who have a decent income and lack their own vehicle) tend to use taxis more than the average person because the tube is so inaccessible and cabs are plentiful.
Many of us qualify for subsidised fares under the generous Taxicard scheme. But the discount only applies to a fixed number of journeys and I usually find that my taxicard runs out in early December, just before the higher Christmas fees kick in.
One of the largest cab firms charges an additional £25 for all bookings from 8pm on Christmas Eve through to 6am on December 27th, and again from 8pm on New Year’s Eve to 6am on January 2nd. And not only do cabs become more pricey in December, but they also tend to keep customers waiting longer as well. Last week my cabs were late every day but I suppose that is consistent.
My anti-Christmas mood wasn’t helped last week by a night out at the theatre. The comedy show itself was hilarious – inevitably there were numerous jokes about “canoe man” – but just as I was about to enter the auditorium, a steward asked me: “Would you like to use the toilet before you go in?”, as if I was a toddler about to start a long car journey.
How many of the able-bodied members of the audience were asked the same question when they arrived, I wonder? I know her enquiry was well-intentioned but I really felt like pointing out to the woman that I’m 31 years old, I have a degree in Classics, and I can name all 13 episode titles of Doctor Who series 3 in correct chronological sequence, so I’m perfectly capable of deciding when I need the loo without being asked.
Nevertheless, I do have reasons to be cheerful this Christmas. I’m unlikely to be arrested for drink-driving an electric wheelchair – a) because my medicine prevents me from consuming alcohol, and b) because I don’t use an electric wheelchair. (Drink-driving laws apply to battery-powered wheelchairs in the same way as other motorised vehicles. In 2003, a 61-year-old Rhondda man was cautioned for being over the drink-drive limit in his wheelchair. He was stopped by police while making the 600-yard journey home from his local British Legion Club after drinking a few pints.)
Secondly, I have the fun yet again of trying to decide how to spend my annual £10 Christmas bonus from the Government. It’s a payment all disability living allowance recipients receive and it’s been £10 for as long as I can remember. Shall I buy some tinsel to decorate my wheelchair or a pair of flashing antlers to wear at the office party? Or shall I be sensible and just put the money towards the cost of all the stamps I’ll need to post the huge mountain of Christmas cards waiting on my desk?
Finally, I’m pretty confident that none of my friends will try to wind me up by giving me a disability-related toy as a present. Fisher Price apparently makes a toy bus with a wheelchair ramp (let’s hope it doesn’t break down as often as the real ones) and a company called Little Tikes produces a dollshouse with a ramp. But perhaps the most famous example is the doll “Share a Smile Becky” (what I think about that name isn’t printable on a respectable website like this one). Becky is a friend of Barbie, has strawberry blond hair, wears a turquoise outfit and uses a bright pink wheelchair. This year she celebrates her 10th birthday.
Many disabled young girls have no doubt been delighted to receive a Becky doll over the last decade. I’m sure she’s helped to increase disabled children’s self-esteem and change attitudes towards disability. Barbie’s manufacturer should be congratulated for making her “family” reflect the diversity of humanity. But frankly, if Santa had given me a Becky doll when I was growing up, I would probably have thrust it back in his sack faster than you can say Disability Discrimination Act. It wouldn’t have made any difference whether the doll was disabled, able-bodied or equipped with her own fully-functioning set of bagpipes. I’ve never been a doll-lover, always preferring to play with cars, Lego and board games.
Ironically, when Becky was first manufactured, her wheelchair wouldn’t fit in most Barbie houses (even the lift was too small). Moreover, she didn’t have a seat belt, so she fell out of her chair easily when pushed along.
Still, it’s worth noting that, as Barbie and her able-bodied friends have tiny feet, it’s impossible to get them to stand. In contrast, wheelchair-using Becky is perfectly stable. It’s good to know that the crip doll is the only Barbie doll that can stay upright independently.
Happy Christmas to all New Statesman readers!
PS If you want an antidote to all those mind-numbingly banal, excessively schmaltzy Christmas pop songs that are played non-stop on the radio at this time of year, then listen to a new single Cripples at Christmas, available for download from the BBC disability website Ouch