Disability Doesn't Define the Holidays

Years ago a new friend asked me how I could appreciate the Christmas season. It initially seemed a foolish question. Then I realized it was a very culture-based question. Look at some distinctions

Years ago a new friend asked me how I could appreciate the Christmas season. It initially seemed a foolish question. Then I realized it was a very culture-based question.

Look at some distinctions with me.

One culture celebrates the season with tea and shortbread, another with ham and greens. One lights candles in a menorah, another strings lights on a tree. One takes trips to the mountains, another ladles green beans and gravy into takeout containers for children who might otherwise have gone without dinner.

You get the idea. Now consider some other groups.

One culture — that of ordinary visual, auditory and cognitive perceptions versus an experience in which one or all three are compromised. One culture in which all physical parts are mobile and agile, and another in which arms or legs are compromised.

One culture in which changes in emotional environment — triggers for sorrow, joy, chaos and quietude — are all taken in stride, without ripple, and another in which abrupt changes cause psychological trauma.

Now, what is the experience of the Christmas season? For one individual, rooted in the culture where all sensual perceptions are equal, it is an immersion in light and color, animation and icon. Or perhaps it is an immersion in music and sound — horses' hooves on downtown pavement, choral and orchestral riches, church bells chiming. For still others, perhaps it is an opportunity to absorb literature of the season — religious tomes, classic lore, topical tales of miracle and merriment.

Then, for that cultural enclave where all are physically able and agile, Christmas might mean ice skating, sleigh-riding, downhill skiing, dashing through parking lots and malls or maybe scaling stone and stucco to slip or wiggle down a chimney or two.

And don't forget the "ordinary" psychological culture, the one in which all members can hear the music, the crowd, the laughter and screaming of overwrought children, see the lights, the advertisements, negotiate the traffic, all the while remaining calm and unperplexed.

If you can imagine these distinct groups and realize that no one person possesses all of these characteristics or abilities, then you are on the way to understanding that disability is not the exception but the norm, an identifiable 20 percent of the "norm" at any rate, and that "ordinary" or "typical" might be figments of our imagination.

Now to get back to the business of experiencing or appreciating the Christmas season: How does a person whose culture means the limitation or compromise of one of the senses, physical mobility or mental prowess?

Personally, I've been a great lover of Christmas for as long as I can remember. There have been years when I couldn't get enough of Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life or Natalie Wood as Suzy in Miracle on 34th Street.

I love the cookies, the carols, the craziness of schedules, even the too-long family newsletters. Whether in church or the mall, people are inarguably kinder in general and more tolerant of infringement on personal space.

Is my pleasure different from yours? Undoubtedly so. Is it related to my disability? Highly improbable.

Let me put it another way. I have a friend who uses a wheelchair who absolutely adores ice-skating. She can't do it, but she loves to watch it.

You can have an intellectual disability and still love the plays, the books, the movies associated with the season. You can have a hearing impairment and still enjoy the music. Maybe it's louder; maybe you only hear some parts of the orchestra.

On the other hand, you can be of the culture where all hearing, seeing, walking, reading, processing information is of the "ordinary" category and still not see the smile of the stranger who lets you have the parking space or hear the harmonies produced by kids in the lobby.

What each of us experiences this holiday season is largely a factor of attitude — heart and soul, you might say — more than intellectual superiority, athletic prowess, perfect hearing or sight.

My own response to the season, for example, is a little slower to catch on than in some previous years — and yet, one morning last week, I had a moment of sheer joy.

I came downstairs to make the coffee, begin the day, my preoccupation an intense tumble of work, house, family — the typical tedious to-dos. Then in an instant I was filled with an indescribable delight, an irrepressible smile zapping that somber concentration in a heartbeat. The reason? I suddenly inhaled the fragrance of the Fraser fir installed in my living room the night before.

And that's my experience of the season. It's fleeting and fabulous and available to anyone, with or without disability.

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