Rudolph: A Tale of Disability Justice, or Oppression?

Even as a Jewish kid, I always liked the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Each year, we ponder the life of one creature who was set apart from his peers by a highly visible difference, a lone red nose. It’s a tale of coping at first with exclusion (“They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games)” followed by vindication when Santa realized that Rudolph’s red nose was actually an asset for his team. At that point, Rudolph was not only included, but celebrated as a valued leader who “will go down in history” forever.

The tale carries obvious motifs that are relevant to the disability experience. Many of us have risen from exclusion to success and celebration when others in power recognized the gifts that we bring, not just despite our differences, but because of them.

However, I’ve recently seen a critique of Rudolph’s tale that is worth considering. To some disability justice advocates, Rudolph was only successful because he was productive. His red nose provided the team with an advantage in efficiently delivering presents. If Rudolph had carried some other visible difference that did not advantage the team, would he still have received love and appreciation from the other reindeer? What if it hadn’t been a foggy night and the shine of his nose had not been necessary to advance the team’s mission?

When we talk about inclusion, we often focus on workplace inclusion. We like to extol the benefits of hiring employees with disabilities, who despite appearances, end up being loyal, dependable, highly generative employees with special gifts for problem-solving and morale-building. It can be tempting to focus our attentions on the “super-disabled” athletes or high academic performers who shatter our expectations for what disability is about. But in the midst of this, the “average” disabled person can be overlooked. We might unintentionally devalue the life of the disabled person who cannot hold a conventional job, or one who doesn’t appear to be overcoming their disability hard enough. Everyone brings something good to the table, whether or not that thing is valued in our capitalistic system.

During this most unusual holiday season, let’s consider how we can truly appreciate every person we encounter, regardless of what we think they will be able to contribute in the conventional sense. Let us strive toward a world where all human beings are equally valued, not despite our differences but because of them. Best wishes for a warm, peaceful holiday season and a joyful transition into 2021.

2 thoughts on “Rudolph: A Tale of Disability Justice, or Oppression?

  1. Thanks so much Arielle for this wonderful teaching ; and such a good reminder of celebrating our differences. Happy early Birthday and all the best in 2021 love judi

  2. If we limit ourselves to *obvious* benefits, we always already capture ourselves in an economic rationality commonly called “neoliberalism.” At present, neoliberalism is panned in communities associating with some sort of critical thought, so critically-minded folks end up dismissing anything associated with it.

    Perhaps it _should be_ obvious, but not everything beneficial is in the first place obvious. Slowing ourselves down and considering the value of diverse experiences, different forms and shapes, unique expressions, and on and on, gives us a chance for that.

    Here’s a neat example. The artistic style of impressionism was absolutely dismissed in the elite 19th century art world. Those who took the time to consider what it offered and what it freed-up for artists ended up changing the art world. Now, impressionism is considered the foundation of any progressive art form.

    I have learned so much by listening to and watching how individuals with disabilities go about everyday things. The world is different for me after taking the time to learn new ways of sensing and responding to the world.

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