The manner in which society measures the intellectually disabled has altered radically

THIS evening as the light dies we’ll go looking for the reindeer in the Phoenix Park with our kids, writes Victoria White.

The manner in which society measures the intellectually disabled has altered radically

We know they’re not the reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh because those reindeer are already bringing presents to children on the other side of the earth, where the night is dark. The Phoenix Park reindeer are the ones left behind but it’s as if they know that some of their brothers and sisters are on a mission of magic. We feed them carrots as consolation prizes.

Later, having worked the chill off with hot chocolates and hot toddies, we’ll sit around the fire and take out the old copy of Clement C Moore’s The Night Before Christmas which still bears the marks of the house fire we all survived over a decade ago.

It’s the poem my mother would recite to me every Christmas, calling the reindeer by name: “Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On Cupid! On Donner and Blitzen!” She didn’t hold with Rudolph. For her he only came in with Disney.

Then the children will go to bed and if they’re true to form they’ll go to sleep very quickly because they know that Santa doesn’t come to children who are awake. In fact they know that Santa doesn’t often come to teenagers and they realise they’re special.

They’re special because Santa comes to Tom though he’s 14. Even when he’s a grown-up, Santa will keep coming to him. Even when he’s old and grey and I am no longer around. Because Tom has a learning disability and will always believe in Santa, Santa will always come to him. Just like it says in the Barry’s Tea advertisement, Santa really is a smart fella.

Christmas stays the same for us in a way it doesn’t for most families and we have Tom to thank for that. He watches the sky for the iconic shape of a sleigh pulled by reindeer and so do we. Every now and then he goes, “Sssh!” and we all stop and listen for sleigh bells.

The reindeer don’t have wings, he explained yesterday. And they don’t have “fire” by which I suppose he means a rocket launcher. The secret is in their hooves, he says. Their hooves tread magically through the clear air.

Christmas morning has lost none of its freshness in our house, despite the hormones. Our kids don’t wake up too early, they’re teen enough for that. But when they do wake up we make it a rule that they have to wait upstairs until Mammy and Daddy are ready to go down.

Then, giggling with excitement, we creep down the stairs and line up outside the sitting-room door. When we all burst in we get a shock because Santa often makes a terrible mess. There can be slops of milk all over the fireplace. The reindeer usually eat half a carrot and leave teeth marks in the other one. On one occasion there was soot on the good carpet and I had to get the hoover out straight away. My husband didn’t understand the fuss because he didn’t know what I’d spent on the carpet.

While we’re fussing with the clean-up and making our first cups of tea the children are ripping their stockings open and finding some of the things we used to find in our stockings as children, including an apple and an orange, from my mother’s Donegal childhood, symbols of the fruits of the earth or of the gold St Nicholas sent down the chimney to three poor girls, depending on which version you believe.

Tom works his way through his chocolate money in five seconds and then starts crunching on his candy cane and it’s the one day of the year we don’t care. At Christmas we have time for Tom. The rest of the year it’s harder to cope with the fact that he talks to himself constantly except when he’s asking a barrage of questions. These are usually about different countries, their flags and their animals. Ethnic diversity is hard for him to handle because he likes to categorise everyone according to their nation. He is apt to tell darker-skinned people to “to go back to where they belong.” “Scorn not his simplicity”, as Phil Coulter wrote in that powerful song about his first son who was born with Down Syndrome. Watch Luke Kelly singing it and it will add a deeper level to your Christmas. What’s striking is his absolute lack of any sentimentality.

But we don’t hear that song much anymore because “simplicity” is no longer an allowable concept. In these days of political correctness, people are not intellectually disabled, they are just misunderstood. With changes in the laws to maximise their independence, with “care in the community”, with whatever remedial programme is in the news at the time — ABA, TEACCH, SHINE, LIFT — the media only give the parents of intellectually disabled kids one measure by which to judge their offspring: how like the rest of us they are.

Why does Phil Coulter write about a “simple child/ He looks almost like the others/ But they know he’s not the same”? Doesn’t he know that Down Syndrome teens have done the Junior Certificate and even the Leaving Certificate? Have won sporting awards and gone to university?

What consolation is that to Coulter, whose “child with the golden hair” died at the age of four? What consolation is it to the huge percentage of parents of children with intellectual disabilities whose children do not do state exams or win sporting awards and are left feeling they didn’t try hard enough?

Political correctness masks our continuing inability to cope with the fact that some people are born with diminished intellectual ability. This leaves their parents, their families and their carers isolated. It even forces them into a new competition — how “normal” is your disabled child? Can your child run a marathon? Can he play a symphony? If not, why not?

In the US 80% of adults with Down Syndrome do no paid work and 42% of adults with an autism diagnosis have never worked for pay. This leads me to suspect there is almost total unemployment among the half of people with ASD who are also intellectually disabled.

Yes, more could be done to help the intellectually disabled into the mainstream. But it’s more important to develop an appreciation of the gift that is each human being whether they can engage with education and work or not.

Santa is really smart about that sort of thing. He doesn’t care if you’re 14 or 44 or 84, if you believe in him he’ll try to bring you what your heart desires.

As big children all over the country watch the sky tonight for signs of reindeer I wish we could make a resolution, as a society, to follow Santa’s lead and stop scorning their simplicity.

As big children watch the sky for signs of reindeer, society should make a resolution to follow Santa

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