Poster Child Highlights
Charity Highlights Index, 1820-1870

Tiny Tim

In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, one of his best-loved books and a best-seller not only in England but in America, poor clerk Bob Cratchitt takes his son -- who walks with a crutch -- to church with him on Christmas morning:

"And how did Tim behave?" asked Mrs. Cratchitt... "As good as gold," said Bob, "and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember, upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."

Until this conversion, Bob Cratchitt's employer Ebenezer Scrooge sees the problem of lame beggars differently:

"At this festive season [says a charity fund-raiser to Scrooge] it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute..." "Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.... "And the Union workhouses?... Are they still in operation?... Those who are badly off must go there." "Many can't go there; and many would rather die." "If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population..."

With the rise of market capitalism in the early nineteenth century and the widespread belief in its "laws," the problem of poverty was seen in two very different ways, with corresponding differences in how the poor themselves were to be treated. In the most optimistic picture of the workings of the free market, nothing need be done for the poor because the market would provide for all if left to itself. In the most pessimistic view,the rising standard of living would only increase the misery of the poor by encouraging them to reproduce themselves, eventually outstripping the new resources.

As the economy shifted from an agricultural base to one dependent on industrial manufacturing, people with disabilities were increasingly assumed to be "useless" non-producers, "invalids" who were not capable of participating in the economy. But a function was discovered for them in this secularized system--a function most perfectly fulfilled by Charles Dickens'figure of Tiny Tim.

The dependent person with a disability -- especially the child -- was able to awaken the heart of Economic Man (Scrooge) and soften the iron laws of economics. Though the laws cannot be abrogated, charitable feelings can be exercised outside their sphere. Public philanthropy directed toward those who fall out of the economic equation is the secular version of longstanding Christian charitable imperatives directed toward the poor and helpless in general. The dependent person with a disability -- Tiny Tim -- has no independent character in this drama. In this tale, there is no possibility that a person with a disability might be able to have an independent economic function if adaptations are made. Nor does Tiny Tim have the option of refusing the charity he inspires. Tiny Tim's innocent goodness, helplessness, and cheerful acceptance of his "affliction" remind some people with disabilities of Harriet Beecher Stowe's near-contemporaneous Uncle Tom.