The trope that I call the “Tiny Tim” is the creation by an author of a disabled character whose exclusive role is to be an object of pity and in need of charity. I have used the name of the best known of these figures from Dickens—”Tiny Tim.” Tiny Tim doesn’t have a life outside of his role as an object of pity, and his entire existence is about teaching an able-bodied man to be more charitable and share his wealth.
These figures are obviously not limited to literature and, frequently, charities rely on this image when they launch funding campaigns, trying to evoke sympathy from possible donors. Charities have frequently relied on evoking sympathy and a sense of guilt from potential donors in order to acquire funding, but this has an impact for the disabled community and the perception of the disabled community as being made up of people who are both needy and also perpetually suffering. This construction by charities also relies on the idea that people will give money to alleviate their guilt (the Scrooge Effect).
This construction of disability infantilizes disabled people, positioning us exclusively as objects of pity, and assuming that we are resource-draining. This also leads to the conception that disabled people need to be perpetually sad to be considered in need of sympathy, and therefore excludes a lot of potential for people who live happily with disability.
In Disability Rhetoric (Syracuse University Press, 2014), Jay Dolmage refers to this trope as “Disability as Object of Pity and/or Charity,” and he notes that in this trope, “people with disabilities are represented as sad and impotent, a problem that can be solved via charity” (35). He points out that disability is presented here as a problem that can be solved, noting that disability is constructed here as something that is a problem, not a general characteristic of human experience. When literature and charities construct disability as a problem, that ideology extends to disabled people, making disabled people a problem in the social imagination, something that should be “solved” rather than accommodated.
The construction of disability as an object of charity also constructs disability as something that only needs to be accommodated once (through donation) and then requires that the disabled person live in a perpetual state of gratitude toward the able-bodied population.
One of the dangers with the Tiny Tim trope is that people frequently write this trope thinking that it is innocent and supporting of disabled people. This is partially because it has been associated with the charity model and considered to be therefore about helping people (because the charity model has projected itself as a way of helping people). People will often use this trope innocently, thinking that it is helpful, while not realizing the potential impact that this has on the disabled community.
Derek Newman-Stille is the seven-time Prix Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada. He is completing his PhD at Trent University, researching representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. Derek is the editor of the upcoming anthologies: Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From the Margins and We Shall Be Monsters: Frankenstein Two Centuries On. Derek has published in fora like Quill & Quire, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Misfit Children: An Inquiry into Childhood Belongings, The Playground of Lost Toys, and Accessing the Future.