This December, kids all over the world will delight in discovering their Elf on the Shelf toys creating mischief around the house.
But for one family from Cornwall, their elf won’t be able to climb the stairs or hide in unusual places.
Alfie the Elf (@Elf_On_Wheels) uses a wheelchair and, this Christmas, he’s raising awareness of the almost endless stream of issues facing disabled people: from inadequate toilet facilities to lack of ramps on the high street.
The elf represents Rachel George’s son Adam, 11, who faces the same challenges as Alfie on an almost daily basis. The mum-of-two didn’t want to jeopardise her son’s privacy but she was desperate to share the inexcusable obstacles that he faces every day, so she decided to document Alfie’s life instead.
“The things that Alfie is facing are all things my son has faced,” she tells HuffPost UK. “It is hard to share some things, because I am mindful of my son’s privacy and would not share anything which might make him uncomfortable in the future.
“I would not share a photo of my son hoisted to the toilet, but I think it’s important for people to see it so they understand just how normal it is.
“Alfie the Elf kindly gave his permission for photos to be taken and shared online.”
Alfie the Elf has become a spokesperson of sorts for the 13.3 million disabled people in the UK.
Rachel, a full time carer and home educator who blogs at ordinaryhopes.com, explains: “Disabled people face a lot of difficulties but often don’t like to mention them. People face difficulties, just as Alfie does, every day.
“Sometimes when they speak up they are told that they shouldn’t expect to be able to go everywhere and that hurts. It also makes other people less likely to speak up.
“Alfie the Elf is prepared to face such comments without getting hurt by them because he’s filled with Christmas spirit and determination.
“Alfie gives me a fun and light-hearted way to make some serious points about very real and often horrendous situations.”
The family faces difficulties and exclusion every day and Rachel, 42, says that over time “all of these things build up, and they hurt”.
For example in the town where they live, many of the shops have steps meaning it’s virtually impossible for the family to take their son there and local tourist attractions and parks are not geared up for wheelchair users.
“Most parks have nothing at all that Adam can access,” Rachel explains. “Can you imagine the complaints from parents of able-bodied children if local parks had no equipment? For my son, parks might as well have a big sign with a wheelchair symbol and a statement saying ‘Keep Out!’.”
Then there’s toilet access, which the mum-of-two describes as a “huge problem” - especially as in some cases she has had to leave the door open while her son went to the toilet.
She explains: “Many places seem to think that meeting minimum standards is good enough, but I think that we should be able to go into a toilet and close the door as an absolute minimum. The toilet facilities at our local zoo do not even allow us to do that.
“My son is able to use the toilet but requires a hoist to lift him from his wheelchair and a bench to lay down on to sort clothing and switch to his toileting sling before hoisting to the toilet.
“It is simple equipment to install and does not need to take up a massive space. Our bathroom at home is 2.28m x 2.54m and we manage in there.”
Changing Places campaigns for fully accessible toilets that are more spacious and feature height adjustable changing benches and hoists. However currently there are just 1,044 specialist toilets across the whole of the UK, which is hardly enough for the hundreds of thousands of people who need them.
So far, Alfie the Elf has helped to raise awareness of inadequate toilet facilities in the local area. After Rachel posted a story of Alfie’s experience at a local Sainsbury’s store on social media, where the elf went to the cafe for a mince pie and was unable to use the toilet because it didn’t meet his needs, she received a call from the store’s manager saying they were doing everything they could to rectify this.
“The manager of that store telephoned me to say he was saddened to learn of our experience,” she recalls. “He is going to do everything he can to find a way to get the team responsible for store changes to get a hoist and changing bench installed so that everyone can shop, eat, drink and use the toilet in the store.
“He is going to call me in a few weeks to update me.”
One thing Rachel is keen to do through Alfie is highlight the businesses that provide positive services for disabled people. “We are highlighting all those who are ‘on the good list’, like GM Coachworks who arrived in under 24 hours to fix the wheelchair lift on our car,” she adds. “They understood that a broken lift meant we couldn’t go out and they were brilliant.”
Alfie’s stories are also educating the wider public about disability issues, which others are often unaware of.
“People who didn’t know about the difficulties faced by wheelchair users have contacted me saying how helpful it is to see Alfie’s adventures,” she explains.
“Meanwhile wheelchair users are able to share photos of Alfie having access difficulties without anyone suggesting they are complaining unnecessarily.”
In the run up to Christmas, Alfie will be visiting local attractions and doing a spot of Christmas shopping to see how well businesses cater to disabled people.
Ultimately, Rachel wants Alfie to help make the world a better place for disabled people - including her son - so that they can live without feeling alienated or discriminated against, something which can greatly impact a person’s quality of life.
“Adam faces challenges almost every day that we go out - whilst he is a child I can do a lot to ease those challenges and to protect him from them, but one day he will be an adult and I do not want him to be facing the same difficulties generations have faced before him,” she says.
“We have to challenge things now or nothing will change.”
Rachel hopes with all of her heart that 2018 will be less hard for wheelchair users.
“The Equality Act is an anticipatory one. Businesses and organisations are supposed to be looking ahead to see what needs to be done so that they do not treat anyone less favourably due to disability,” she explains.
As part of this, she wants to see shops, tourist attractions, supermarkets, theatres and leisure centres asking what they can do to improve their facilities.
She also wants to see toilet access addressed on a larger scale.
“Toilet access is a big deal. Nobody would book theatre tickets and a meal if the theatre had no toilets - yet this is exactly what we face,” she says.
“My son pretended to be ill last year to avoid going to the cinema with friends, because he knew there were no toilets in the town.
“Access at cinemas is often also really poor, with a wheelchair space tagged on to the end of a row, in a neck-craning position. If you need a carer but also go with friends, you have to sit next to your carer because there’s only one seat next to you. Why can’t seats be removed from areas within the cinema so that wheelchair users can really be with their friends?
“My son deserves deserves better in life. We all do. Equality has to mean all.”