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#ThinkingAllowed: Lighting the way ahead

There is something magical about Christmas.  Just like me you probably love the lights, the constant happy feeling it brings and feel good factor it generally creates.

I must admit though, I would rather there was a more appropriate start date for switching on the lights and for shops to play Christmas songs, like the 1st December.  There is a limit to how many times I can hear “All I Want for Christmas is You”, almost forced on me every year, despite it being a festive favourite.

Don’t worry I am not a Scrooge. I like Christmas and will not hear any arguments against it.

I was actually pleasantly surprised to see the Government press release inviting people to a Christmas Festival of Lights.  In the past we may have steered cleared of the word ‘Christmas’ not to offend or exclude other religions but we should remember Christmas IS a Christian tradition.  There is nothing wrong with that and everyone in a multi-cultural Gibraltar should and will understand that.

I have watched the coverage of Gibraltar’s Christmas Festival of Lights and it was great to see the community come together at John Mackintosh Square to celebrate.  The sense of family, and community was evident and the event had some truly spectacular elements to it.  I loved the Santa projections, and the ‘snow’ falling in the square when it wasn’t anywhere near cold.

We tend to compare everything in Gibraltar to major events in capital cities.  Our Festival of Lights with Oxford Street Switch On, or GBC with the BBC, the Chronicle with The Times or other UK daily and even the John Mackintosh Hall Theatre with big venues such as the Royal Albert Hall.

But, when we compare things with a more regional equivalent (please excuse the cliche) we always punch way above our weight.  In fact I would argue that sometimes we do so even when compared with the best, but let us be honest, sometimes we don’t, and there is nothing wrong in that!

The fact is the Festival of Lights locally proved to be a truly family occasion, a great celebration as a community into which the Gibraltar Cultural Services on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Gibraltar Electricity Authority put in a lot of work.  It is always easy to look from the outside and think these things just happen.  They don’t.  They need co-ordination and organisation. Their hard work should always be applauded.

BUT!  I am almost certain you were waiting for the ‘but’ - Is it maybe not time switching on the Christmas lights is no longer carried out by a pupil from St Martin’s Special school?

I am sure the arrangements, which are a long standing tradition, are done with the best of intentions.  This week’s column is not a criticism of the fantastic work done by St Martin’s School either, they do sterling work and I certainly do not wish to spoil the experience for anyone.  It is not my intention to strip anyone of something they enjoy.

But, in a community so forward thinking, where we have come such a long way on inclusion and so much more, is it still appropriate?  It may be the right time for ministers and organisers to reconsider this.  If they want a school pupil to do so that is absolutely fine, even commendable.

Perhaps they could also open it up to a competition format with a targeted age group or something similar just to give others a chance as well. Why not involve pupils from other schools too whilst still creating a sense of inclusion by allowing everyone to be a part of the “switching on”?  It does not have to be a single individual, maybe two or three, or a larger group. Does the minister involved need to be a part of it? Why not grant that position too to some other young person?

Inclusion, I feel, must work both ways.  We cannot ask all children to treat those with a disability as a peer and then have official events indirectly suggesting otherwise.

If we are to defend inclusion and the concept that all children are the same and equal in the eyes of a community such as ours, how do the hundreds of parents who attended the event and beyond explain to their children how the child was selected?  Is it because they are different?  I would imagine any parent of a child with a disability would want him or her not to feel different to any other child or anyone else at any point in their lives.  It is the cornerstone of the argument used for a long time now and one I am sure we are all agreed on.

We have come a long way but there is more work to be done.  We should certainly be creating more mainstream opportunities for children with disabilities and learning difficulties. They should be encouraged to follow their dreams and be the best they can be in every situation.  Not just switching on the Christmas lights because it has always been done this way.

If we want a Gibraltar that prides itself in screaming from every rooftop that we are all equal it is, - as the GSLP - Liberals so widely told us in their 2011 Election Campaign - time for change.

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