Go on, stare!
With the Paralympics currently on in London, I thought it would be very topical to discuss disability. There have been a lot of TV programmes on lately about paralympic atheletes, doing a great job to highlight they have overcome a lot and struggled to live full and happy lives. On the other hand there have been a plethora of shows in the last few years which positively encourage us to stare agog at anyone with physical or mental disabilities (Seven Dwarves, Beauty and the Beast– the names of the shows are enough to make you switch the TV off).
My question really is this, when faced with someone with obvious physical disabilities, what is the appropriate way to act?
Take for example an outing I was recently on whilst supervising a group of young children. We were in a park and there was a group from a special education needs school also there. Our children, especially those around 5-6 years old couldn’t help but stare. They were coming across these people in wheelchairs, with strange walks and making strange noises for the first time. Like all children, they didn’t know it was rude, they just did. One of the other adults told them not to stare and when questioned by the child, said it was rude just because someone wasn’t as lucky as them (I’m using their words). Whilst I agree with this adult in theory that allowing our children to stop dead and stare would have been awkward for all involved, I did wonder- who was feeling awkward?
I would say certainly not the children with SEN. Most of them had quite severe needs and were unaware of us. They seemed to be enjoying being out and about and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Those who were aware were also probably use to a certain amount of attention as standard in their lives and we weren’t stopping them from going about their business. Certainly not our children who were probably learning a great deal about how there are different people in the world that aren’t all able-limbed and articulate. So the people embarrassed and mortified by the behaviour were us, the adults. Our instinct is to not make a fuss, act like it’s all normal or turn away and ignore them. But surely if there was another able-bodied school party walking passed, we wouldn’t act like they were invisible. Acting like disabilities are nothing actually encourages ignorance as we need to allow children to ask these questions, even if they are not politically correct or easy to answer.
I am reminded of being in Japan when children would come up to foreign friends of mine and touch their hair because it was blonde or wavy. One black Englishman was asked if he was black all over and also if it washed off. Although surprised by these questions, he didn’t take offence because these children had never seen a black person in real life and they honestly didn’t mean any harm by it. When I was a child I genuinely believed Catholic people believe more than Protestants, even though I went to a Catholic school (a boy at the school told me this when I first joined and I never thought to question his judgement). I also thought the Celtic football team had something to do with cellotape because I never asked.
So I think we should allow children to get their fill. Stare long enough and it becomes every day. We should allow them to ask questions and explain away preconceptions. I remember watching a TV programme about a woman with Tourette’s who was trying to do talks to demystify this sweary disorder but was caught in a Catch-22 that they wouldn’t allow her to speak at schools because of her foul language.
We need to support the people with disabilities as well as the carers and organisations that help them. It’s not an easy job, or life, for anyone. It is a disrespect to who they are to pretend nonchalance. I volunteered in a SEN school for several months and on outings the greatest joy we got was from members of the public (normally lovely old grannies) chatting to the kids. As a 1-1 with a child in school the past year, I was aware my student loved when staff and children called out his name and waved to him in the corridor. We were like celebrities. I have a firm belief that it not only helped the student’s development but also those other children in the class. They will go through life now accepting there are people who cannot communicate as well as them, people that may act a little different sometimes but are still their friend, part of their class, someone they want to invite to a birthday party or pick to be in their team in a game.
TV shows such as Seven Dwarves and Beauty and the Beast don’t interest me because they are about highlighting differences. They caricature people and do grotesque close ups on disfigurements (everyone’s face is not a pleasant sight up close without a ridiculous amount of media air brushing). They pretend to be educational and informative but they are really just for shock and entertainment value.
I’m interested to see what the feeling will be after the games. Will it change public opinion to have a more inclusive view? What are your thoughts?