Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Language Barrier

Something happened at work today which led me to today's topic. It was a small, fairly trivial incident but it got me to thinking about the way people view disability, and the absurdities thrown up by their limited knowledge and morbid fear of it.

I was in the canteen at lunch time when one of the students came in with a small child. Don't worry, this is not now going to turn into a lengthy lament on teen pregnancy. There'll be no cynical suggestions here that some people might enrol on a course with no intention of completing it but every intention of picking up bursaries and maternity pay. None of that. Anyway this child could not have been more than a few months old. She was being carried around by her young mother as she tried to make the non-choice from the limited treats on offer in the Tithebarn Street canteen. When she had chosen she made her way to the till and was greeted by the expected and probably understandable coo-eys and look-at-you-aren't-you-beautifuls from the serving staff. One of whom then turned to the baby and said;

"What's your name?"

Instantly I found it quite odd that anyone would ask such a young child a question and expect to get an answer from anyone but the accompanying adult. But more than that, it reminded me of my own childhood when people would ask my mother, rather than me, what my name was right up until I was about 10 years old. I have vivid memories of pushing around the shops with my mum who would regularly be stopped by strangers (why did they do that anyway?) and ask her my name, my age, and comment that I was a 'belter' or offer some other equally disturbing and completely unfounded and half-baked compliment. I am sure these people meant well. Somewhere in the pit of what passed for their minds they must have thought that both my mum and I would be thrilled to have such interest taken in us by strangers, most of whom if I recall rightly were old ladies picking up their pensions or drunken old men who, it turns out, had just stumbled out of The Vine and were headed inexorably for the wallet-emptying non-sanctuary of Ladbrokes next door.

Maybe you can forgive the aged for behaving like this 25 years ago. It's at least a debate we can have. But I would lay good money on the notion that this kind of thing still happens to young disabled people today, and not just from the elderly or the slightly tipsy gamblers. For some reason, some people seem to think that because certain parts of your anatomy don't work, then it therefore follows that English won't be your first language. If indeed you have a first language. Better be safe and ask his mum if you want to know anything about him. You wouldn't want to be left in the embarrassing situation of having him dribble out some incomprehensible attempt to say the word 'Stephen'. Or Ste. Never Steve by the way. I'm not Steve. Steve's the bloke that the fictional teenagers in crap kiddie soaps obsess over. He's the middle-aged, middle-class family man who watches rugby union and whose idea of individuality is a cheeky cigar when his wife's out having cocktails with the girls. I'm Ste. A beer and sex and chips and gravy fat lad from Thatto Heath who can spell. Or I'm Stephen, a pseudo-intellectual with a half-steady job and a sideline in online journalism. Either way I can spell.

Which brings me back to where I should be and where I was when I got distracted about people Steve-ing me. While people have just about stopped asking my mum what my name is, the fact remains that I get patronised intellectually on a daily basis, and it happens in the most mundane of conversation. If you have a wheelchair, and someone starts a conversation with you with the phrase 'I don't mean to be funny but...' then start pushing away. One of the most difficult things about being a disabled person is that you frequently get talked down to by people who are no more intellectually or socially spectacular than you are. Some of the people who try it on with me (though probably not intentionally in many cases) would, were they to look through the Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard archives, find words that they could not define, spell or probably even recognise. People who live the most basic and uninteresting of lives yet still see fit to take pity on me or approach me with out and out trepidation. As if being seen outside alone with me in the community will detonate a ticking time bomb in their trousers. Sometimes it is amusing to watch them squirm as they try to interact with you, but mostly it is just a pitiful and depressing experience. The saddest thing about all of this is that not all of these people are strangers, and some of them might tell you they were good friends of mine.

The baby never did answer the question.

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