Image description: A candy jar full of candies, including one gummy bear, drawn by Ruby and Sadie

November 22, 2011
published on

Reprinted here by special request:

In my hotel room in London, I turn on the evening news. Another story about the financial crisis that overshadows Europe. A news anchor furrows his brow and asks another hard-hitting question regarding disability benefits, the Britons who abuse them, and the austerity measures.

An expert talks about abuse within the system, about how the government needs to ensure that benefits are paid out as necessary but that those who habitually abuse the system need to be strongly encouraged to become “productive.”

They speak with gravity, as if the whole financial crisis has been caused by those who fake disability, by those who “use” their disability to reach into taxpayers’ pockets and, of course, those with legitimate disabilities who have never contributed and who never will.

Everyone nods.

Focus is taken from the rich and powerful who grew rich and powerful through mismanagement and corruption. It’s easier to be angry at those “below” you than at those “above.”

This is true “trickle-down” economics. Hate trickles down. Prejudice trickles down. But worst of all, violence trickles down. And I feel it. I hear it. Especially, when it trickles on me.

I was pushing down a hallway, wheels fighting against thick carpet. A fellow in a suit came by, asked me, kindly, if I’d like some help, if could he push me. I said, “No, carpet is tough to push on, but it gives me a good workout.” He smiled back and said, “Well, it’s nice to meet one of you people that’s not simply lazy.”

I stopped and stared at him and he smiled back, thinking that he’d complimented me. That his remark had risen me up from the “lazy scum” who don’t work. I took offense at his compliment. He walked off, not having been challenged in his belief, but simply determining that I was the exception that proved the rule. It was my first hint that I’d somehow become one of “those people” … those people they talk about on television.

I am shopping in Tesco, looking for some candies to take back to the kids. Ruby, who’s five, love’s the idea that she’s eating candy that is from far away. Sadie, who’s two, doesn’t care where it’s from, if it’s sweet she likes it. So, I had just picked up some “sticky toffee pudding cookies” and put them in the bag at the back of my wheelchair, when I noticed that a young couple was watching me. With disgust on their faces.

At first I thought it was because people don’t like seeing fat people buy cookies or candies, but then, I got the feeling that they had classified me as a “useless” cripple using benefit money to buy something frivolous. I suddenly wanted to explain about the kids, about the fact that I’m a working man, about the fact that I “contribute.” But, didn’t. It would have played into the idea, once again, that I’m somehow a special kind of cripple.

Bar conversations are iffy at best. But, I’d fallen into conversation with a couple and we were talking about a variety of issues. I illustrated a point I was making by referring to a television commercial that’s playing here in England about child abuse. In it a diversity of children are presented — of course, as usual, diversity did not mean disability.

Even though children with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence than other children, none were represented in the commercial.

“Well, of course, not,” said the young man, “because you can understand why a parent would want to hit a disabled child.”

I was stunned.

He continued, “You raise normal kids, you feed disabled ones.”

I said, “Seriously, you are seriously saying this to me?”

I thought maybe he was just trying to wind me up, but a couple seconds more of chat, and it was clear, they’d received the message that disabled people are simply “useless eaters” – echoes of a different time are still chilling.

I know that people with disabilities have been consistently devalued by society, but for the first time I feel like we are also being “costed.” Suddenly I remember those old math and morals questions – the ones that went like this: if there are three people in a boat, a young woman, a small child and a disabled man, and there is only enough food for two, who would you throw out? Suddenly I realize how close I am to the side of the boat, and how rough the sea.

It’s six o’clock.

I can’t watch the news anymore. I’m afraid that, again, I will learn that the whole of Europe’s banking system is about to collapse because people with disabilities eat candy.

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