Next week is Learning Disability Week folks. Who knew? By then, most people will have probably already forgotten the shocking news from this week of the murder of Lee Irving. Just another statistic. Another 'hate crime.' In case you missed even that: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-33035836
This is just the sort of news we don’t want to hear. I didn’t know Lee Irving, and I don’t know what sort of ‘learning disability’ he had but I can guarantee you I know a lot of young men who might be in Lee Irving’s situation today and I worry for them.
That the big news leading up to Learning Disability Week is a murder is a wake-up call to all of us. We should be celebrating the achievements of people labelled with Learning Disability (and there are many) not victimising and murdering them.
People labelled with learning disabilities are easy to ridicule and not always easy to love. Some are seen as ‘eternal children’ because learning disability is essentially defined as a ‘developmental’ disability. But they are not children. They are adults who need extra help to cope with the created ‘norms’ of our society. Instead of which they are usually marginalised from that society and treated with disrespect, ridicule and yes, hatred. Because they are not ‘normal.’ My message to people who treat those with Learning Disabilities thus is GROW UP.
If a measure of a civilised society is how we treat our most vulnerable, then the UK today has a lot to be ashamed about. I have yet to meet a person labelled with a learning disability who has not been stigmatised, bullied and ridiculed.
Some of my best friends are people labelled with learning disabilities. I do not distinguish them from ‘normal’ people. We are all ‘different’ in our own ways. Some of the most open-hearted, generous and loving people I know are those who are subjected to exclusion, ridicule and hatred simply because of a label. Of course I know others with the label who are seen as ‘difficult’ and who seem to deserve the label ‘challenging behaviour.’ There are certain characteristics of, say the autism spectrum, which can make it difficult to connect to (and yes, to love) a person with that label. If they find empathy impossible, eye contact a chore and social communication a terrifying experience, then it’s much easier to dismiss them as ‘difficult’ than to try to go to where they are, communicate with them and learn to love them – without expecting reciprocity. But they have good reasons for lack of empathy – we do not.
So I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture, about all these lovely people out there who are misunderstood. If you have no experience of people labelled with Learning Disabilities you may well find them ‘different’ and even ‘difficult’ but that’s no excuse to ridicule or dismiss them. It’s an opportunity to learn. To explore and experience diversity in all its multiplicity of colours. To find out something about real people who are not ‘like me.’ For many people without any link or relationship to learning disabilities that seems to be too much of a challenge. Which is a shame all round. Until we Grow Up and learn to understand people who are (only in some ways) not ‘like us’ we will see a spectrum far more devastating than the autistic one. It’s a spectrum which starts with name-calling, grows into abuse and ends with murder. Is that how ‘normal’ people should behave in a civilised society?
I’m involved in creative advocacy, which is about giving and sharing creative activities with people normally excluded from society (who often only – and then sporadically – access creative activity as ‘therapy.’) We believe that creativity is important to a healthy mind and body for everyone in society and we advocate on behalf of those who are excluded from being able to access such activities. Stop and think for just a minute and I’ll bet your own creative activities rarely, if ever, involve people from such excluded groups. Do you paint? Write? Play music? Garden? Cook? Do yoga? And how many of these do you primarily undertake as ‘therapy’? Don’t you just do them to be creative, even if they have a therapeutic value? Would you go to a ‘yoga therapy’ class or an ‘art therapy’ group in preference to being part of a reading, or writing group. Do you see what I mean? It’s a small word (for us) but not for everyone. Denying people the right to access creative activity unless it is therapy has a lot of consequences – both financial and as regards self-esteem and mental wellbeing.
You may have read this far saying 'what the f**k' has this to do with McRenegades? Good question. Well, might I suggest that McRenegades come in many forms and Cally Phillips is one of those McRenegades who uses narrative as a way of exploring and exposing the things that tend to get shoved under the mainstream carpet. And one of these is Learning Disability. If your response to a 'disability hate crime' is revulsion, but you don't know what to do, a first step might be to learn a bit more about Learning Disability - labels and all.
And as an introduction into the world of Learning Disability I’d like to suggest a couple of books. First you can download a free ebook called ‘Jock Tamson’s Bairns.’ This contains four short stories (based on real people) about Gary, Heather, Jonjo and Angus giving something of an insight into their worlds. For a full review see Bill Kirton’s on Wee Voices HERE
There is also a very long blog post by Jim Murdoch on his site from 2013 about the two works HERE.
I agree with much of what he says, but the notion that the book is ‘preachy’ because it doesn’t get right into the characters heads or allow them to ‘speak for themselves’ is perhaps unwarranted. As is the claim that there is nothing of a ‘story’ to them. Yes, these stories do not meet expectations of a ‘normal’ narrative and it’s interesting that Murdoch finds the stories increasingly ‘preachy’ as they illustrate more distance between narrator and character. That distance is obviously uncomfortable for him (and maybe other readers) but it’s there because we are distanced from people. It’s crass to suggest that a person without Asperger’s could describe the inner world of a person with Asperger’s to any degree of accuracy and in the case of Angus, a key point of the story is the difficulty of ‘loving’ or even ‘liking’ someone this emotionally distanced from our perception of ‘normal.’ I think that Cally Phillips’ intention was to illustrate from her perspective, not to try and appropriate feelings and intentions of people who see the world not just from a ‘different’ point of view, but from a pov which is fundamentally inaccessible to the rest of us. That’s the whole ‘disability’ They do not think as we do. Therefore they do not act as we do, believe as we do, or live as we do. We cannot make them like us. We cannot mend them. Often we cannot reach out to or reach them. We cannot understand them. But we need to learn to live with them and accept them as equally valid however different they are. We are all unique. All different. And all equally worthy of respect.
It’s good to see Murdoch putting so much effort into his analysis of the works because it shows he’s trying to engage seriously with a difficult issue, and every reader will probably find themselves uncomfortable along the way in these stories. The most ‘accessible’ character with the best plot driven ‘story’ is of course Jonjo – the boy with ADHD – which is perhaps the most visible and ‘easiest’ label for the normal person to understand. Murdoch suggests that this is because of a first person narrative stance. The other characters have serious communication difficulties and that simply is more difficult, in real life as in narrative exposition.
The main thing is though, it’s about time people read and discussed these kinds of stories, which may be seen as Murdoch suggests as ‘character sketches’ of people whose life experience is so divergent from our own.
So if you’re happy to pick up a challenge, to look at something ‘difficult’ then why not download Jock Tamson’s Bairns. It comes with a sampler first chapter to ‘A Week With No Labels’ which is hopefully enough to whet your appetite to buy the book.
As a really good explanation and exploration into the world of creative advocacy, drama style, ‘A Week With No Labels’ takes you on a funny and poignant journey into the lives of a group of actors labelled with learning disabilities. It’s available for £7.99 from Ayton Publishing HERE and £2.99 as an Amazon ebook HERE