The usual rights and privileges of citizenship do not apply here… a great wall surrounds this place, and most of what goes on within the wall is unknown to those outside it. What follows is a message from over the wall.
– Hugh Gregory Gallagher: By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians and the License to Kill in the Third Reich
Last year, I mugged up intensively on the Highway Code – there’s an app for it, as well, you know… – as part of taking an advanced driving course; and, although pedestrians do feature in it (although I doubt any have read it who have not also learned to drive), I sometimes – as a partially deaf human-being with a stick: who seems to find himself a moving obstacle (an impediment; a stumbling-block; a remora), as far as many apparently abled-bodied people are concerned (especially in busy places, such as supermarkets) – wish there were similar codified guidance (requiring a thorough, probing examination, before you’re allowed out in public without having to wear a bright-flashing light on your head – which is then reinstituted, when you’ve committed several offences, and gained too many points on your ‘walking licence’…) for those of an ambulatory nature.
Sorry: that was a very long sentence – packed with clauses and sub-clauses (and parentheses) – so feel free to go and put the kettle on (or fire up your De’Longhi coffee machine, if you’re that way inclined…) whilst you re-read it!
Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin.
One of the key recommendations in the pedestrian-related bit of the existing Highway Code states that you should “Always show due care and consideration for others…” – and it’s this that I wish to expand on.
“You say the ring is dangerous, far more dangerous than I guess. In what way?”
“In many ways,” answered the wizard. “It is far more powerful than I ever dared to think at first, so powerful that in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of mortal race who possessed it. It would possess him.”
– JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Somehow, instead of having to wear magical jewellery on my hand, all I need to do to become invisible to other pedestrians is have my walking stick in my hand, and be doing my habitual impersonation of a slightly inebriated penguin. Suddenly, people – who, in all likelihood, have just reflexively given way to their peers – cannot see me, and (therefore?) do not move aside.
The sight of damage, of something gone wrong, induces an excited disturbance in such onlookers. Sometimes there is a turning away, a fear and a hostility, a sometimes spoken wish that such sights should be hidden from public view; there is a fear of catching the damage….
– Valerie Sinason: Mental Handicap and the Human Condition
In fact, I have to agree with my eighty-odd-year-old mum – who uses a crutch – and say that it’s difficult not to become convinced that people are deliberately blocking your path: as they avoid eye-contact at all costs, and just plough on in your direction. How a disabled person who walks painfully (and obviously, to others, painfully slowly…) is swiftly meant to manoeuvre out of the way – or ‘Disapparate’ (although the only “distinctive cracking or popping sound” is likely to be my spine or splintering walking stick) – is beyond me; but it seems to be part of the unwritten constitution of society (that I, as an enfeebled outlier, have not been instructed in): especially as embodied in the routine institutional prejudice doled out to those who are ‘different’ (whether through gender, race, class, or capacity).
After my recent disability hate crime run-in (‘limp-in’?) – which is now under official Police investigation: so I will (and can) not say much more – perhaps, you may think, I have become a tad paranoid. But I actually started drafting this post a year or so ago: and I have found little, in the intervening time, that does anything but confirm my suspicions.
I consider ‘Stratford-upon-Heaven’ my home town: but, when it is busy, and filled with people soaking up the sun (I will not blame the tourists: all are equally liable, it seems…), it is more akin to Stratford-upon-Hell; and a part of me starts to meretriciously envy those in mobility scooters who appear to see no harm (revenge, perhaps?) in scything their way up Bridge Street, with metaphorical blades attached, Boudica-style, to the hubs of their wheels. How I wish I were Moses, able to part the throng for an easy passage. But it is not to be.
But why is it so? Is it really “prejudice”; discrimination; a lack of tolerance? It would seem – sadly – that it is: that disability, invisibility, mobility, incivility and hostility all combine (egged on by the Government’s élitist ‘scrounger’ propaganda and deep-seated, well-fuelled hate) to form an obstacle course, in turn, for those who wend their way through life either on a divergent, less-taken path; or are themselves out of the ordinary, anomalous: ripe, tasty cheeses amid the insipid crumbling chalk of society.
But, then, even amongst what you might assume is the solidarity of the ‘differently abled’, there are stratas of distinction and dispute – and the following tale of abuse echoes my own frequent, repetitive experiences (not that I would claim to “look good” or “be under the age of 45” – not quite…):
I am shocked and disappointed that people have shouted at me for parking in a disabled bay when I have a valid badge, walk with a stick, stopping frequently because of pain, or I’m in my wheelchair. So why would people have something to say you may ask? Because I make the effort to look good! Yes, that’s correct, you can’t look half decent, be under the age of 45 and be disabled, apparently! It seems that without me even being out of the car people have made an assumption and feel they have the right to voice their opinion to me in whatever way they feel. Astonishing! Apparently I don’t really look (face wise) disabled!
– S Howell: Disabled Motoring UK (May 2015)
When you are not safe amongst your own kind, then the only lesson I feel I can learn from all this (I’m a very slow study (as well as walker)), and the less-than-pitiful regard that my infirmity provokes (rather than the sympathy – and empathy – I had gullibly, initially expected), is that everyone (else) feels themselves superior to – and more deserving than – those they should know themselves to be – in reality – merely equal to; that there are both real and perceived hierarchies in every aspect of our lives. As a cripple, I am the lowest of the low; and should know my place. I contribute nothing; but take everything. I deserve no better.
The targeting of disabled people has happened while society has looked the other way. Disability hate crime was the invisible crime that people looked straight through because they could not recognise it for what it was. Now it is coming into focus, and we can ignore it no longer.
Because the crime is, at the same time, both ancient and modern, it has been difficult for us to accept that it exists. Disabled people have been maliciously stereotyped for centuries. This has meant that they have never been accepted as equal citizens even when such equality is enshrined in law. So when they are attacked, they are seen, on some level, as ‘fair game’ or as ‘asking for it’ – and many disabled people, tragically, even internalise those feelings.
Despite all the best intentions of the disability rights movement, disabled citizens are mostly not seen as ordinary people wanting to live ordinary lives.
– Katharine Quarmby: Scapegoat: How We Are Failing Disabled People
What is therefore required is not “a Highway Code for pedestrians” as I originally posited: but just plain, common or garden civility and mutual respect – that “due care and consideration for others…” – and everywhere… not just on our streets.
However (he said, cynically), altruism and empathy – especially in this arena – have been so browbeaten out of us, that Tamworths will sprout feathers before this happens. Life is nasty, brutish and short: and, it seems, so are many of those living it. More pity them. I am not willing to be subsumed by such passive, malevolent tosh, though: and so, tomorrow, walking wobbly, and leaning on a big stick, I will venture out into the world again: forearmed… and three-legged…. Wizard!
You cannot pass…. I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.