fear, ignorance and disabilities

do you ever feel like you’re going through your days, and they have a theme? sometimes it feels like i’m being approached by a waiter: “and today’s special is …”

well, my special this week seems to be abilities, disabilities, different abilities – that whole box of themes.

it started with the ongoing story of paul boyd, who was shot and killed here in vancouver last week by police. he suffered from bipolar disorder. it appears that during a manic episode, as can sometimes be the case, he felt threatened, and when police approached him, he slung a bicycle chain at them. police shot him several times, including in the head.

then a friend told me of an incident at mcdonald’s where a person who was hearing impaired received poor service. here is a part of her open letter to them:

a gentleman who was hearing impaired came in … made a signal for a pen and paper so that he would be able to write down what he wanted to order … the employee proceeded to tell this gentleman in a very curt, raised voice that he needed to go to another lineup. the customer started signing emphatically that he needed a pen and paper to which the employee continuously told the customer to go to another line up in an escalating tone of voice.

at this point, i informed the employee that he wanted a pen and paper so that he could write down his order. she then, to no one in particular it seemed, said in a rude, irritated voice, “well, how was i supposed to know what he wanted? it’s not like i can speak sign or anything.” during all this, another employee was watching what took place, making no effort to help either her co-worker, or, more importantly, the customer.

in magnitude, the first event is tragic and horrifying, whereas the second could be called an unfortunate but not very important incident.

this was not the first time police had killed or seriously injured someone with a mental health condition. through education such as sensitivity training, one can learn to discern people with acute mental health issues such as paranoia or psychosis, and learn to adequately and relatively safely (definitely not lethally!) respond to them.

one can only surmise that either the officers in question hadn’t taken such a course (why not?) or that they had taken it and forgotten it (why?). exactly the same could be said of the incident at mcdonald’s, which has a staff much larger than the vancouver police department.

of course, we’ll never know exactly what happened in either occurrence, and i am not here to lay blame; it is only chance that has me talking about these two incidences; there are unaccountably more.

i suggest that they both have a similar cause. it is a combination of authority, ignorance and fear.

the real or perceived authority of standing behind a counter, wearing a uniform, having a gun, standing behind the “right” side of the fence.

the ignorance of how “those other” people live – people whose bodies and minds may work a little differently, or, let’s not forget, people who wear saris instead of saks.

the fear of the unknown (and to ignore, by the way, literally means to not know) and the deep, deep, hardly ever conscious fear that when one interacts in any way with those who are different, one might become “infected.”

but we are all “other”. as richard nelson bolles put it so well, “we are all disabled”. and we are all able and differently able. the disability bot of the police officer and the employee at mcdonalds lay in not being able to assess the situation and react appropriately. however, other than being deaf and having a mood disorder, it’s a disability that can so much more easily be remedied.

tomorrow we’ll look at the other side of the coin and have some positive stories about dis/abilities.

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