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The disabled reality
by Thanos Kalamidas
2006-12-04 09:40:59
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It is a really long time since I saw a film that I value a lot and was one of the first movies that I bought on VHS. It is a very dark film that often crosses the line of a dramatic biography to a nightmarish and often unbelievable thriller. The film is called The Elephant Man and if you haven’t watched it you have probably heard about it.

I don’t know why, perhaps it is the Christmas spirit and the picture of little Timmy from Dickens’ The Christmas Carol, but The Elephant Man, the extreme little Timmy, is coming always to mind these days. How much of a Scrooge are we in our lives when we see disabled people and either close our eyes to their destiny or just ignore them?

I was very careful to use the word ‘destiny’ because that’s part of their reality. You cannot blame Joseph Merrick – yes, the Elephant Man had a name - for his physical situation. Society presented him as a circus freak choosing to ignore his needs and even his humanity. How often does humanity still do the same? Joseph Merrick lived just over one hundred years ago in a supposedly different and often cruel society, but how much has our society really changed since then?

Nowadays the state takes care of a lot of things, there are even special pavements for the disabled, extra support bars, wider doorways, ramps and special toilets, but how do we identify our acceptance to disability is another story. I have a friend, a very close friend, who works with disabled people; furthermore, she has a family member who is disabled.

The first thing that you will probably see is that her 26-year-old brother is in a wheel chair and this presents a number of difficulties in his every day life. He is also a very bright college student with a brilliant academic future. You might go so far to think that he’s going to be politician and fight for the rights of the disabled people.

This is an ideal situation and nothing to do with my friend’s reality. Her brother’s disability, mentally and physically, is nearly up to 85% and in his case the family cannot manage alone and need the assistance of the state. Their whole environment has been adapted to her brother’s needs and going to their house you will see bars on the roof and special trays so they can move him around because it is both impossible and inhumane to keep him locked in his bedroom.

A father, a mother, a grandfather and a sister have organized their life around this 26-year-old man – he is a man, even though he acts like a two-year-old. I’m not going to go into the physiological problems that this family has to deal with as a whole, but I’m going to repeat something my friend once said and it stuck in my mind: “I don’t usually invite people or my friends home because after they see my brother I’m losing them, I never see them again!”

Think about what my friend said.

Let’s take another step further. My friend lives in a northern European country. I live in a northern European country, but on every trip I took to Asia, Africa and South America one of the first pictures I saw were disabled people begging for money in the streets. Should it be their destiny to be on the street when society and humanity should be supporting them? Would a wheelchair make a difference? What about my friend’s brother living in one of those countries? How far would he be able to go or would they have let him die alone or locked in a room if the family couldn’t do the work? Please don’t tell me you are unaware of what I’m talking about, things like that even happen in our ‘civilized’ society.

Take it another step further. How many of the disabled don’t only hold destiny responsible, but humanity as well? Wars and landmines, how many people have they left crippled? In ‘civilized’ Finland that takes great care of its disabled population, there are still landmines on the border with Russia. If that’s not inhumane then what is? The excuse that it is too expensive to disarm them suddenly sounds so hollow and the policy seems hypocritical to Finland’s disabled.

Actually our whole society is hypocritical and in extent all our state governments. By building special pavements and funding wheelchairs or changes in housing regulations to cater to the disabled, we just keep our conscious clean and avoid seeing the real problem. It is time we don’t see the disabled as victims of destiny just like people failed to look past the Elephant Man and see Joseph Merrick the human.

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