A reflective piece on my perceptions on disability, family and community attitudes and where I stand as an adult.
As children, we were often told not to complain with the response from my Mum, ‘Just be glad you haven’t got a hare lip and a cleft palate’. This was generally ineffective, because neither my sister or I had any idea what a hare lip or a cleft palate was and my mum certainly didn’t seem to be in a hurry to explain. What we did learn from that was that to have such a thing (obviously so disastrous that you couldn’t talk about it openly) was to be unlovable, or at least that is how it came across.
I also heard occasionally heard my mother, sadly, saying that these children with a disability ‘should have been pillowed at birth’ such was her attitude at the time. I find this really sad to think about now and as a child, such attitudes confused me. I felt in myself that I would have to be perfect to be accepted by my mother, and indeed, at times I came across illness or deformity of any kind (such as cold-sores or a problem I had with my toe growing the wrong way), I felt I had failed her. Luckily I was an avid reader, and my journeys into the worlds in the books enabled me to see the world from the perspective of others, helping me develop a high degree of empathy. A book about the life of Helen Keller, for example, enabled me to get into the mind of a person with blindness, to some extent.
My grandma was a character. She had a zest for life and an active brain, which unfortunately had to compete with the frustrating of a body that was failing her, riddled with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. Her hands folded into themselves, with knuckles inflamed and knees as swollen as soccer balls. She used a walking frame on which she hung her ‘dilly bag’, that she would make jokes about. The most sad thing was that she refused to accept her worsening condition, mainly because of pride. She didn’t want people down the street (she lived in the small Victorian town of Kyneton for most of her life) to see her ‘like this’. She even refused to come to my wedding, as she was too embarrassed. I believe she also had depression, though this was never diagnosed.
Schooling in a small country town
I grew up the small town of Eaglehawk, an outer suburb of Bendigo in Central Victoria. During my school years (1978 – 1990) this town was a mainly Anglo-Saxon, hetero-sexual community with little tolerance for ‘difference’. People who didn’t fit into the ‘norm’ were ridiculed. I did not have any experience of studying side by side with students from other cultures, or with a disability that was ‘noticeable’. At high school, we had a boy with a disability, called Ross, enrol and it was a major effort for the school to accommodate him. I remember the ‘fuss’ when they installed ramps for his wheel-chair and we even had a special assembly before he arrived. My friends and I took little notice of Ross, except to quietly make fun of his speech impediment, and call him (only to ourselves), ‘Roth’. I feel ashamed of this now, but at the time it was what I knew and what I had been exposed to. Interestingly, a few years later I made friends with an Aboriginal family across the road, and soon experienced my first example of the racism and lack of tolerance for diversity, when other students called me racist names and began a stream of hurtful comments and jokes about aboriginals, all aimed at me for being friends with an Aboriginal boy.
Moving towards diversity
So, where do I sit now, in attitude and perspective?
I want to get a stronger sense of the ethics behind working with people with a disability too, and move away from my mother’s attitudes, by gaining knowledge, understanding and empathy. To get the most out of my student placement in this area, that is what I aim to do.