The Brotherhood of the Unusual

I have a friend who I hardly ever see – we correspond mostly by email.

She doesn’t have a good command of written English, and sometimes we communicate only with pictures. Pictures from our holidays, or sometimes just a picture of a dog or a kitten or something we have both found amusing or cute or interesting.

It would be a lot easier if she had Facebook.

None of this is unusual, right? A friend, someone without Facebook. Someone who talks to you from a distance because you rarely see each other in person. Someone who you know, and eventually get to know better. A normal thing, nothing unusual.

It should not be unusual, but it is. My friend has an intellectual disability.

My friend was not always my friend – she was a student in a classroom and I helped support her to carry out her studies. She was a student for a long time. Over that time, I got to know her better. Like other people with intellectual disability in our small town, she had no privacy – people knew her family background, her personal history, every detail of her life – yet nothing the person. It took me a long time to get to know her as a person, and longer to allow her to know me as a person. I was guarded, you see, and I never thought we could connect as two women on an equal basis. How wrong I was. How wrong, and how discriminatory.

I do this cool exercise when I talk to support workers. I ask them if they discriminate against people with disability. No, they say, and their voices are shocked and outraged at the suggestion. They are the support workers who pride themselves on person centred planning, the people who are careful about person first language, the people who would never dream of doing their personal shopping on their client’s down time. Do you discriminate against people with disability, I ask? Of course not, they say with one voice. They are earnest in their responses. ‘I am disability blind,’ some proclaim. ‘I see the person, not the disability.’

I ask them to raise their hand if they have ever had dinner or a coffee date or gone out with a person with an intellectual disability. A sea of hands are raised. Some fall when I tell them to put their hand down if the person is a family member. More are lowered when I say ‘or a current client’. And when I say ‘or a past client’ their hands fall softly to their laps, their eyes grow wide, their faces reflect the accidental lie of their imagined inclusiveness. The realisation that they have concealed a falseness with words and rhetoric and duck speak. That they may talk the talk, but are not walking the walk.

In thirty or forty training sessions, only two hands have stayed raised. Two hands.

I am ashamed to say that I have only one friend – one real friend - with a learning disability who I know well ‘in real life’. I find this hard to reconcile with what I believe, but I have grown to understand why it is so. It is harder to meet people my own age who have the same interests and in places where friends would naturally congregate. If I went to the ‘disability disco’ in Kenwick on a Friday night, two hours from my home, I would, no doubt, meet people with intellectual disability from my home town. I could drink cordial with them and go home at ten o’clock. I could go bowling in the city, every Thursday, or I could go to an ‘adult day centre’ – I am an arty type and would quite like to make endless piles of greeting cards. I don’t, though. They are places for people with intellectual disability, where they congregate. Not the places where ‘others’ come together – the community groups, the sporting clubs, the pubs and nightclubs and meeting rooms. I have only one friend with a learning disability - not only because she is the one woman of my age group who I ‘clicked with’, but also because she was one of the few people with an intellectual disability that I had the accidental pleasure of spending time with in a mainstream establishment.

Something unusual. It should not be something unusual, but it is. Those same support workers will talk it out amongst themselves and come to their own moral reconciliation with their internal struggle – they will justify their 'accidental discrimination' by saying that they cannot socialise with clients. They will argue that all people discriminate on the basis of intellect, or come together on the basis of commonality. They will come to the conclusion that this is their work, not their life. They will use words to make it right, but they will rarely explore the deeper definitions of friendship and what we value in others – loyalty, a sense of humour, trustworthiness. I do not have too many friends that I value ‘just because they are smart’ – mostly, neither do they.

I do not think things will change in a hurry, whilst we continue to segregate and isolate people with disability. We can talk til the cows come home about social role valorisation and person centred approaches, but if we are unwilling to have a cup of tea with a neighbour because he takes longer to process something, we’re not getting anywhere. We can spout the values of inclusion – all means all, everyone needs to be with – in workshops and training rooms and at conferences, but if people are locked away in institutions and day centres, we’re unlikely to get the chance to meet people in ordinary places. If we do, it is something unusual. Until attitudes and the culture of segregation changes, exclusion is the norm.

Let’s change that.

I challenge you to become one of the Brotherhood of the Unusual, one of the select few who befriend people who are 'different'. Be one of the few who intentionally sees the beauty in every person and is drawn to the qualities you both share. Make time to share confidences, intimacies, thoughts, coffee. Geography has made you neighbours, but it is up to you to become friends. Circumstance may have drawn you together, but it is your choice whether you become passing strangers or people who share a deeper connection.

Unusual. Deviating from the customary. Something outside the usual parameters of normalcy. An occurrence of unprecedented weird. And let’s go one step further - let’s do this this together so that eventually the unusual becomes the norm.

I think we’d call that ‘inclusion’.

Unusual. Deviating from the customary. Something outside the usual parameters of normalcy. An occurrence of unprecedented weird.”

― Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book

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