Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What We Both Saw

Zero tolerance for bullying! I hear that so often, and when I hear it, it is said with determination and there is fire in the eyes of the speaker. They say it. They believe it when it's being said and they know it's the right thing to say.

But that's the problem with all of this isn't it?

Words.

Sometimes they have meaning.

Sometimes they don't.

I was watching kids playing in a pool, it was a summer camp activity. I knew this because there were camp staff with them in the pool. I could easily identify them as camp staff because they all wore singlets with the words 'camp staff' on them.

Right in front of me I saw a bully standing under a devise that, when full, dumped a blast of water on whoever was below. He was centered directly under the dump bucket and was taking, to his delight, the full impact of the water. There were kids around him, pushed in close, who were taking the left over splash. The brave ones tried to get closer and the bully elbowed them hard and they moved back. This was his and he was keeping it.

This was seen.

I clocked three of the camp counselors notice this.

But nothing happened. They made no move. Two shook their head in disapproval, but that was the extent of their action.

But there was a boy, with a disability, who was in the pool, several feel away, who saw what I saw. A bully using force and entitlement to take from other kids the experience of a direct blast of fun. His elbows and his attitude were his weapons, his expectations of inaction by the staff was an integral part of his strategy for domination of that area of the pool. The kid with a disability saw all this.

He was accompanied by a staff. He got their attention and he pointed. It looked, from my viewpoint on the other side of the glass, that he didn't use words to communicate. He pointed, they saw and looked away, he pointed again, and they looked away again. He was getting frustrated and it showed.

"Tell the staff,""Tell someone in a position of authority" is one of the strategies we teach children, people with disabilities, and each other. It's a common sense strategy. If you see or experience bullying, or violence, or abuse, report it.

But bullies, and aggressors, and abusers, know that 'zero tolerance' often means 'zero acknowledgement' that people will simply 'not see' what they 'don't tolerate.'

That child, the one with the disability, was the one kid in the pool that did what needed to be done. He clearly took responsibility and because he did he SAW what was happening and he took action.

But that's where the action stopped.

Then, the whistle blew and the kids clamoured out of the pool.

I saw the bully standing, smiling from the fun he had. I'm not sure if that fun was the water bucket or the fact that he had it to himself.

He won.

Everyone else lost.

And he knew it.

Zero tolerance doesn't exist if there is zero determination and willful, purposeful, refusal to see what won't be tolerated.

And maybe we need a new strategy.

Maybe we should be promising something different, not 'zero tolerance for bullying' but 'zero tolerance for inaction' to the issue of bullying, abuse and social violence.

That's what I'd like to see.

That's what I'd like to experience.

That's what may make the world a little bit safer.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Story Unprompted

My father joined the Canadian Forces when he was 19 and served overseas during WWII. This was something he never really talked about with me, even though, as you can imagine, I tried. I was interested in where he'd been and what his experiences were and he was interested in not talking about it. I understand many vets were reluctant to tell their stories and my father was one of their number.

During his time in the hospital he did talk a little more about being in the war. I had brought up the movie "Dunkirk" and he said that it was good for people to remember. Then he talked a little more about his experiences, not much but more.

I want here, in this last post I'm going to write about my Dad, for now, I want to remember a brief conversation I had with Dad about the war when I was just becoming a teenager.

First though, let me say that I never heard my father utter a racial epithet. I'm not saying he never did, I don't know that, I was a boy and know only how he spoke around children, I no nothing of how he spoke around other men, but I never heard him. This is noteworthy because, of course, I heard those words elsewhere and I heard them used unchallenged. It was somewhere around 1964 when I was about twelve that I had a conversation with Dad that I have always remembered and in a sense, it has guided me.

We were speaking about a report on television about racism. Out of the blue, and without any of my persistent questioning, Dad told me a story. He said that when he enlisted he expected to find camaraderie amongst his fellow recruits. He did. This was a war with Germany. His was a German last name. He found himself expelled from the social life of his unit. There was another fellow experiencing the same thing. A black man, also Canadian, also enlisted, also excluded. They hung around with each other at first by chance and necessity and then by choice. They liked each other. But my dad notice that while he was socially excluded, his friend experienced exclusion accompanied by force. Dad never felt endangered, but he knew that his friend did. He hated that.

My dad said that the saw first hand what prejudice did to people. He had tasted it but he'd seen the full measure of its cruelty inflicted on someone he cared about. 

That was it.

I wanted more.

I didn't get more. I don't know what happened to this man. I don't know what his name was. I don't know if he made it through the war.

I did know, though, that war changed my father. Both on the battlefield and in the barracks my father got a glimpse of the various kinds of horrors that humans do to humans.

I'm not sure why he told me that story that day.

But it mattered to me.

Then.

And now. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

My Father's DNA

I don't know why I found it so hard to ask, but I did. It took me several weeks, or maybe even months, to make the call. But I did.

A little over a year ago I joined a big study done through one of the major hospitals in the city of Toronto. It was a study involving what doctors lovingly call 'morbid obesity' and I had been approached to be part of that study. The study consisted of filling in a lot of questionnaires about life and weight, some of the questions being quite personal.It also involved an interview and a blood test.

The people running the study, well I guess I should say the nurse who is my contact to the study, is a truly kind individual who has never treated me with anything but real respect. She is easy to talk to and takes a genuine interest in me as a person. A while ago I was informed that they had found something in my DNA that they were zoning in on as it seemed to be present in others like me as well. So I was asked to consider asking my family to participate in the study by providing DNA samples.

Yikes.

That's a really personal request to make of someone.

And, it would involve me making myself quite vulnerable in talking about the study, about my weight and about the process of gathering DNA.

I finally made three calls.

I called my mother first. I explained to her the study, I explained what she would have to do, I explained why I thought it was important.

She agreed. Quickly and absolutely.

I called my father next. He was in the hospital and I could hear the sounds of the daily goings on in the ward behind him as we talked. I told him all he had to do was spit in a tube and that was the end of it. He said, "I guess I'll spit anywhere you want me to." That was that.

Then I called my brother. I left him for last after informing the nurse that my parents had said yes and did they want my brother. They did, I called. He like the others agreed quickly and easily.

As my father grew more ill, my brother called and said, "If you want Dad's DNA sample you better have them send the equipment quickly. I wrote the nurse and email, gave an address and encouraged her to send the DNA kit quickly.

It was clear, to all of us, that Dad would not wait for the mail to deliver the parcel with the materials that were needed for the study.

The night before he died, my brother, his wife and my mother had stayed at the hospital in the evening leaving the next morning. My brother sensing that he should go back, did. An hour before my father died, they discussed the DNA test and how much it seemed to mean to me.

They called the nurse and explained the situation. They asked if it would be possible for them to collect a sample of my father's DNA for the study. The nurses at Campbell River Hospital have been incredibly kind and compassionate through my father's long stay and they didn't blink an eye at the request. The nurse hurried out and then came back and took the sample.

It was done.

Minutes later my father died.

This act of generosity on the part of my brother and my father, in the minutes before my father's death astounds me.

Astounds me.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Father's Slippers

When I was a boy. An immature boy. I had no idea of what real adult love was like. And I had no idea of how my own cruelty would stay with me, permastamped in my memory.

This is a story of the boy I was.

And the man that my father was.

It was Christmas. I had bought, probably with my mother's assistance, my father a pair of slippers. I am convinced that, if not for slippers, fathers may never get a gift. Anyways, they were wrapped and put under the tree. On Christmas morning my brother and I woke to a bounteous harvest of presents under the boughs of the tree.

I remember little of the gifts that I got, or the dinner that we ate, or the activities of the day. I remember only one scene. It was of my father opening my gift and putting on the slippers. I was delighted by the fact that they fit perfectly. My father expressed how he'd never had a pair of slippers fit quite so well.

I was chuffed.

I noticed when Dad got up to go to the kitchen that it looked like the slippers were much too tight. When he sat down, he took them off and discovered that there was paper tucked into the toe of each slipper. He pulled them out and I laughed at him. I thought him silly. I thought him dumb. How could he have not noticed that the paper was in the slippers. I acted like an arrogant, foolish, bully. My dad said nothing of my behaviour, but I remember the look in his eyes when he looked from the slipper to me.

It was only later that I realized that my father had pretended a good fit to please me. He wanted me to feel happy about the gift that I gave him. He wanted me to have a good Christmas and so he put up with a bad fit, he was acting gracious and kind.

And I mocked him.

As an adult I understand how, sometimes the gift we want to give to others is our appreciation, our gratitude, even if the fit is a bit tight.

As an adult I understand why my father did what he did.

And because I understand that, I understand how mean and stupid I was in response to my father.

But I learned.

The pain I feel for having been that boy at that moment has taught me something.

About grace.

About kindness.

About how to be a good man.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Gift

I remember the exact moment that the picture was taken. Joe and I had been visiting my father in the hospital and just before we were leaving, I asked if I could have a picture taken with him. He agreed and that set about the monumental task of moving things around, in a tight space, so that I could get myself and my wheelchair into position. So, while that happens, let me give you some back story.

My father, when he died, was 93 years old. Joe and I have been together for 48 years. That means when we got together in 1969, a few days before the Stonewall riots, my father was 45 years old. They were different times. In our corner of the world the preferred slur used about gay men was 'fucking gear boxes,' and, though it may not seem it from reading the words, they were always spoken with implied violence.

It was a time of hiding. The idea and concept of 'coming out' was foreign. But there Joe and I were, barely 17 years old and living, hiding, in plain sight. We denied any accusations regarding our relationship. Good friends and buddies we were. Our first year together we both decided not to go home for Christmas, to break away early, to establish ourselves both as independent and as a couple. It was a rough holiday with a lot of people very angry at us. We had a lovely dinner.

So, in my home, there was simply silence about Joe, about our relationship. The silence was absolute. I couldn't live with so much silence and with so much of my life being hidden away, so I went home less and less often. Other things played into that but I need not go into that here.

I told my parents when Joe and I got married a couple years back and the response was that they thought we already had been married. I said that I wouldn't have gotten married without their knowledge. The silence had finally and forever, been broken.

When Joe and I visited my father in the hospital Dad treated Joe with respect and ensured that he was always included in the conversation. It may have been the first time that I saw Dad fully comfortable with Joe and it felt good. Then, I asked for the picture.

I'm finally beside the bed and I lean over. I place my hand on the bed for support and was surprised to the point of shock that my father took my hand. He doesn't do that. Joe, never good with electronics, was struggling to take a photo. After a few desperate tries I could see his growing frustration. My hand was holding my father's hand the whole time and he made no effort to pull away while Joe fiddled with the phone. I then said, "Joe you'd better take the picture quickly or people with think we're on a date here."

My father cracked up. He laughed loudly and Joe snapped the picture.

I will remember that photo because it's of my father holding my hand and laughing at a gay joke.

Many people have commented on how happy my father looks in the picture. I think he was happy. Not just because of the joke, but because, for all his earlier misgivings, he knew that I was loved and cared for and he need not worry about me and my future. 

That was his gift to me and mine to him.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Dad

Photo Description: I am sitting beside my father in his hospital bed. He is holding my hand and we both are smiling.
My father died yesterday morning.

I went to visit him when he fell really ill a bit ago. During our visit we had a chance to talk and there was something, quite private, that I wanted to say to him. I don't think that we know what to thank our parents for until we are well into adulthood, I wanted to do that, and I did. That felt like an accomplishment, but it also started a series of conversations, over the phone with him. Conversations that I will now miss dreadfully.

Over the next few days I plan on writing a bit about who my dad was, or at least who he was to me, as his youngest child. But right now, I concentrating on learning how to live in a world without having a 'dad'. He lived so long that I almost believed that he's always be there.

Monday, August 07, 2017

A Moment

I was pushing towards the washroom, rushing, when I saw a young mom with her son. He was looking up at her talking. Then he looked and saw me. He came to a dead stop. His finger went up, pointing directly at me. He called for his mother to look.

She looked down and saw him, thunderstruck, then saw me.

"Yes, honey, he's different than you, she said, "He's wearing a green shirt and you're wearing a blue one."

He looked at her with a "What The Fruit Loops Is Wrong With You" look on his face.

She, however, just continued on, him in tow.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Boy, A Dragon, And Magic

He was still young enough to be sitting is a car seat. He probably believes in dragons, and fairies and magic. He is the age where the world should be full of wonders, and fun and, unaware of the work of his parents to make it so, safety.

But the world isn't safe.

And he knows it.

Already.

He is standing outside the car parked outside the movie theatre. He is excitedly talking about the movie. But then he notices being noticed, being stared at, being singled out. He stops talking, he buries his face in his father's pant leg. Dad reaches down and picks him up. Mother quickly looks around and spots those who are staring. She looks a them with disgust. They turn away. Unashamed. Uncaring.

 I don't understand.

Different is just different.

Why the need for cruelty?

And no, it wasn't 'noticing' that happened. Noticing is an involuntary recognition of something or someone. I notice when people are tall, or red headed, or fit. So I of course expect people to notice that I am fat, or bald, or a wheelchair user. But notice turns away without judgement. It registers without evaluating. Noticing eyes don't linger, don't attack. Staring is a choice. An active choice. Seeing a little boy with Down Syndrome get out of a car in a movie theatre parking lot is one thing, staring at him is another. It may feed your selfish sense of superiority or pity or gratitude to your God. But it poisons the world for him,

A child who sits in a car seat.

A child who believes in dragons.

A child for whom magic will die too soon.

I push my chair past their car and the little boy notices me. He points, then smiles, then waves. I keep moving but wave back. I smile. I give him a wink. He laughs. His mom looks to me. I don't think she noticed at that moment anything much about me, but her eyes said 'thanks.'

They shouldn't need to.

They shouldn't need to.

They shouldn't need to.


Saturday, August 05, 2017

Behind me

The argument happened behind me.

I was rolling up a ramp and paused to center myself and push over the door sill. At that moment a couple came out of the building and seeing me pause, the woman asked if I needed help. I said, "No, thanks but I'm good." She nodded and kept walking and I pushed up and over the sill and was continuing in. I heard this behind me.

"No," she said, "he doesn't need any help." I don't know because I didn't see but I presume her husband was going to grab the back of my chair to 'help' me.

"No, don't," she said insistent.

"I'm just going to help him."

"I asked and he said 'no'" she said.

"He probably didn't want help from a woman." he said.

"HE SAID NO!" she said loudly, angrily.

"Alright, alright," he said, "no reason to get upset I just wanted to help the guy."

"He said 'no' you were right behind me, you heard him, he said 'no.'

"Yeah, yeah, 'No means no,' I get it."

"No, no you don't," she said, crying.

They went through the door I went into the lobby, and it was over.

But let's review.

'No means no."

Review over.

Friday, August 04, 2017

What's Wrong With This Picture

I went to the movies yesterday. We rushed in, headed to the washroom, and then took our seats. Something felt wrong about the whole experience. I couldn't place it but something was missing. I pushed that aside because we were at a movie, Wonder Woman, that we had wanted to see a long time. Now was the time and I wanted to enjoy it.

And I did.

(Except did the villain have to be a bitter woman with facial differences? Talk about a group of people stereotyped as scary and evil. Shit.)

Then afterwards we talked to a few people about the movie and left. Again, going through the theatre I felt odd. Something wasn't right. Something was missing.

Once home I realized that there were no people with disabilities working in the theatre. Not one in a visible role. In my local theatre several people with disabilities hold jobs, a proud young man with Down Syndrome does whatever they do when they come into a theatre and look at something on the wall and leaves. An equally proud woman who does several things, including ripping tickets and directing traffic. I am used to seeing a diverse work force in the theatre.

The theatre I went to clearly had a different hiring policy.

And the sad thing is that those that go to that theatre to watch movies won't know what's not there because it isn't there. People are used to work forces that aren't inclusive. Because of that they may never ask why people with disabilities aren't given the chance for jobs there. They can't protest when they accept prejudice and discrimination as the norm.

Missing and disappeared - that never happens by accident.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

NUTS!

Just before we crossed the border we stopped at the Duty Free. The primary reason for the stop was that I had to pee. We pulled in and I got out and then rolled down a hill, the enjoyment of that was tempered by the knowledge that I'd have to go back up, and then entered the store. We found the bathroom at the furthest reaches of the store and then Joe went shopping for a suitcase (a 24 case of beer for those of you who may not know Canadian idioms) and I wandered around.

They had an amazing display of liquour bottles and I was looking at some of the fancier bottles. I may not drink but I can still look at the bottles and recognize some brilliant designs. I was browsing. Then, feeling watched I discovered that I was being watched. A couple, a few years younger than me, were paused with their cart looking at me disapprovingly. 

I looked up at them and they weren't at all embarrassed to be caught out watching a random stranger in a public place. In fact they seemed relieved, now they could get their message to me. He pointed at the bottles while she wagged her finger at me. WAGGED HER FINGER. Like they had the power and the right to tell me that I should not be buying booze. Like they were fulfilling a public duty to keep cripples from intoxicating drink.

It made me want to wrap my lips around a big bottle of Knob Creek and take a swig. 

I didn't but WTF.

I joined up with Joe and then went in search of peanuts. I wondered if they'd approve. All I could find was maple syrup flavoured peanuts, and if there are Canadian Nuts, they aren't maple flavoured.

The constant monitoring, the constant need of some non disabled people to staff our freedom is remarkable. 

I went nutless into the car park, partly because they didn't have want I wanted, plain old salted ones, and partly because instead of doing anything at the finger wag I just turned and left. They probably felt that they had successful.

Part of me hopes they they drive away with maple nuts stuck to the roof of their mouths.

I mean, shit.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Disengage

Sometimes it just seems easier to disengage. I notice, at times, when I'm in a group of non disabled people who are actively not noticing my difference and the only way they can do that is by not noticing me, it's a real fight to speak up, to be heard and to be taken seriously. It can be exhausting being both highly visible and completely invisible at the same time. And sometimes, it's just easier to sit back in my chair and to disengage. Socially, for me, disability means disappeared an awful lot of the time.

I do have energy and I do have voice. But it takes extra energy and an almost strident voice just to make a statement that is incorporated into the broader conversation. Most people I'm sure have to work to make their voices heard but there is a 'standing supremacy' that leads to the privilege to dismiss people like me, with voices closer to the ground.

This doesn't happen to me at work.

It doesn't happen to me where my role is known and valued.

I'm speaking of ordinary social situations.

I don't expect people to defer to me, if that's what you are thinking. My disability doesn't make me more important than anyone else and it sure as hell doesn't make me less important. Sometimes I just want to be part of, rather that actively, purposely, intentionally, included. I don't want it to be 'work' to hear my voice and I don't want to work harder than anyone else for my words to have impact.

Sometimes it just seems easier to disengage.

We are, or it may be just my perception, not made welcome in public spaces. There are barriers to entry. Stairs to building is one kind of barrier to entry. Running the "gauntlet of stares" is another kind of barrier. But the barrier that seems most daunting is an unramped entry to social existance.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

I Never Saw Her

She didn't stand out.

I didn't even notice her. I'm a people watcher, I'm curious, and a bit nosy, and I didn't even notice her there. I didn't notice him either. They were just part of the scenery, just part of the crowd.

That meant something that mattered.

She had an intellectual disability, though her disability would be invisible to others, and she was being supported by staff in a very busy mall. She may not look like she needs much support, but she does. It may seem that going to the mall might have not have been a really big deal for her, but it was.

She looked happy.

She looked successful.

I know this because they came into my consciousness when she and her staff stopped to say hello. I saw her smile and her sense of confidence and accomplishment. I saw that she had a shopping bag and he didn't. I saw that she enjoyed being out without being "out". I saw a staff who  managed to support and not diminish, to provide help without self aggrandizement, to be there for when she needed without being there and 'performing staff.'

She didn't stand out.

After we all talked and it was time for them to go. She turned and led the way. She did it like she didn't expect to be called back, she didn't expect to be corrected, she didn't expect that her leadership to be challenged. He quickly caught up to her and then they were gone.

She didn't stand out.

But he did. Not to anyone at the mall but as a role model to every staff who goes out, every staff who supports someone in the community, to every staff wanting to know what excellence looks like.

The hierarchy so often on display when we are in public with those we serve, or those we parent, can be the first finger to point difference and disability and diminished.  The hierarchy, well managed, can demonstrate, respect and value and worth.

She didn't stand out.

His power didn't stand out.

She led because she knew, that the support she needed, would follow.