You know what the answer is, but you can’t accept it.
I recently saw a video by the National Council of Social Services.
It’s meant to be heartwarming I know, but it goes to show how typical our human nature is to stereotype people who have been labelled as different.
We feel awkward around disabled and special-needs people
I’m no different, I admit.
It’s not that I have no sympathy for people with disabilities or special needs. I do, like many other people out there.
I just don’t know what is expected of me without being offensive. How should I behave without being patronising or condescending? How can I be completely considerate when I’ve never been in their shoes?
By default, I won’t have empathy for these people because I have no experience what it is like to live a day in their life. Education theoretically should help me, but I think experiences in their shoes, or experiences interacting with them are much more useful.
Honestly I am initially a bit scared to approach them; the rules of engagement are different from those with a non-disabled ‘normal’ person.
We don’t think it’s our responsibility to be inclusive
It seems really selfish, but ‘normal’ people may not take the first step to accepting disabled / special-needs people into their circle or community.
It is by some unsaid rule that disabled / special-needs people must show they can do something exceptional beyond their disabilities before they are given the chance to be considered as a friend / employed staff / valued member of society.
If not, they are relegated to the ‘pity ‘ zoo, set aside from society so they don’t disturb ‘normal’ people and their comfort zones, and visited as an afterthought when ‘normal’ people need to fill up their ‘virtue’ / ‘feel-good-deed-for-the-year’ quota.
Some think society is reserved only for ‘normal’ people
Do we treat disabled / special-needs people like exotic animals, used for our purposes when they are needed, then caged and left aside so they won’t get in our way of living a perfect life without defects?
Check out this FB video of a lady who couldn’t accept a blind and mute elderly cleaner taking away her tray, because she wasn’t able to clearly communicate with him.
The post says:
Does anyone working in the Jurong area know this troll?
At lunch today at JEM, I had the gross misfortune of crossing paths with this disgusting, vile swine posing as a human being.
The cleaner misunderstood her grunting when he asked if he could clear her tray for affirmation. She abruptly exploded into cursing and violent upper body actions. She then told him that he should go and die and should not be given a coffin. She then continued eating until her husband returned, after which she insisted her husband drag the old man back to their table to APOLOGISE to her.
It was then that the manager of the cleaning company stepped in to explain that said old man was BOTH DEAF AND MUTE. In the video is what ensued… In a nutshell, that old and disabled people should not be given employment nor forgiven for their mistakes. And that they should just be beggars and wait for the government to feed them.
I cannot understand how such an evil being can exist. She should start looking out for the Karma bus whenever she crosses the road.
The deaf mute elderly worker had spoilt this lady’s perfect day, so she couldn’t accept him as a part of society, with the right to earn an honest living as a cleaner.
Why not lock him away like an animal and make him wait for feeding time when the government disburses food, she seems to suggest.
This video elicited strong reactions from netizens, including a labour advocate for cleaner rights and wages.
Zainal Sapari, who successfully lobbied for cleaners to be paid basic wages with training paths for career advancement, did not hesitate to publicly scold the lady for such disgusting behaviour and remind people to be kind to cleaners.
I am shock and speechless. To say that I am disgusted at her behavior is an understatement. Kindness is the only universal language that the deaf can hear, the blind can see and anyone can do without being taught. Please be kind to a cleaner or any person you meet because behind the work he or she is doing, is a family or person that depends on the honest day living. The person is fighting a harder battle and the least we can do is BE KIND!
Is empathy in our emotional vocabulary?
We have huge sympathy for abused disabled / special-needs people, and won’t hesitate to call for action to right the wrongs done against these victims.
But some of us also unconsciously think it’s perfectly fine to avoid and ignore them in the daily course of our lives, because empathy for them hasn’t been strongly cultivated in our emotional vocabulary.
Case study of inclusiveness in a school
Growing up, I once had a primary 3 classmate with a special need that many of us take for granted: the ability to control one’s bladder.
No one in class wanted to be his friend, because he always stank of urine and would need to run to toilet at the last minute, leaking urine along the way. Even though he would change underwear and shorts during the day, he couldn’t shake off the smell.
The school had arranged for our class to be held in the classroom nearest the toilet, and his desk near the front door. The teacher gave him permission to visit the toilet anytime he needed, and spoke to the class to encourage us to be accommodating.
Our tables were arranged in pairs. But no one wanted to sit next to him or befriend him, calling him ‘smelly urine boy’ and making other snide remarks about his lack of bladder control.
One day, after he had been sitting alone for some time, the teacher asked me to permanently move my belongings and sit next to him. My first thought, “Jialat, I will die breathing in his urine smell for the whole year”.
I tolerated his smell for the first day, then the second, and the third. By the next few weeks, I had gotten used to his urine smell and frequent disruptions when he suddenly jumped up and ran to the toilet, coming back smelling even stronger of urine.
He was actually a very good seatmate to have. He shared his stationery with me when I forgot to bring mine (although I was initially hesitant because I wasn’t sure if he normally washed his hands after using the toilet, but heck it), he helped me with my Mandarin homework and was very polite and gentlemanly towards me.
At that time, I think I was often teased by classmates for having dry skin on my lips, which I had a bad habit of peeling till I had bloody cracks because I hated white dead skin making my lips look as if they had scales on them.
My seatmate never made me feel bad about myself, and I once called him smelly on a day when I was throwing a tantrum, but immediately apologised.
Eventually we had large group projects where he was treated like just another member of the group, instead of being isolated and frowned upon as the smelly boy to stay far away from.
As a class, we had moved from a stage of discomfort and bullying, to tolerance, and finally acceptance of him and his special need. It helped that the school and teacher encouraged us to accommodate his need and treat him like any other classmate.
We aren’t that close to being inclusive
I can’t imagine what Singapore would be, if I had indignant parents who told my teacher that I shouldn’t be sitting next to this boy with special needs because they weren’t comfortable with this arrangement.
Yet only half of 457 parents polled in a recent Lien Foundation survey said they would be comfortable if their child was seated in the same class next to a special-needs child.
This could be due to a narrow perception that special-needs children refers to the severely autistic or children who exhibit violent behaviour.
Without asking what specific special needs and the severity of the special need that the hypothetical classmate has, some parents may already stereotype this special-needs classmate as an ‘animal’ that should be kept away from ‘normal’ human children in mainstream schools, preferring that special-needs children should be confined to ‘zoo’ schools like Pathlight where they won’t disturb and damage ‘normal’ children.
Let’s shame these ignorant parents, no?
Shaming this kind of thinking doesn’t help, because it may make parents:
– more defensive of their ‘no-special-needs-near-my-kids’ stand
-and be even more convinced that they are the last line of defence to protect their ‘normal’ children from being dragged down to the level of an inferior special-needs child.
Hence we should ask ourselves these questions
– Should acts of inclusiveness be a choice made by the majority of people at their own convenience?
– Or should inclusiveness be mandated regardless of whether the majority is comfortable or not?
– What would cultivate empathy for disabled and special-needs people?
– Are we committed to making interactions between disabled / special-needs people with ‘normal’ people everyday affairs, or only when there are ad hoc ‘feel-good-deed-for-the-year’ events?
Be open, be respectful
What we have in Singapore is a moving average of tolerance and acceptance towards disabled and special-needs people studying, working and socialising amongst us.
I hope that we will shift that moving average away from the ‘zoo’ mentality towards respecting the right of every living person (even if we have to accommodate their disabilities and special needs) to be treated like any other human being.
Also published on Medium.