“Asylums with doors open wide,
Where people had paid to see inside,
For entertainment they watch his body twist,
Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’” – Atrocity Exhibition – Joy Division
It is sad to say that many of us who have a disability or impairment will be able to recall experiences of having been bullied, picked on, singled out and abused, both verbally and physically, as we go about our lives. Would it be fair to say that we often take this abuse as being a ‘normal’ part of our daily routine, experiences that we have perhaps come to expect and, in the eyes of many as I will explain, something we should ‘put up’ with?
The ‘incident’ that inspired this article occurred on Saturday 14th March 2015. My partner and I were waiting to catch a train to Euston from Watford High Street Overground Station. The station was crowded, it being a football day, so we tried to stand in an area where we would not be jostled. It became clear to me that a group of lads within the crowd were discussing my disability. As usual, I tried to ignore the attention but I became very uneasy when other ‘fans’ were deliberately made aware and brought into the ‘joke’. Finally, the staring and comments became far too much and I addressed them saying, ‘It may come as a surprise but I do have feelings.’ This brought the usual denials and laughter etc. One lad offered, as mitigation, that they were all drunk and insisted that I should make allowances for that. In addition he added the usual excuse of, ‘it was only a joke’.
A few minutes later, I noticed my partner move between myself and those involved. She was showing signs of distress and unease. It seems that this group of lads had decided to make images of my orthopaedic boots and disability, possibly for later amusement and my partner had been trying to get in the way of their camera phones. I think, also, that a member of Overground staff had become aware of the situation because, though he didn’t say anything, he came over and seemed to be watching events.
Finally, the train arrived. Sadly, this was not to be an escape, as they boarded the same carriage and the atmosphere became somewhat unpleasant, to say the least. My partner finds such incidents especially difficult as she lives with severe mental health issues and, on this occasion, she became very upset. In fact, the situation was having a terrible impact upon her state of mind. Tears were streaming down her face, to their amusement, as she cried uncontrollably. I knew I had to get her away from this and I took the decision to leave the train at the very first opportunity. We disembarked at the next station, Bushey. In other words, we had travelled only one stop from the start of our journey, from Watford High Street, and would now have to wait 20 minutes for the next train. The sight of my partner, tightly clutching the hand support pole, head leaning against it, sobbing her heart out, will stick with me far longer than the memory of a group of idiots mocking me.
I wish I could say that this is an isolated incident, I really do. But I cannot. In fact, I would be lying to both myself and you, the reader, if I were to do so. It would appear that the combination of the stick, a very large orthopaedic boot, pronounced limp and my often pained expression, which I like to think of as being somewhat romantic, rather Byronesque, are what seem to attract this unwanted daily attention.
I have a very strong sense of humour and am in no way lacking in self esteem or confidence, but I have to admit that it does sometimes grind me down and sap my confidence. At times I have felt so intimidated that I have altered plans, changed my journey or return path, not entered, or have left, an establishment so as to escape the unwanted attention. The incident on the Overground station is not the first time I have felt so uneasy, uncomfortable or threatened, that I have felt the need to leave the train carriage.
These frequent incidents of disabilism are insidious, stressful, uncomfortable, tiring and can often be, even for one as confident as I, threatening.
Further examples from past incidents include being pressed against a wall, by a group, intent on taking off my orthopaedic boot. One guy who, upon seeing my orthopaedic boot, ‘demanded’ that I get up and walk along the tube carriage because he ‘wanted’ to see how I walked upon it – he no doubt went on to establish a career at either ATOS or Maximus. I have experienced people kicking my shoe to see what it was made of. On one occasion, whilst out enjoying a drink in a pub, one group of individuals wanted to ask me questions so as to settle a bet. They had been arguing about the size of my foot, did it fill the whole shoe? Was that the shape of my foot? They ‘demanded’ that I take it off so that they could look at my foot to settle said wager; they seemed put out and were clearly most upset at my reluctance to participate.
Sadly the incident at Watford High Street Station was not the first time camera phones have been directed towards my orthopaedic boot. On a visit to Luton Shopping Mall, I had my stick kicked away whilst others within the group filmed my fall. Fortunately, I had a friend with me and I did report it to security staff at the Mall who were excellent when it came to offering support. I have had popcorn and drink cartons thrown at me, in combination with jokes made at the expense of my disability, whilst out at the cinema. OK the film was rubbish, my own fault I suppose for what else was I expecting from a Michael Bay film? It seems that further entertainment had to be found and I was to provide it. If I remember correctly, I think it occurred during one of the films few ‘boring talkie bits’. Thankfully, a rather decent chap intervened and the staff at the cinema arrived to sort matters out.
Such incidents are not uncommon but perhaps they are at the more extreme level. Often it is the ‘lower scale’ daily attention that cuts deepest. Simply walking along a Tube platform can be compared to the scenes in Spaghetti Westerns where the eyes of the townsfolk are all upon the stranger as he rides into town. All too often, whilst out on the street, I will have people walking towards me and mimicking my limp, and we are not talking about children here. I do find it somewhat tedious as they rarely win any prizes for originality, all too often I face a Quasimodo or Richard the Third impersonation as I approach.
I have stood outside many a restaurant, reading a menu, and have had people, looking out of the window of said restaurant, point, comment amongst themselves and even laugh at my orthopaedic boot. I now have to make a choice. Do I go into the restaurant and pass through the gauntlet or go elsewhere. I have done both.
Only a few days ago, whilst awaiting a friend who I had agreed to meet outside Camden Tube Station, I attracted the attention of a large group of people who thought it fine to not only loudly discuss my disability but also to mock it. To make matters worse, they brought over ‘friends’ to share the entertainment. Perhaps, I missed a trick, maybe I should have placed a hat on the floor to collect coins. To my relief, my friend soon appeared. She said, she was aware that something was going on, as she approached.
I often find myself being ‘interrogated’ by total strangers as to the nature of my disability. Weighted questions abound such as ‘What is ‘wrong’ with your foot?’
When I have tried to calmly explain how their taunts upset me, that they have had their fun and I am now finding it uncomfortable, I am told to grow a thicker skin or develop a sense of humour. Again, would this be considered an acceptable suggestion if the attack had been based upon race, gender or sexual orientation? But, what am I thinking. Of course it is far easier for them that I grow a thicker skin than it is for those who taunt to show respect or empathy. It does often seem that the onus is on the targeted to accept events without question.
We would, rightly, be disgusted with someone who made taunts at an individual because of race, creed, gender or sexual orientation but there does not seem to be the same level of outrage at mimicry of an individual’s disability. We would not expect such incidents to be passed off as ‘just a joke’ or helpfully suggest that those targeted ‘grow a thicker skin’
My favourite comment, often made, when I have finally had enough of the stares and comments, telling them I am finding it uncomfortable, is, ‘What are you looking at?’ It really is all about the ownership of the gaze. They feel that they own it and I, the one being objectified, am to be denied it or deprived of it.
In choosing the intended target, a calculation has been made, that said ‘target’ will be ‘submissive’ and ‘will accept’ their role. A ‘safe target’ for their ‘play’. One that will offer no resistance or if resistance is offered, then it has been calculated, and that it will be delivered in a manner that further contributes to the ‘fun’.
For some reason, I ‘feel’ the need to state that I am not talking about the odd curious look that all people find themselves doing. It is often without thought or malice, when something passes their line of sight that ‘doesn’t fit’ – or am I making allowances again? I am used to an audience and attention due to my work having been exhibited and performed over the years. I have lectured, spoken in public, appeared on TV. As stated, I am not lacking in either confidence or self esteem; I am no shrinking violet and I am not easily intimidated.
No, I must stress that I am referring to the lengthy stares, the conversations about my disability or the equipment I use to get around, that make no attempt to involve me, and comments that carry on beyond the point where I have made them aware, and they know, that I am uncomfortable.
In responding, I have to ‘choose my battles carefully’ for there are risks of further escalation should I speak up. In refusing to accept the ‘roles of objectified’ or ‘abject’ as expected in this enforced narrative, I have to pay a price for changing the script, for adlibbing or ‘breaking the fourth wall’. I am to be passive within their narrative of objectification. Any deviation, on my part, from the path not only spoils the fun but can be seen as a threat.
To explore the ‘threat’ I seem to pose, I find it useful to draw upon Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection, an idea that relates to a primary psychological force of rejection, and apply it to how we are, as disabled people, objectified within society; making us ‘strangers’ in our own world.
Kristeva has theorised that the sight of an individual with a disability may create anxiety within those who are not themselves disabled. Perhaps what I am experiencing is that anxiety presenting itself as hostility?
For Kristeva, the abject refers to an observer’s reaction to a threatened breakdown in the meaning of the self for the self. This is caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. Whereas the primary example for what causes such a reaction would be a corpse, traumatically reminding the observer of their own mortality and materiality, it could equally be applied to that of viewing and reacting to disability. The ‘abject’ being in complete contrast to Jacques Lacan’s ‘objet petit a’ or ‘object of desire’. The ‘abject’ being a pollutant that can, if allowed in, harm the bloodline.
Barbara Creed stated in her 1993 book ‘The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis’ (published by Routledge):
“The place of the abject is where meaning collapses, the place where I am not. The abject threatens life, it must be radically excluded from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self”
I’m an object to be ‘viewed’ not a human being to ‘interact’ with for fear of contamination. When I don’t respond or, if I respond as ‘anticipated’, their world is ‘safe’ but, if I address them, as an equal, their world starts to fall apart. I am no longer the ‘passive’ abject and therein lies the danger, for both myself and them.
In responding, the object (in this case ‘little old me’) becomes ‘real’; a sharper reminder that ‘they’ could become ‘me’. I must be put back in place, returned to their zone of comfort, back to being an object, safety in objectification, where I can pollute no more.
To speak up, to refuse to play by the rules, to deny them their ‘rights of ownership’ of the ‘gaze’ can have repercussions. It grieves me to say that my partner has been assaulted, both verbally and physically, all because she dared to defend me by remonstrating with those who have either attacked me or mocked my disability whilst out in the street. We have both experienced being spat upon. The act of spitting not only displays contempt for the targeted but can also be seen as an action intended to free oneself from the impact of a pollution by expelling it back onto the pollutant.
Do I report such incidents? Well I have done on occasion, especially the most serious, but to be honest they happen on such a regular basis that, if I were to report each one, I would never be out of the offices of the relevant authorities.
Now I have experienced this ‘objectification’ throughout my life but I have noticed that it has increased over the past few years. I have looked at possible reasons. Is it because I live in London and being a big place, with a large population, I am more likely to be exposed to more people? Well, I have lived in London for some 20+ years now and have never known it to be as bad. In addition, I have attracted the same attention whenever my job has taken me to other places within the UK.
It is true that my disability/health has deteriorated resulting in my limp becoming more pronounced and my orthopaedic boot has had to be made much larger in an effort to compensate. Of course this may well be a factor as to why the attention has increased; I dare say it has played a very large part. Though, this may offer some explanation, it doesn’t mitigate those involved.
Whilst the frequency has increased so to has the tone and nature of the incidents. I have noted that, in many of these altercations, when I have asked the person/s to stop, they will often, at some point, make an unfavourable reference directed towards welfare. It has been made plain to me that ‘my taxes pay for you’. Now, where has this come from? It wasn’t something that I encountered before. I believe that much of this has been fuelled by the scrounger rhetoric being pushed by Government as a means to ‘nudge’ people into accepting, indeed wanting, the ‘reforms’ despite them not being in their own interest.
I believe that Ministers, MP’s and many within the media are well aware of what they are doing; are aware of the pernicious impact upon disabled individuals like myself and, as such, cannot claim unintended consequences.
Not once has the Department of Works and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, corrected the Press or called them out on the language used. Indeed nor has, to the best of my knowledge, any of the FOUR people to hold the office of Coalition Minister for Disabled People. One would have thought that defending disabled people and carers from such lies would have been a basic part of the job specification. Maria Miller, Esther McVey, Mike Penning and the current Minister, Mark Harper, all seemed more than happy for the public to believe, for example, that disability benefit fraud is on a large scale when the true figures are very low indeed.
Some within the Coalition Government have ‘fabricated’ data – one example is that of the Conservative Chairman, Grant Shapps, who was later rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for stating that:
‘”nearly a million people” (878,300) on incapacity benefit had dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment for its successor, the employment and support allowance.’
This rebuke came too late to stop falsehoods, pushed out by Grant Shapps and Iain Duncan Smith, from being picked up by the press and run as true stories that demonstrate disabled people to be fraudsters and/or scroungers. Such actions work against disabled people and carers and can fuel resentment against us and, one would have thought, that they would not form part of a ‘responsible’ Government.
Whilst the ‘war on scroungers’ may not be the sole reason or inspiration, after all fear of disability and the disabled goes back a long time, it has certainly, based upon the nature and tone of some of my experiences at least, given succour to those who mock disability. It offers a diversion, an excuse or means of mitigation when confronted. Government has placed scapegoating at the heart of its economic and social policy; it is what drives much of it, therefore its consequences surely cannot have come as a surprise to the Ministers and MP’s involved.
What chance do we have, when it is thought appropriate, for a local Conservative Party Twitter account, to make fun of disability during an election campaign? What message does this send out if not to give legitimacy to those who mock disabled people as they go about their lives?
The thin veneer of protection that civilisation brings is easy to break, especially in times of hardship, and Government austerity policy has served to do just that.
It can be difficult; one doesn’t like to admit to being targeted in such manner. To being seen as vulnerable or a victim. I see myself as neither, but, this article hasn’t been easy to write. I have felt exposed in doing so.
I stated above that I have reported some incidents, but not all, for fear of never being out of the police station. In taking this action, by not reporting them, have I made a mistake? I am coming to the conclusion that perhaps I have. The London Evening Standard reported, on the 15th April 2015, under the headline, ‘Revealed: ‘Shocking’ rise in race hate crimes on railways and the Tube’:
‘The most common reports of racially or religiously aggravated crimes related to incidents causing harassment, alarm or distress, with 1,069 in this category last year.’
If I, and other disabled people whom I have talked to who have also noticed an increase, had reported more of these incidents then they would have shown up in official figures. I regret not doing so now and I will endeavour to report any future abuse.
The act of seeing and being seen are powerful weapons that, unless we each take steps to regain sovereignty, will be increasingly turned against each of us.
For as Søren Kierkegaard stated “Once you label me, you negate me”
“Mid-life male photographer meets young, nubile female student-cum-artistic muse – so far it’s old hat. But photographer turned playwright Christopher John Ball and co-writer Dean Sipling, whose background is film and television, bring the pairing into a thoroughly contemporary world of intercepted emails, sinister insinuation and sharp retorts. Their ‘guilty until proved innocent’ plot … is thoroughly watchable and believable – perhaps as a result of Ball’s professional insights and DS Dom Lucas’ services as police advisor to the production” Barbara Lewis – The Stage
2015 will see the publication of three monographs featuring fine art photography by Christopher John Ball. Watch this blog for further details.