A conversation from a mailing list...

February 21, 2012

There was a discussion about how pets Could affect the health of people, and it suddenly elicited this very string reaction from someone…

My son has nearly died about ten times. He has hydrocephalus, a seizure disorder (all kinds); he’s had emergency brain surgery, has severe visual impairment, cognitive impairment, sensory impairment, poor coordination and a weak immune system. He has suffered a lifetime of virtual friendlessness and ostracism. He has been tormented by psychosis. He has been ridiculed and shunned. His life expectancy is short. What little vision he has will be gone soon. He has been the subject of medical incompetence and malpractice and caring for him has driven my family into bankruptcy and stress pretty much beyond my ability to describe, perhaps beyond your ability to comprehend. With that background, may I ask how old you are and by what lights you presume to tell me what I do or don’t know about what other non human influences may have had an influence on my son or any other human? Also do you suffer from any chronic, incurable debilitating diseases? Do you believe in disease, or do you think that too is a silly concept? Do you believe in sanitation? I certainly have no interest in cute sophistries about the arbitrariness of norms for what constitutes being human. I do like to talk about such things, but generally at a post-kindergarten level.

I’ve been musing over these words…..

I no longer work with special children all the time…I used to do so, with the Spastics Society of India in Chennai, and with the Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind, here in Bangalore where I now live. My interest in wildlife and photography have now moved me towards volunteering with school children, taking them on nature trails. If the group includes special children, I am …hopefully…better able to relate to some of them as a result of my earlier experience. There are some schools where, luckily, special children are in the mainstream of education and not segregated…I enjoy it very much when they form part of the group coming along with me.

I’ve done some volunteering with dyslexic and autistic children…just enough to know how complex these things are, and what the children and their families go through, to deal with the “normal” world.

However, I am not formally trained (my daughter fell seriously ill just when I was about to start the special educators’ program, and I never got a Round Tuit again)…and I do know how little I know!

I still know almost nothing about schizophrenia.

But I get to see the general attitude towards mental illness, and different abilities, all the time. When one of our neighbours was suffering from schizophrenia and his wife was struggling with the finances, our apartment residents said it was a ploy by both of them to avoid paying the maintenance charges. To change people’s prejudices and perceptions …is a long, slow, and often frustrating process. And sometimes I have to introspect, too, to see what motes are in mine own eye…before I look at others. It’s easy to think that one is free of presumptions and prejudices…and one is not.

But…I have learnt…am learning still…that often people are cruel and insensitive, not because they think they can be, or want to be…they just lack imagination. I cannot give you a better example than my neighbour who, after the Gujarat earthquake, told me very seriously, “All those children in the quake debris….if they do not know where their parents are, the rescuers should not save them.” That is the horror of the lack of imagination…the inability to put themselves in a situation even briefly.

So, when we react sharply to such people, the result is often even more negative. They do not realize what it is that has made us react, and see only the “punch in the nose” that you talk about. Alas, it being their nature, they cannot introspect at that point and wonder what it was that made us react.

All that happens is, the frustration (and sometimes rage) that builds up inside me boils over…and I am the one to suffer, for some time afterwards, angered to tears over the insensitivity that I felt.

Oh well…there’s no end to this story. I had a cousin  who had Down’s Syndrome, and watched as my aunt and uncle eventually had to institutionalize him. They were torn between grief and relief when he died a few years ago, at the age of 52.

Some of us walk the dark paths, with grit and determination, yet finding joy. Some of us walk in complete ignorance of the dark paths, all our lives…we are so lucky, and yet never know it. We watch the sentimental movies made about different abilities…and mouth platitudes.