All the diners had arranged themselves roughly in the centre of the restaurant, except for one table.
Sitting in the furthest corner away from any other diners and under a loud TV was a family; two parents and their adult child who had an intellectual disability. They were distinctly separate; removed from other diners.
Now, humans are fairly predictable. We follow well-worn paths. We clump together. We struggle to be random, even when we try to be. For example, you can tell if someone has fudged their expenses because they will often include numbers ending in a zero or a five.* Yes really. Don't get any ideas! (*Is this where I enter my disclaimer?)
I admit that there may be a myriad of reasons why this family were separate (other diners had since left or they liked the TV? etc), but I couldn't help but wonder if they'd removed themselves because of their son?
And the minute I write that I want to correct it.
Not because of their son, but due to a fear of how people might react to them.
We naturally want to protect ourselves. Who wouldn't?
I know too as a gay woman, how much my own public behaviours are modified to remove any chance of being hassled, stared at or jeered. You self-select your protection measures.
Insight 1: DISCRIMINATION can create ISOLATION on route to PROTECTION
So you don't say anything, but you feel guilty. You feel guilty because what does it mean if I don't say anything? Does it matter? Well, yeah, because it's like I'm hiding. Does that mean I'm uncomfortable by my family's difference? No. I'm just scared about how I will be treated. I want to be open, but if I'm completely honest, I worry that..... And so the thought cycle goes round and round. It's exhausting.
I have a friend who works internationally in the developing world and travels a lot for work. Picture rural areas, broken pavements, pot holes, footpaths covered by market stalls, animals lying in your path, stairs not lifts etc. She clearly impressed them in her interview as she got the job. The first they knew of her wheelchair was when she entered the interview room.
Now, imagine that. Really imagine that.
Think of the emotional energy that goes into removing the chance for discrimination.
The excitement you feel at getting an interview takes a hit when you imagine the potential discrimination and previous experiences of 'not suitable for the job'. You try to work out how much it matters to you; whether or not you want to ask for the disability assistance that's available for the interview. NO, let's remove all chance of discrimination and just turn up. This protects you emotionally whilst holding the uncertainty of how it will be received. That's all before you even get to the interview.
That's a lot of emotional energy that could be redirected into more positive things.
Insight 2: INCLUSION removes wasted energy and creates a sense of BELONGING.
I'm not sure that people who are resistant to diversity realise that inclusion is going on all around them. They just don't see it.
And in many way they're not meant to. It's not for them.
It's a bit like a hidden code - only seen by those who can read it.
For example, my wife wears a sunflower lanyard when we go through airports. It shows staff that she has a hidden disability and might need assistance. A Rainbow flag sticker on a cafe door shows me it's a safe space. A Rainbow badge worn by the nurse and doctor in the UK's National Health Service tells me I'm seen.
These visual cues are so important. We all know to be careful walking near someone with a white cane. It is no effort for us, but makes the world of difference to that individual.
BUT, we still need to listen and not assume that we understand the code. We all speak different emotional and observational languages..... and if we go back to those *fudged expenses (*ahem...insert another disclaimer here), we need to remember that we struggle to be random. Based on our own set of cultural and social reference points, we tend to assume that our own observations of an individual's behaviour equals that person's intentions. Mostly, it doesn't.
I suspect that we've all stomped along that well-worn path of human predicatibility at some point in our lives.
Insight 3: ASK FIRST - Always! and FOLLOW THEIR CUE
The woman approaches. I now see she has britle bone disease. I'm hoping she goes straight past us and doesn't see us. But of course no, she pulls up, right next to us to also cross the road. The five of us in a row, waiting like peas in a pod - sandwiched together between two traffic light poles.
Angie and I stare straight ahead, trying to act as though wheeling a rubber man around in a wheelchair is normal. Mind you, he's quite life-like so people often don't realise that he's not real.
And then I see her.
I see her slowly turn her head to look at Ichabod. The look of surprise is palpable.
She opens her mouth to speak.
I wait, worried.
And then in a broad Glaswegian accent she says Aye, and there I was thinking I was the special one! before laughing uproarously.
I'm fairly sure I then embarrassed myself by chatting to her waaay too enthusiastically. My relief burbling out with freaky friendliness.
It is also safe to say that I didn't 'style it out' particulary convincingly.
But I didn't care. She showed me how to 'style it out' like a pro.
Thank you Glaswegian woman. You taught me well that day.
WHAT ARE YOUR MOST PRECIOUS OBJECTS?
It's the house-on-fire question isn't it?
'What would you grab if you only had a few minutes to get out of your house?
There's the obvious ones like family photos and your beloved pets. I'm also likely to grab practical things like my computer drive, passports, credit cards, clothes etc. They are all the obvious items that I think we'd all choose if we had to make a quick decision.
But what about the other objects around your home?
I'm talking about the ones that tell a more detailed and multilayered story of your life - their meanings not fully tangible to other people, but are imbued with a rich personal depth that reveal the story of your life.
For me that meaning comes with a personal experience.
The object triggers so much more than what appears on the surface.
There's also certainly something wonderful about finding an object in the ground and piecing together its story.
EXPERIENCES THAT SHAPE YOU
From an early age my parents took us travelling. Where possible, time wise and financially, we spent holidays camping in the outback, learning to 4WD, learning to like our own company, learning to appreciate and respect the ancient Aboriginal culture that forms the foundation of Australia. And when more money and more time permitted, we backpacked overseas. I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to grow up learning about the world through the eyes of the people we met on our travels.
But these experiences were not always ones I’d like to repeat. In India our train was held up for several hours by bandits in the middle of the night, other passengers telling us to hide as we would be easy targets.
In Egypt I remember our taxi being stopped by the police. As foreigners we were viewed as potential drug traffickers. The doors were forced open and the police started to pull the panelling off the doors as they searched for narcotics. As a 10 year old sitting in the back seat, I started to giggle – mainly through fear, but very quickly stopped when mum’s face showed me the seriousness of the situation. On not finding any drugs our taxi was allowed to continue.
There’s something about taxis actually; they seem to feature quite heavily in my experiences of other countries. It was 2am and we’d just settled back into the taxi after stopping for tea. We were travelling to Kipling Camp in northern India, where we were hoping to see tigers.
The thick jungle-like vegetation made for a fairly monotonous journey that was, until a man walked out into the middle of the road. Our driver slowed down and rather than waiting for the window to be wound down, the man opened the front passenger door.
Something wasn’t right.
Our driver’s face told us all we needed to know.
He was scared.
Dad managed to pull the door shut again and quickly reached around to us in the back and told us to lock the doors. The driver was frozen with fear, but managed to move off again with Dad repeatedly telling him to drive, getting slightly more frantic each time he didn’t move.
As we drove off and looked behind us, we saw about another 10 men walk into the middle of the road from the bushes all carrying machetes.
Who knows what might have happened, but I don’t think they were expecting foreigners. The split second look of shock of the man’s face when he opened the door was enough of a delay to save us.
LISTEN TO OTHERS with KINDNESS AND ACTION
It is these situations that have made me look at the world differently. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that everyone has a story and everyone’s story is their own. We are all human. Our diversity is what makes us unique, but it’s also what makes a whole.
In 2005 I spoke to a man in Syria, who said:
How do you reply to that kind of comment?
How do you answer the woman also in Syria, who during the Iraq war walks straight up to you out of the blue and asks, ‘do you like Iraqi people?’
...or the woman in Vietnam that says ‘we are sick of people coming to look at us after the war’.
How do you cope with the racist attitude of a couple in the northern territory who are happy to give the man next to us a lift down the road, until they realise he’s Aboriginal?
You respond in the way you know how...
For me it’s about sharing people’s stories, whether it’s a man on the other side of the world or the local artist who crafts items from driftwood she finds on the beach.
People’s stories like this are replicated all over the world. Our social history gives us a place and a soul; otherwise what else are we other than just creatures with no connection to each other?
Our stories need to be shared, witnessed and honoured.
We make communities this way and as we start to understand each other's lives, we can support one another through the tougher times.
A FEW OF MY OBJECTS
On my window ledge, there's a polystyrene figure that I carved when I was going through a tough time. It reminds me of my strength and the growth that comes from these challenges. I have dried Eucalyptus and Wattle leaves which remind me of home in Australia. Then there's the cute soft toy duck I bought when I travelled overseas on my own for the first time. I just liked it at the time, but now it feels like one of my first acts of adulthood and of branching out on my own.
So, which are your favourite objects?
Which ones tell the tale of your life?