Perspectives from the Mentalist's Partner (6): The Blind Leading the Mad

As regular readers may have noted from Pandora’s occasional mentions of me, I have a disability. I’m partially sighted. I usually don’t think about it. Why would I? It’s something that’s always been with me. Well, when I say ‘always‘, I mean the pleasure’s been all mine ‘within living memory’. I hesitate to say that it’s a part of me, because that suggests a welcome I don’t extend to the problem; but the reality is that, yes, it’s made me who I am and so, yes, it’s wedded to me for better or worse, richer or poorer, and all that lark. Inseparable buddies, ’til death do us part. You know the lines.

So, then, how does this constant travelling companion affect me, you might ask? Well, I can get around familiar places for the most part, I can get on with my work. I don’t tend to think about what I can’t do a lot of the time because – well, to be blunt – I can’t do it, never have been able to and likely never will. I can’t play ‘normal’ sport with any degree of aptitude. I can’t drive or even safely ride a bike on a public road. I can’t read signs unless they’re smacking me in the face. I find it too much of a strain to read most newspapers or magazines (so the internet is a gift and the Apple iPad, with its built-in accessibility, is a dream come true). I can’t see well enough to build a PC, despite knowing exactly how to; I get help on the former score from Pandora.

The point I’m trying to make is that there are quite a lot of things I can’t do, and more things besides that I can’t do with much competence. I don’t tend to think about this because, as I’ve already stated, that’s how it’s been for as long as I can remember. Yes, occasionally I get pangs of wishful thinking – possibly more so when I was younger than now – but generally I can ignore my bosom buddy. And since I don’t tend to think about what I can’t do, people who know me tend to stop thinking about it as well. Sometimes I think they forget, or consign my sight problem to the ‘oh yeah, forgot about that’ bin.

Why is this relevant to this blog? Well, it is to the extent that I have what, sometimes, can be perceived as an ‘invisible’ disability. Granted, it’s more readily perceptible than the amorphous ‘what?’ that’s going on in someone’s head, but it’s closer to that than the other extreme of, say, being in a wheelchair.

As we know, if a health issue isn’t readily perceptible, it tends not to be thought about – or, at least, it tends to be thought about less than the more obvious. Lots of buildings are geared up for ‘disabled access’. What this appears to mean, in general, is the installation of a wheelchair ramp or a lift. Worthy additions, certainly, but additions that fail to cater to me and others.

Airports are a good example of this. Many airports are moving away from announcing flights towards a position where the onus is on the passenger to find out for him- or herself when a flight is departing. Fine if you can see the often distant screens with their not so huge fonts. Of course, if you’re hard of hearing, announcements are not much good, but does there have to be only one form of communication?

Or what about going into a fast food joint. You might argue that I shouldn’t be there in the first place. But I am. So let’s look at the board. Oh, hang on, let’s not. I’d better get Pandora to read it to me. Often the same with a menu in a restaurant, the specifications on the back of product’s packaging, the instructions (as a last resort) that I’ll need to understand when trying to get something to work. There’s not a Braille or large print version.

I don’t expect the world to change for me, and it sure as hell doesn’t revolve around me, but I experience the unquestionable feeling of being marginalised at times. Perhaps not deliberately or in a major way – simply a crime of omission. The wheelchair lobby have been very successful in pushing the need for reasonable adjustments, and I applaud those efforts; but others have enjoyed fewer victories.

Now, take my problem and double it; treble it. People at least know what a sight difficulty is and they generally accept that I’m not making it up or hallucinating the bugger. Maybe society hasn’t caught up enough to cater to it in an ideal way, and there are real difficulties still. But things generally tick over. Good Samaritans will often step in to ask a blind person if he or she needs help. A lot of my friends are blind or partially sighted. They lead pretty normal lives. They get disability aids to assist them. They are offered reasonable adjustments. Could things be better for them? Most likely. But their disabilities are seen and recognised, and I for one wouldn’t like to be the person standing between them and the entrance to their local of a Saturday evening! Normal lives, normal people.

If being blind or half blind is Cinderella, then being mental appears to be Cinderella’s unborn sister. From my observations of developments around the Madosphere, it seems to me that there is a very long way to go to achieve recognition of mental illness as a disability (whether temporary or permanent). While stigma – the ‘get over it’ culture – still persists, what hope is there of a genuine cultural shift towards accommodating these problems, of reaching something akin to normalisation of these issues? If the problem is not seen, it often goes unacknowledged. Not through malice, perhaps. Ignorance is the mother of stigma here, I’d wager. The generic term ‘depression’, is a good example of what’s wrong. It doesn’t communicate useful information to Joe Public. In regular usage, it can mean practically anything across a wide spectrum from ‘a bit pissed off’ to ‘suicidal’. It’s symptomatic of, and continued to support, an all too common attitude of ‘Snap out of it! Get over yourself! Cheer up! It’s only in your head!’

Only in your head? What a quintessentially galling statement. Everything’s in your head. Everything is filtered through the lens of our senses; everything goes through our heads, all those neurons firing away merrily to create what we call our world view. Can things that are ‘just’ in your head be so readily trivialised or dismissed? Really?

My conclusion isn’t revolutionary. It’s stating what the Madosphere and mental health advocates generally are already stating: there is a need to begin to see mental issues in the same way that we see other health issues. We must collectively stop laughing them off and begin to provide the interventions, empathy and adjustments that are being extended, albeit sometimes slowly and imperfectly, in so many other areas.

Here endeth the sermon.

Pan

I think this post is particularly timely, given the shocking ignorance, offensiveness and self-righteous cuntery of the utter bollocks shown on the otherwise respectable Channel 4 this week (words to the wise: follow the link at your peril. It could genuinely upset or trigger you, and it will almost certainly anger you). For those unfamiliar, some God botherer, Malcolm Bowden, has been wanking on that depression – and as A notes in this post, that’s certainly an overused term – is a character failing, caused not by biopsychosocial factors, but by the dirty heathen sin of ‘pride’ (incidentally – as my next post will discuss, at least a little – there’s fuck all wrong with pride anyway. Conceit and arrogance are ‘sins’, if one must employ Biblical nomenclature – but they are
quite different from simply taking pleasure in the fact that you’ve done something good).

Yeah. The words “fuck away off” came to my mind too. Apparently leading mental health charity Rethink agree.

Can I just say that this is not how all – or even many – Christians view depression and other mental health concerns. This is clearly exemplified by some lovely people who actually practice the doctrines preached by Christ, rather than sitting in self-referential, holier-than-thou judgement.

Unfortunately, though, Mr Bowden has done neither people with mental illnesses nor his warped view of Christianity any good. He’s poured gallons of fuel onto the stigmatic fire, and has in all probability provided cocks like Richard Dawkins with a new pile of wank fodder.

Depression is real. Depression is a real mental illness. Godliness, or the lack thereof, has fuck all to do with it. Yet society, or at least parts of it, will nod along to Bowden’s demonising rhetoric, because it suits them to believe that teh m3nt@lz are all evil/scrounging/lying etc etc etc.

So hard as it is, on we must fight. All of us with disabilities – seen or unseen, mild to severe – in solidarity. That we must do, despite members of the community being some of the most marginalised and vulnerable in society, is disgusting, but cockjockeys like Mr Bowden, and indeed challenges such as A has discussed above, prove that it’s sadly a necessary evil even now, in a supposedly enlightened 21st century.

9 thoughts on “Perspectives from the Mentalist's Partner (6): The Blind Leading the Mad

  1. I’ve recently found out that depression is neither an illness or a character defect but, wait for it, a strategy some people use when overwhelmed by extreme pain. According to Bruce Levine Ph.D. “[d]epression is by no means the only strategy people use to shut down overwhelming pain. People use alcohol, marijuana, television, food, gambling, and worse. … Instead of labeling depression as weakness or illness, we might better decrease depression by understanding it as a normal, albeit painful, human reaction. When we label a part of ourselves as either “weak” or “sick,” we alienate ourselves from a part of who we are, and this can create even more pain. In contrast, when we accept the whole of our humanity, we are more likely to be freed up to resolve and heal the source of our pains.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-e-levine/why-i-dont-disease-depres_b_74369.html)

    I have to say I’m speechless. And tired, so tired of hearing that I ought to accept my humanity and view it as perfectly understandable that all I want to do is either never leave the bed, on a good day, or just die, die, die, on a not so good day.

    I can’t see the programme you mentioned as I’m not in England but perhaps it’s for the better. I’m shocked that such shit’s allowed any air time.

  2. A, totally agree with you here and I’m speaking from experience too. From my comments in the past you’ll know our house is just like yours. I’m the mental one and my hubby is partially sighted as a result of a migranous stroke. Like you, everyday he lives with an invisible disability. Often people just dont get what he does to adapt to a fairly normal life. As a teacher with a huge workload of marking he had to cut his working week to 4 days. He works the other day at home unpaid. I know people will probably think, that’s ok, he has a decent job and can still work. (Don’t mention holidays it will send me off on one) But the fact remains he had to cut that 1day just to cope with the other 4. His timetable was reduced slightly but he only lost 1 class. Thats not much of a reduction of marking in the grand scheme of things. People still ask when he’ll return to full time.
    I on the other hand have experienced the stigma towards mental illness. I was forced back to work and firmly believe it prolonged my depression. So often I want to be really open with people about what its like with all this stuff going on in your head but their ignorance blinds them which only adds to the suffering of those with a mental illness.
    I didn’t see the channel 4 programme. I think I’m glad I didn’t. I am fortunate that as a Christian I am surrounded by people in my church who do not believe my depression is sinful. If I had come across that attitude I know I would have found it difficult to stomach.
    Ash x

  3. I wish that mental illness was recognised in the way that physical disability is too. And it really annoys me, the loose use of “depression”, I wish TPTB would come up with another term for it.

    On the 4Thought thing, I wrote something on my blog about it. The man’s a loon – claims an 80-100% cure rate for schizophrenia using his “counselling”. I hate it particularly because, as well as being a bit mental, I am also a Christian and I saw comments where the people had obviously assumed all Christians were like that. They’re not, obviously. Anyone who thinks, like him, that a “true Christian” can’t get depression is an idiot, and has obviously not read large parts of the Bible besides.

    • I’m not surprised that most Christians have more sensible attitudes. TV loves a good controversy, of course, but I do hope that someone is given an opportunity to respond to these rather bizarre views.

  4. A really great post! It’s a good way of explaining the problem of having to live with mental illnesses. I have often wondered why “disabled access” just seemed to mean wheelchair ramps, and it doesn’t take much thought to recognize that within the category of physical disability there are all sorts of access problems that are just as obvious and not addressed. As soon as you turn the spotlight round and look at the situation with mental illness though, you realise how huge the gap is between what people actually need, and how other people treat them. As you say, I don’t think most people even consider mental illness as a disability. Disability is, somehow, a noble state of suffering – disabled people are victims, preferably still quite attractive and not too disfigured victims. Mentally ill people are ridiculous or scary, not victims and not noble. It would need a huge public education campaign to change this view – and what government is going to want to do that when the end result would be that there would be a public outcry when they cut benefits and services to mentally ill people?

    • Well said. A massive educational effort is indeed needed, and it’s good to see so many bloggers contributing in their own way towards that even if, as you say, government are unlikely to put serious money behind any programme.

  5. Thank you for this A- I must admit to my shame I never really thought about the challenges blind people must face in everyday life- probably cos as you say disability related rights tend to be focused on wheelchairs- obviously that is good but it is only one part of the story so thank you for bringing this up.

    Also _stringly_ agree that mental health needs to be seen as disability not just something outside society- there are a lot of good initiatives about this but there is a long way to go :o(

    Best wishes
    Kate

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