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.

Philip Davies, Mental Health and the Minimum Wage

This is an expanded, more opinionated version of an article I wrote elsewhere.

Unless you’ve been living under a stone since Thursday night, you’ve probably heard about the controversy caused on Friday by a hitherto pretty much unknown Conservative backbencher. Philip Davies stated, in a debate on opportunities for employment in the House of Commons, that people with mental health problems (or learning disabilities, as he inaccurately referred to us on several occasions) should be “allowed” to work for the minimum wage. I shall come to that main crux anon.

Firstly, though, did you know that he also regards young people who are unemployed – without, apparently, any particular qualification to his comments – as braindead layabouts, who spend their money on childish versions of gambling? Well, you probably did – it wouldn’t be difficult to guess that I suppose, given other things he’s said – but let’s have it documented here anyway. This may not be the most popular blog since the beginning of time, but it may well have more popular appeal than the fairly turgid transcripts of words said in the House of Commons:

It is bizarre that the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) [Labour] thinks that it is appalling for young people to be going out to work for low wages, and that he would therefore prefer them to be sat at home watching Jeremy Kyle and “This Morning” and visiting their local amusement arcades, rather than having gainful employment.

(Source: Parliamentary Hansard)

Good to know, Mr Davies, thanks. I was under the impression that the majority of people without jobs – whether young or otherwise – were sick, disabled or trying to get work. Now I know better. Cheers!

Seriously, yeah – we all know there are some unemployed people out there like those he describes, but the stats show time and time again that they distinctly are in the minority. But if Mr Davies wants to ignore findings from (of all sources) The Daily Mail, with whom I would imagine he would get on with quite nicely, who are we lowly dolescums to protest?

So, onto the minimum wage/mental health issues. Mr Davies has accused several people who emailed him in disgust of not properly reading what he said (see below), so let me, as promised above, dissect his commentary by going through the Hansard record of the debate in question.

I went to visit a charity called Mind in Bradford a few years ago. One of the great scandals that the Labour party would like to sweep under the carpet is that in this country only about 16%—I stand to be corrected on the figure—of people with learning difficulties and learning disabilities have a job.

(Source: Parliamentary Hansard)

I can’t correct him on that figure, mainly because – as someone who does not have a learning disability – I have not done an awful lot of research into that arena. But wait…doesn’t he say that he went to Mind? Why yes – yes he does. Mind are, as many of you will know, a mental health charity. Could Mr Davies possibly be equating learning disabilities with mental health problems?

Nah, he must just have made a slip-up…

I spoke to people at Mind who were using the service offered by that charity, and they were completely up front with me about things. They described what would happen when someone with mental health problems went for a job and other people without these problems had also applied. They asked me, “Who would you take on?” They accepted that it was inevitable that the employer would take on the person who had no mental health problems, as all would have to be paid the same rate.

(Source: Parliamentary Hansard)

Oh, good. ‘Mental health problems’, he says – that’s more accurate. Now, I think very few of us would deny that Mr Davies and the people with learning disabilities mental health difficulties that he met at Mind have a point here: as things stand, yes – the employer is likely to employ the non-disabled but otherwise like-for-like candidate in a competition against a mentalist. I get that. I think we all do.

Mr Davies makes clear in the debate that he opposes the minimum wage in principle. That is his perfect entitlement, and as far as I’m concerned he can go about and campaign for reform of it all he likes. The specific problem in this instance lies, in my view, in deliberately dressing up his ideology in false (or even erroneously perceived genuine) sympathy for what he at one point terms society’s “most vulnerable”. The assumption made in his spinning of this is that the “most vulnerable” are less worthy than the “less vulnerable”.

To get a foot into the job market, we are supposed to work for less than other people doing the same job?! We should be “allowed” this supposed right, rather than be allowed the right to compete on an equal platform based on relevant occupational merit? All this despite the fact that many people with mental illness(es) are educated, experienced, intelligent people – and that they and many others within this sphere have other skills, demonstrable creativity, and/or potentially lucrative or strategic ideas?

No, Mr Davies – that is unacceptable. We are not lesser people than others, and as such we do not make lesser employees. Ergo, we should not work for less than the legal minimum.

I noted the following on a blog post that initially complained about the furore surrounding Mr Davies’ remarks:

Racism [for example] is still rife amongst certain people; if Davies had met a group of black or Asian people who said that they’d expect the nice British Aryan to be chosen over them at an interview and subsequently suggested that they should be grateful to work for less than the minimum wage, there would have been uproar (and quite rightly so). I fail to see how the demographic to which he did refer should be any different.

And I don’t. The problem is stigma and inequality, not who pays who what. Here (not sure about the rest of the UK?), the law has recently been changed so that potential employees don’t have to declare that they have an illness before an offer of employment is made; this is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough in my humble-ish opinion. Greater reform of employment law is needed – for example, it being entirely voluntary for an employee to declare periods of work absence.

But meh. It would be easier just to continue to stigmatise the mentally ill, to make them ‘live’ off a pittance, rather than perhaps putting our dear friends in business out a teensy-weensy bit. Plus, it saves money too – YAY! (Of course, Mr Davies working for less than the minimum wage would also save a hell of a lot of money. Maybe he should consider that as a viable proposition.).

And the ‘learning disability = mental illness’ thing? Not a mere slip-up after all, as it turns out:

…[t]he situation was doing the people with learning difficulties [that he apparently met at Mind] a huge disservice.

(Source: Parliamentary Hansard)

[in the wake of the horrified response to what he said] Left wing hysteria now dictates that you can’t even repeat what people with learning disabilities tell you if it questions their shibboleths

(Source: Twitter)

Good to know he’s informed on what mental health and learning disabilities are, then. I find such touching comfort in the fact that he can therefore ably speak for both groups!

I mentioned above that Mr Davies accused complainants of not reading his speech accurately. Even if that were true, which is patently wasn’t, his responses left a lot to be desired:

One

I am extremely sorry but I am afraid that you clearly have no idea at all about what I actually said as I did not say any of the things that you have accused me of saying in your email [she pointed out the laws on equality and disability discrimination and stated that his comments “disintegrated” them, then said that his comments suggested that people with disabilities should be treated as second class citizens]. Please can I suggest you read what I actually said in Parliament.

Two

Thank you for confirming that you have not in fact read my whole speech.

If you had you would have known that I was merely repeating what people with mental health problems had said to me!

I am sorry you feel their views shouldn’t be aired just because you happen to find them unpalatable.

Three

[to the same woman as ‘two’, who had by this point read his speech in full]

If you have read my speech then I am unsure why you would want to distort what I said and misrepresent it so badly.

Clearly in those circumstances it is impossible to have a sensible debate.

There are very many people with disabilities who have congratulated me for what I said. I am sorry you feel their views shouldn’t be aired just because you happen to disagree with them.

That is what I consider to be intolerant.

Etc etc etc.

(Source: Facebook Page – Reduce Philip Davies’ Salary to Less than the Minimum Wage)

Even if you agreed with every word the man spoke, even if you were thrilled with his claims of mere repetition, the brusque, condescending and simply bloody rude tone of his correspondences with members of the above page is not something people should have to put up with an elected MP, whether he agrees with their outlooks or not.

Also, he keeps stating that he was merely repeating what Mind’s clients said to him. What he actually said in the Parliamentary debate was that the folks he spoke to knew there was a much greater likelihood of a non-disabled applicant getting the job for which they’d also applied (see above). As I said before, I think we all know this to be true. Accepting that this is a real situation does not equate to a willingness to derogate from our right to basic equality, to being treated like human fucking beings. So, I’d challenge Mr Davies to state whether or not the people to whom he spoke specifically and unequivocally stated that they would be willing to accept less than the minimum wage in order to get some sort of employment. If so, can this be backed up? Mind don’t seem to think so – they appear pretty outraged that their clients were being referred to in this manner.

A, who is registered blind, was furious when he heard about all this on Friday evening. He asked, rhetorically, if he should be paid less than the minimum wage because of his disability. I should certainly be interested to hear Philip Davies’ views on this.

In the end, whinging about this here isn’t a particularly good use of my time, because Downing Street have already stated that they “reject” the ideas espoused in Mr Davies’ remarks. Still and withall, this bollocks really riled me. Not only does Mr Davies clearly not fully understand mental illness or learning disability, he has twisted – and apparently continues to twist – the innocent and justified lamentations of unwell but otherwise ordinary people into a reactionary, macro-political discourse.

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