Is there hope for society’s soul?

Long days and nights on the street - an essential factor in feeding a family

Long days and nights on the street – an essential factor in feeding a family

When Nelson Mandela stated that “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children,” he was acutely aware of the vulnerability of childhood. Children feel secure and develop confidence when they are loved, cared for and feel wanted by the significant adults in their lives. When these conditions break down their situation can rapidly deteriorate and even reach a position of crisis. It is of course, easy to apportion blame when such circumstances occur and indeed there are times when the negligence or abuse of adults is abominable. However, a story in today’s Indian Express demonstrated how poverty often makes victims of whole families and creates situations that challenge our usual reactions to tragic circumstances.

Under a banner headline that read “Mentally ill boy tied to Mumbai bus stop is rescued, (and) taken to children’s home” the newspaper reported how a child with cerebral palsy and epilepsy was taken into care after having been tied to a bus shelter. He had been fastened in this manner by his grandmother, described as a “pavement dweller,” in order that she could leave him safely to make money by selling toys at nearby Girgaum Chowpatty. This is the only way she can ensure that the nine year old boy and his twelve year old sister, both of whom are in her care can eat and survive on the streets.

After being photographed chained to the bus stop, action was taken by the police and social workers and the boy was admitted into care. A shortage of places for destitute children meant that it took twenty four hours to find an appropriate placement for the young victim of this tragedy. Hopefully, having found a place this means that he will receive professional care and attention and maybe his life chances will improve.

However, the young boy, described as mentally ill, though I suspect that learning difficulties may have been more apposite, is not the only victim in this story. The article describes how his grandmother was fearful for the fate of her grandson and grateful for the intervention of the authorities. Her greatest concern now is that she will be able to visit him in the residential care to which he has been admitted. She is reported as asking police officers “Will they let me meet him every once in a while?” Her anxiety and concerns for her grandchildren demonstrate her own vulnerability in this situation. Apparently the children’s father died in 2010 and they were abandoned by their mother within a few months of this. The grandmother had clearly done all that she could to support and care for her grandchildren for the past four years.

Presumably the grandmother and the little girl are still living on the streets and struggling to survive, as is the case for many others, not only in India but around the world, including here in England. We could, with some justification take the words of Nelson Mandela used at the beginning of this piece and substitute the word children” with those who are vulnerable”, because certainly the grandmother is as much a victim in this story as the child. I have no doubt that some who read the report in the Indian Express will apportion blame to the family at the heart of this story, but Mandela is right when he indicates that there is something wrong with the soul of a society that continues to allow circumstances such as this to exist. A child is taken in to care, but what support is being offered to the grandmother and the boy’s sister?

In India, as elsewhere in the world there are increasing numbers of people who have attained incredible levels of wealth in recent years. At the same time the gap between these individuals and those who live in poverty has grown greater. The quality of life improves for many, whilst many more see no prospect of change. Sadly I suspect that stories such as that reported in the Indian Express are more common than we may realise, indeed on days where there is no shortage of newsworthy stories this report may not even have made the inside pages. If society really does have a soul it is to be hoped that it is found soon and certainly before stories such as this become so commonplace that they are no longer reported.

Let’s hope that both the children and their grandmother find themselves in improved circumstances in the near future.

Comedy, a weapon in the battle for inclusion?

Maysoon Zayid a comedian who happens to have cerebral palsy, happens to be Palestinian and happens to be a woman

Maysoon Zayid a comedian who happens to have cerebral palsy, happens to be Palestinian and happens to be a woman

“I’m Palestinian, Muslim, I’m female, I’m disabled and I live in New Jersey.”

These words were spoken by Maysoon Zayid, a comedian who in December 2013 talked about her experiences to an audience in San Francisco as part of the TED Inspirational Talks series. Cerebral palsy, she declares, is the least of her 99 problems!

Maysoon has cerebral palsy, she is articulate, full of enthusiasm and I find her very amusing. However, I was with a colleague this morning who recently saw a recording of her doing a stand up performance on television in the USA, which he described as making him feel “uncomfortable”. The difficulties that he had with her performance related to the jokes that she made about her life as a disabled woman. Surely, he said to me, this is not a suitable subject for comedy?

This raises interesting issues and I can see why, as an able bodied man, he might feel some disquiet at being confronted by a disabled woman who can be quite forthright in expressing her own life experiences, sometimes in quite graphic terms. “If you or I made jokes of this nature”, he suggested, “we would be seen as behaving in a totally unacceptable manner.” I suspect that this might be true, and quite rightly so. But I do feel that he is missing the point. Maysoon Zayid is making jokes at her own expense in order to draw the attention of others to some of the discrimination that she has experienced as a disabled woman, she is certainly not laughing at, or about the experiences of others with disabilities. “As a balding (late) middle aged man, if I make a joke about losing most of my hair, would you, as someone who is also challenged in this area find this offensive?” I asked.

It would appear that he would be quite comfortable with me making this joke at my own expense, even if it was slightly aimed at him as well. Apparently it is ok for me to laugh at myself, but less so when Maysoon Zayid does this, purely because of her cerebral palsy.

Humour has always had an important part to play in education. It can be particularly powerful in bringing our attention to issues of injustice or disadvantage. It does seem to me that what Maysoon Zayid does in her performances is not in any way disrespectful of any individual with a disability or groups who may represent their interests. In fact, when I have watched her act in the company of friends who have a disability they see her humour as a particularly potent weapon in the fight against discrimination and marginalisation. Indeed it was Kerry, a long term friend of mine who herself has cerebral palsy who first drew my attention to Maysoon Zayid and her act.

Towards the end of her Ted Talk (which you can see below) Maysoon Zayid states that “disability is as visible as race,” and suggests that whilst it may be polite not to draw attention to the disabilities of others, it can be helpful to try to understand these through an open discussion. In her case this means using humour as a weapon to challenge the world in which she lives. Perhaps occasionally making others feel uncomfortable is part of the process. Maybe this is an effective means of making them consider their own attitudes and experiences. If Maysoon Zayid is comfortable with this, then why would I wish to challenge her? You can make up your own mind by watching her performance at the Ted Talk on the link below. If you like what you see, then I hope that you have a good laugh – let me know. If you are offended, I’d like to know why so again, let me know.