Saturday, 3 September 2016

The shame of it: Why do we still tolerate columnists who harass disabled children in public?

The rage of the privileged is an unedifying spectacle. I suspect most parents of disabled children have been confronted by someone like Tess Stimson, who wrote in the Daily Mail recently that people with special needs should not be allowed out in public until they've learned to mimic the rest of us. The object of her ire was a young boy – in her description 'about eight or nine', though Tess, as we'll see presently, is not the most reliable of observers – who was hitting a spoon against a restaurant table. He and his family had had the sheer bad luck to be seated beside Tess and her friend. After about 40 minutes of 'mounting frustration' at having her conversation interrupted, Tess leaned over and snapped at him to stop. At which point the boy's mother, who until then had been serenely unaware of the presence of a Daily Mail columnist at the next table, found herself dragged into a depressingly familiar scenario.

'The child's mother... stormed over, incandescent,' writes Tess. '”My son is disabled”, she shouted, pushing her face aggressively into mine.' I can only speculate, but perhaps the tone of this exchange was set by Tess 'pushing her face aggressively' into the boy's a few moments earlier. The mother then goes on to point out that her son is in a wheelchair. 'I must admit I hadn't noticed the wheelchair and did feel a pang of guilt,' Tess writes.

There is perhaps no finer metaphor for privilege than this upside-down response to a child's disability. The boy's family will certainly have noticed the wheelchair, every time they have to take the long route to enter a building, or wait for the next bus because another pram or wheelchair is taking up the next space, or phone a restaurant to make sure they get an accessible table. Accommodating the wheelchair is woven into the fabric of their everyday lives. But in Tess's eyes these challenges are eclipsed by the inconvenience of listening to a spoon striking a table for 40 minutes.

Just as hunger pangs are quickly banished by snacking on chocolate, so Tess dispels her fleeting sense of guilt by bingeing on self-righteousness. 'Criticising another's offspring, however anti-social their behaviour, has become a taboo in our child-centric society,' she laments. 'Particularly if the child has 'special needs', be that anything from ADHD to a broken leg.' Or perhaps we've learned the rule that if you have a problem with the way a child is behaving you should raise it with their parents first.

We do not learn from Tess exactly what the boy's specific needs were, and she doesn't seem especially interested. What we do learn is that she has a curious, 'one size fits all' understanding of disability, as seen from the equivalence of ADHD with a broken leg. Co-opting the 'some of my best friends are black' argument, she informs us that one of her children has Type 1 diabetes and has to inject insulin at mealtimes, but proudly observes that 'never once has this led to bad behaviour in a restaurant.' Now, Tess clearly has the advantage of me in her knowledge of diabetes. My understanding is that it's a serious condition that requires rigorous management, but never before have I seen it compared to a neurological condition. Children whose whole system of thinking is fundamentally different can't be compared with those whose mood is knocked off kilter by a sugar deficiency.

Tess insists that she sympathises 'deeply with the parents of any disabled child', but the mask soon slips and she exposes herself as that most tiresome species of hypocrite, a crusader for traditional parenting. The assumptions come thick and fast, but mostly thick: modern parents are 'lazy' and let their children 'run amok' 'because it's hard work enforcing rules'. 'Enough with the the kid gloves,' she declares; 'If someone can't control their child, they should leave them at home with a babysitter.' She extols the virtues of her own parents, who brought her children up to be seen and not heard, and declares that children with disabilities 'have the right to be treated like able-bodied children and that includes being disciplined when they misbehave'. She cites the example of her own daughter, who at the age of eight 'was discreetly giving herself insulin shots out of sight beneath a restaurant tablecloth'.

This last detail is telling, I think. Tess applauds her daughter for coping with her disability, but for masking it. The disabled must not look or act disabled, is the implicit attitude. They are welcome in society on condition that they stay discreet. If they are suffering, if they are isolated or overwhelmed, they should stay home rather than burden the rest of us with it. If this is sympathy, I'd rather go without it.

In the end Tess gets her way, as the privileged always do. When her sharp reproach stuns the boy into a hurt silence, she comments: 'Sometimes a firm, sharp word from a stranger can be far more effective than yet another empty threat from an overwhelmed parent'. Yes, it's easy to bully people into silence, particularly when they lack the verbal skills to stand up for themselves. But it takes a rare degree of boorishness to crow about it in the pages of a national newspaper. For Tess picking on the vulnerable is not merely justified, it is a courageous response to the forces of political correctness. 'No wonder no one dares open their mouth any more,' she says, directly after boasting of doing exactly that to assert her privilege over a disabled boy.

Parents who have put their children through hours of therapy, tried all manner of specialist interventions and cheered every hard-won scrap of progress, are understandably upset when they are branded lazy and irresponsible by adults who can't control their sense of entitlement. I doubt if Tess gave a moment's thought to the effect of her intervention on the family she upbraided, but many parents wouldn't dare to take their children out in public for months after that kind of setback. Tess, presumably, would see this as a triumph for civilised values.


I've never sought to 'control' my children. I'm not even sure I want to know what that means. I want them to grow up to be polite, thoughtful and considerate towards others, all qualities I find wanting in Tess Stimson. They mostly behave well in public these days, as long I keep two steps ahead of any potential setbacks. But even getting to this point has involved years of painful trial and error, and at every step of the way there have been Stimsonites chasing us out of museums, glaring at us in restaurants and humiliating us in the supermarket queue. My successes have been in spite of, not because of, these people's unsolicited advice and hectoring stares. To give up would be to collude in stigmatising my own children.  

11 comments:

Chris Bonnello said...

Excellent article. I applaud you for expressing it so well.

siobhan wall said...

Yes, very well expressed. I am often unhappy about the insensiitvity of people towards anyone who is different in some way. I included details about disability access for all of the venues in my Quiet books - around 1,200 locations . it was a lot of work checking out each entry but thus means that readers will know in advance about whether they can get round in a wheelchair. I recommend the Illunion Hotel in Barcelona. Not only are they fully accessible, They also have a policy of employing people who are differently abled.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I applaud you.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

Tess's parents are no role models - they brought up a Daily Vile columnist! That's something any parent should be ashamed of.

Julie said...

Don't read the Daily Mail, so hadn't heard of this woman and her ramblings.
I have a sone with learning disabilities, an asd and a rare chromosome abnormality.
I'm not going to leave him at home to miss out on things that we as a family do/ Why should i?
Anyway, he's a far nicer parson by the sounds of it than this woman.

Having a wry laugh at the disabled should really stay at home.
My Hubbie has epilepsy.]So does an Uncle (but he's a whole other story)
One evening, Hubbie had a seizure at my mum's house while my Aunt and Uncle were there.
My uncle gibbered on about how he could "smell" the seizure. Like WHat??? Shut it you auld fart i wanted to say.

Next thing, a taxi had been phoned to get us home and the hubbies of my 2 cousins escorted us of the premises .
I kept thinking "this shouldn't be happeniing, getting booted out of my mother's house.

Next day, my Mum phoned and told me she'd been tallking to my aunt. The aunt said that Matthew shouldn't really be going out, getting excited and having a seizure. Best if we stayed at home of an evening.

Oh, these idiots walk amid us and still don't know their bum from their elbow.
Sadly, these kind of attitudes are still strong

Anonymous said...

How difficult is it to take the spoon out of the young lad's hand?

Jennie Gristock said...

How difficult is it to make this request of the parents instead of frightening a disabled boy into terrified submission?

ManicPixieDust said...

Great article. I myself have type 1 diabetes and I can confirm that it is most definitely not a neurological disorder and I cannot understand how she can liken it to something like autism.

Cannot stand these kind of people who seem to think they're some how more privileged than others. She feels a need to comment on another child's behaviour when in fact she is completely unaware of that child's circumstance and possible disability.

Thank you for speaking up against prejudice like this.

CJ said...

Not difficult at all. But maybe the rapping of the spoon was a coping mechanism for a situation he found difficult. Then the "simple" act of taking the spoon away would be cruel. More relevant is to ask how difficult is it to ignore minor inconvenience for the benefit of others who don't have your advantages. If you want to eat in silence best that you be the one to stay home.

CJ said...

Not difficult at all. But maybe the rapping of the spoon was a coping mechanism for a situation he found difficult. Then the "simple" act of taking the spoon away would be cruel. More relevant is to ask how difficult is it to ignore minor inconvenience for the benefit of others who don't have your advantages. If you want to eat in silence best that you be the one to stay home.

Drew Ryder said...

Brilliantly written! I applaud you for having the strength to write this. Bullying of any kind is not to be tolerated. A fully functioning adult bullying a disabled person is bad enough. A fully functioning adult bullying a disabled child is downright disgusting and totally out of order. Trying to justify that behaviour is even worse.