Robert Walsh

Freelance writer from Cornwall

Disability and Society


The more ancient the abuse, the more sacred it is. – Voltaire

In his classic dystopia 1984, George Orwell referred to a group known as ‘Unpeople’, people who ‘Don’t exist, and never existed.’ They were members of ‘The Party’ ruling Orwell’s fictional society, controlling every facet of the lives of what they called ‘the proles,’ the ordinary citizens. Until, that is, they deviated from Party-defined, universally accepted ‘normal’ modes of life. They had committed ‘The crime that essentially contains all other crimes within itself’, the ultimate sin in the eyes of The Party.

They were guilty of ‘thought crime.’

Like Oceania our modern society inflicts this silent misery on an entire section of its members, those with mental illnesses and learning disabilities such as Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s always been that way. Without a significant shift in our society, attitudes and culture, it possibly always will be.

Of course, polite society doesn’t refer to us as ‘Unpeople.’ That would be dismissive and politically incorrect. Polite society refers to us as ‘service users/clients/patients/insert latest patronising politically-correct buzzword here’ and so on. Impolite society has a fair few names for us too. ‘Psycho’, ‘loon’, ‘nutter’, ‘freak’ and suchlike have long been part of the English language. Attitudes displayed by many people these days are reminiscent of the way abuse and discrimination on racial, religious, ethnic, sexuality and gender grounds were once openly accepted, with bitter irony, as ‘normal’ behaviour. Those opposing this kind of behaviour were met with attitudes of ‘What’s the problem..?’ People thought nothing of referring to those they deemed ‘different’ in offensive terms, genuinely not understanding that they’d caused offence, how they’d done so or why.

If you’re mentally ill or developmentally different, many still do

Eventually and quite rightly overt discrimination was outlawed. It still exists (nobody with an ounce of life experience could credibly say it doesn’t). But if you’re mentally ill, the most outright abuse and discrimination seems rampant and tolerated pretty much as it always has been. It used to be (for some over a certain age, anyway) an attitude of ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. Today, while those attitudes still remain in some quarters (the demonization of Muslims, for example), they are slowly being suppressed. That’s a good thing. Maybe (probably long after my lifetime) the mentally ill will have the same degree of acceptance. In terms of acceptance today the mentally ill and developmentally different are the runts of the demographic litter..

It’s OK to point, laugh, mock, insult, degrade, abuse and deny us the chance (never mind accept our basic right) to lead our lives as best we can. We’re that weirdo on the bus that nobody wants to sit next to. The hobo wandering the streets in dirty clothes, scruffy and unkempt, carrying a bottle of white cider and randomly muttering to ourselves about nothing in particular. We’re the people who meander about with kitchen knives up our sleeves wondering who we’ll carve to pieces when we feel the urge, because everybody knows we all do and always will sooner or later. We’re the ones who lie in padded cells 24/7 wearing straitjackets or restraint belts, doped to the eyeballs in case we suddenly start claiming to be Napoleon, God, Elvis Presley or possibly all three.

And, just in case you were wondering, I have both bipolar disorder and Asperger’s a psych patient, so don’t assume I’m that kind of bigot myself. This isn’t some random diatribe and I didn’t forget my pills this morning. I accept myself. Many supposedly ‘normal’ people, even many who like to think they’re more enlightened than most, don’t accept us for who we really are. This has to stop.

So thank Heavens for small mercies. In short, I’m unwell and I don’t appreciate being written off, patronised and treated like a second class citizen because I have certain additional challenges. Although I do appreciate being avoided by the terminally ignorant. If they’re too ignorant to give me a fair chance at life, they’re too ignorant to be wasting my time.

Still reading? Great. It’s nice to be heard. Always going unheard does us immense damage. It’s a vicious circle. We’re often abused, taken advantage of and excluded, so we withdraw. As we withdraw from ‘normal’ existence, we can lose sight entirely of what ‘normal’ means, making us even more ‘different’, attracting more hostility and making us withdraw further. Eventually some of us snap and are locked away or (mercifully rarely) commit some serious offence, sometimes very violently.

Then, society being no longer able to ignore us, obligingly tars us all with the same brush. In the media, entertainment and popular culture we’re all the kitchen-knife-concealing ‘Jack The Ripper’ types so beloved of the tabloids. Then (and seldom at any other time) ‘normal’ society finally acknowledges our existence. We don’t really exist (many would rather we didn’t, probably) until one of us does something dreadful. Then we’re all to blame. Still it sells more tabloids if they mix a little blood with the ink.

Now then, having vented my spleen for a little while, this isn’t to say that every ‘normal’ person’s attitude ranges only from ignorant to vile. A great many people do what they can to help us with what little is available. Family and friends (those who haven’t already jumped ship) can be invaluable, but they also have their own lives and their help can only extend so far.

It’s the same with mental health professionals. It isn’t their fault the system desperately needs a major overhaul and vastly increased resources. They have to use their available resources which are so inadequate it’s like putting a corn plaster on a gunshot wound. Mental health services are often last in line for resources and financing. They get the crumbs after the rest of British healthcare has taken the cake. They’re also usually first in line for cuts. It’s usually the system itself that is at fault, not those trying to make it work.

Of course, we loons occasionally have out day in the spotlight (often after one of us commits suicide and/or violence) but even then the media spotlight doesn’t usually shine on the problems of mental health provision, or on the fact that the system could (and should) be far better than it is. Once the latest tragedy is over, most hacks are back to gin-slinging while swapping their latest tall tales for public consumption.

That isn’t to say that we’re all special little snowflakes deserving of an exemption from society’s rules or that none of us are potentially dangerous or regularly challenging to live and work with. Some of us, very few, are. We’re not imbeciles endlessly reciting the soothing mantra ‘Wibble, boing, oblongs’ whenever the wind changes direction, either. We’re often as bright as any ‘normal’ person and some of us are brighter. Unsettling thought, that. It’s just that, like patients with any other chronic illness, we need specialist care and support and that little bit of extra help and consideration sometimes.

Nobody asks to be ill or born different. Nobody enjoys the exclusion, the isolation, the alienation and the abuse. We’re not adopting airs and graces or demanding more than we need. We simply want to be treated fairly. It’s not that we’re better than the rest of you. We’re certainly not any worse. We’re just different and mainstream society refuses to accept that. Or us.

It’s Time To Change OK?


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This entry was posted on July 29, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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