I was visiting my folks on the weekend. I was in Adelaide playing golf and catching up with friends, attending a party and relaxing on the beach drinking good coffee. All was good in the world. My kids played in the sand, cracked jokes and generally charmed everyone in sight. It was just splendid really. Adelaide is my idea of urban Utopia. I took my mother to lunch and shopping at one of the major shopping centres of Adelaide. In one short moment this urban Utopia was shattered, I suddenly found myself in the slums of Mumbaih.
I understand that disability rights in India have improved immensely in recent years. However, I vividly recall seeing a documentary about disability in Asian countries. There was a scene of a young disabled child. The child walked only on his hands dragging his useless legs behind him. He walked on his hands through the slums of Mumbaih. He had a dirty tin cup. He would brandish this at passers by hoping for a hand out. He was dirty and unkempt. It was harrowing to watch.
So here I was in urban Utopia. I was walking through a modern shopping complex. Last week Australians received $900 each as part of the Australian Governments strategy to kick start the economy. The stimulus package they call it. People were out in force spending their $900. I marvelled at the happy faces. In the distance I saw an old friend. He is Deafblind. Years ago I taught him English. He is an intelligent man and he even studied overseas.
As I moved closer I saw that he was sitting down on a beach chair. His white cane was in front of him. In his hand he held a tin cup by the handle. Emblazoned on the cup was the name of one of the major sensory charities in South Australia. My friend cannot see a lot. Neither can he speak. Sign language is his preferred mode of communication, either very close up or tactile. He could sense people walking by him but not really see them.
He was not able to really explain why he was there. So he moved his head from side to side as he sensed people walking by. As he moved his head he waved the cup in a wide ark in front of him. His face was a picture of panic. Not knowing who was around him, just hoping that his movements would attract enough attention for a hand out.
I stopped in my tracks. No more than a few metres from him I knew that he could not see me. I just stared. I was totally transfixed and horrified. This proud and intelligent man had been reduced to a beggar for a charity. His dignity totally shattered. Visions of the disabled boy from Mumbaih and his tin cup flashed in my head. What had they done to this proud human being? In my eyes they had destroyed the last shreds of his dignity.
I beat a hasty retreat. I could not face him. I could not talk to him or say hello even though I had not seen him for several years. I found my mum and my kids enjoying lunch in the food hall. I excused myself on the pretext that I needed to get something for my friend’s birthday. I headed straight outside and sat down on a bench. I was not yet angry just shocked. The anger came much later. As I write this, the vision of my friend waving that cup and moving his head frantically from side to side is still vivid and shocking.
At first I tried to make excuses for the charity. Do not ask me why. Perhaps sub-consciously I did not want to believe that what I had just witnessed was actually happening here in a wealthy country like Australia. I said to myself, “The Government doesn’t fund them enough” – I reasoned that if the Government funded them enough the charity would not be reduced to this sort of begging. I reasoned that my friend, an intelligent man, knew exactly what he was doing, and therefore this made it ok. I reasoned that my friend was paid for the charity work that he did. Not much, but it was a supplement to his pension.
In the end I could only find anger. Anger – that people like my friend could be exploited in this fashion. Anger – that he, through lack of opportunities and through lack of support from successive Governments, had been reduced to a street beggar for a charity. Anger – that this proud and intelligent human being was being viewed as an object of pity by the passing public.Anger -that if I never saw my friend again this would be my last vision of him.
I really wish that I had gone over to say hello. Perhaps by saying hello I could have reassured him that all was ok. Perhaps he would have smiled and felt less isolated and alone. Perhaps by communicating with him the public would have seen that there was more to the man than just a beggar on the street. I did not and I will forever regret that.
This sort of fundraising strategy goes on all over the world. Not just in Australia. People with disabilities protest that they do not want to be promoted as objects of pity. They plead that they be promoted as human beings with hopes and aspirations. They want to be promoted as people who contribute to and enrich society. Very rarely are they listened to. The mighty dollar speaks loud. Human dignity is but a small price to pay.
Oh! – I know that charities need money. I know that they are underfunded by the Government. I know that many provide excellent services and have dedicated staff and require money to sustain this.BUT – Why must we tackle these problems by destroying human dignity? Why must we raise the spectre of suffering, wretched lives and pity just to get a dollar? There has to be a better way.
Years ago I and deaf staff where I worked protested about a poster that was used to raise money through a Radio-thon. All day the radio made announcements imploring the public to donate. The messages were overwhelmingly negative. Poor deaf people living wretched lives, suffering, isolated and lonely. A poster was produced showing finger spelling for HOW TO SAY I LOVE YOU – At the bottom of the poster was the picture of two hands opening a wallet. Say you love me by giving me money. We protested vehemently and were told by the boss that we needed to get over it. We were told that we had a “Holier Than Thou” attitude to fundraising. In short we were dismissed and ignored.
I am not angry now. I am just sad, that in a rich country like Australia, that my friend, an intelligent and dignified person, had been reduced to a beggar for a pittance. I feel shame for Australia and shame for the charity that allowed my friend to be reduced to this sorry state. Thank you for reading and listening – I know that at least some people care.