Back in the early 1990’s disability awareness training was the in thing. The trick was to make participants feel like they were disabled. Trainers carried with them an assortment of tools. Blindfolds, earplugs and goggles that stimulated a variety of vision loss conditions. Participants of the training were required to negotiate their way around buildings in a wheelchair, with the goggles or in a blindfold. They put in earplugs and then covered their ears with earmuffs and carried out conversations with each other. They then debriefed.
Responses were fascinating. Some participants would be moved to tears. “Sob Sob… Sniff sniff .. I had no idea that not being able to see was so hard…. Sob Sob” Others would exclaim, ” …It’s so inspiring that people can get around in a wheelchair through these little gaps, they are so cleeeeeevvver..” If you were a disabled person helping with the training you would get any number of compliments ..”.. its amazing what you can do.” …” … it must be sooooo hard to lipread like that all day!!!”
I was reminded of this training after watching Dancing With the Stars last night. There is a blind man dancing. Granted its very hard for him to dance given dance requires the person have good spatial awareness and be able to see how they move. I have no idea when the man, Gerrard, lost his sight. At a guess I would say it was fairly early in his life given his lack of awareness of his posture. He danced very badly yet the audience rose as one to applaud him. His attempts at a Michael Jackson move were, quite frankly, comical and gruesome to watch. Yet still the audience rose as one. He did dance, a solo, which took some guts but at the end of the day, as judge Todd said, he couldn’t dance. Good on Todd for having the sense to not patronise him and just say it as it is. Of course the judgement could not pass without the customary “INSPIRING” comments but bottom line … Gerrard cant dance although he is an excellent mountain climber, having climbed Everest. Gerrard, to his credit, acknowledges that he cant really dance and makes fun of himself. In reality I bet he inwardly cringes at some of the comments and the over-reaction of the audience.
More people should be like the legendary Andrew Denton. Denton knows how to present disability issues. He does it in a forthright way and is unafraid to see the funny side of disability. Denton was responsible for the fabulous Money for the Gun and one of its shows was called Year of the Patronising Bastard. I vividly recall being in hysterics with one skit that took the mickey out of the type of disability training that I described in the opening paragraph. In the skit there are three participants. The participants are wearing blindfolds, they have earmuffs, white canes and their mouths are taped. Denton accosts the participants as they are attempting to negotiate the stairs. The three are stumbling along banging into each other. He asks them questions .. whats it like to be blind? .. Of course they can’t hear him … they mutter through the tape over their mouths bang into each other a few more times and continue on their way . Denton is left bemused with his microphone as they continue to negotiate the stairs totally unaware of his presence. In this one skit Denton hit the nail on the head, namely that such disability awareness training is less useful than it is patronising.
In the same show Denton interviews a man who had little more than a head and a body. Denton interviewed the man about his interests and hobbies and things that made his life worthwhile. The man spoke of his love of bike riding. Apparently he loved to ride. His friends would place him in a backpack, head showing, and ride with him on their back. The man told an hilarious tale of shocked motorists seeing this head sticking out of the back of a cyclist backpack and swerving in shock. It was a fabulous way to portray people with a disability and reminded us that disability is a life to be lived and not a tragic and lesser way of living.
Gerrard survived the cut last night. This is despite clearly being the worst dancer there. He is a great bloke with a dry wit but if we are honest he is surviving solely on the sympathy vote. Sure it takes some skill to catch his partner as she spins and jumps and speaks volumes for his skill of judging space and his tactile awareness. It also speaks volumes for his partner who puts so much trust in him to catch her. But truth be known Gerrard cant dance, he is like a board and just does the steps by rote. Yes that’s partly cos he is blind but by giving him the sympathy vote we are arguably putting the disability movement back ten years. Thankfully Gerrard is a realist and helps us a long with his sense of humour. Says Gerrard, “.. If I start smelling popcorn I will know I am in the audience.” And that is how I like it. I only wish others around him would be a little more realsitic about his dancing ability because Gerrard seems to be the only one who can see the funny side of things.