Fight or Flight?

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If you have a vulnerability which has persisted since childhood, then you will know how it feels to be insulted and to not react the way someone who has never experienced vulnerability thinks you ought to react.

A white, able bodied, middle class male will assume that, if they insult and there is no reaction, then the insult was either not an insult or it did not penetrate deeply. The truth is the opposite.

A black boy in the playground at a mostly white school, experiencing the monkey chimpanzee taunt or the girl in a wheelchair left out of the ball game with jeers and insults, is very unlikely to turn round calmly with “I’d really rather you didn’t speak to me like that” or even less likely “how dare you speak to me like that you fucker?”. More likely is that he or she will die inside, their stomach will churn, their face will burn with shame and they will feel overwhelmed by the power of what it must be like to not be vulnerable. They will exit the scene as quickly as possible and with as little said as possible.

Of course, this will mean that the insult will almost certainly happen again until, finally, the recipient will crack. The reaction will still not be calm. It will be furious and violent and the result will be devastating, probably for the person on the receiving end more than anyone else.

When I was young I was taunted every day. I was taunted for being Irish and I was taunted for being visually impaired and for not being able to see the cricket ball that thudded into my face. I was tripped on the stairs, left out of the games and beaten up by older boys. Mostly I said nothing. I just died inside. Once in a while I retaliated. That usually just got me into trouble. The school did nothing to protect me or to help me. I got marked down for bad presentation, told off for moving to sit nearer the chalk board, given detention for not turning up to cricket nets.

When I left a fantastic college with a good degree I applied for 36 jobs and got one interview. In my innocence I just thought it was hard to get into the music business. I took the one job, was given no support, struggled with computer screens I couldn’t see, calculators I couldn’t use and criticism from my line manager on my poor presentation. Eventually I went to France to take the only opportunity I was offered in a recording studio. Bless them.

Throughout that time, I auditioned for dozens of bands but never got the gig. I wondered why. I was often the best guitar player and singer but, over time, it dawned on me they figured a disabled guy would somehow impair the band’s progress. I didn’t shout and swear at them or demand they gave me a chance. I left quietly, burning with shame, humiliation and rage. Hey ho.

Q. Why on earth is Robin going off on a rant of self-pity? Not like him.

A. Because the song remains the same.

When I first tried to raise money for my first business I got nowhere. My accountant Patrick Mckenna, who went on to make a fortune in music, told me that a number of people he’d put me on to see had called him after my meeting “you didn’t tell us he was blind. we couldn’t possiblytake the chance of investing in him. People would rip him off”

As an older, bigger, stronger, wiser person, if I hear that a younger, more vulnerable person is being insulted or marginalised or left out, then all the hurt and shame and impotent rage I experienced as a child will come back as though it was yesterday. The stomach clenching, the burning humiliation. The rage. I will still probably not want to confront the person, because I know I will not be calm … but I will want to protect the young person above everything else, so nowadays I will speak out and to hell with it.

Two years ago I heard as fact that a media company in London had quietly turned away a brilliant young woman who is a wheelchair user on the grounds that they were uber cool and had an uber-cool office and that it just wouldn’t look right. Yep … presumably seriously imagining that a client would walk in the door and go “god, they have a cripple working here, that’s awful. Not cool at all!” so I volunteered to use what influence I have to turn the tables. I became a global ambassador for the great Leonard Cheshire organisation.

Now LC are two years into the establishment of a truly amazing organisation. Change 100 is working to find the most talentnted young people of all. Brilliant, confident, assured, determined, severely disabled. They match them with employers who state clearly “we want to take on people like this”.

It’s staggering that such an organisation still needs to exist but it does. There are still many many people who are not bad people, not even bad meaning people, who genuinely think it’s ok to turn away a disabled person who has applied for a job for which they are clearly eminently capable, on the grounds that their particular disability may not ideally suit the employer’s preference. The employer may not think for a minute about the effect of telling the applicant, or even telling his or her own staff, they can’t have the gig because their disability doesn’t chime with how he or she prefers their business to look or to work.

We invited Change 100 to come talk with us all. They sent a fantastic young woman who went through the history of attitudes to disability from exclusion, slaughter, pity, shame, right up to where we are now. she taught all of us a lot of things we may not have thought about. for example:

  • Less than 3% of disabled people are wheelchair users
  • Disabled people are now officially protected under the Equalities Act from discrimination. Yeehaw!!

Disability includes depression, anxiety, ADHD, epilepsy, chronic asthma, chronic eczema. Anyone reading this who has or has had any of these will have no doubt whatsoever how this could impact on working with an unresponsive employer. Employers need to make “reasonable adjustments ” – and they need to wise up.

Travelling in the rush hour is unpleasant for everyone but absolutely destructively intolerable if you are anxious. So, does she not get the job? Bollocks! You let her work different hours, or work from home, or from a different office near her which doesn’t involve public transport. The same if the person is blind, deaf, epileptic and so on. Access To Work is a government scheme which will provide taxis, special equipment, all sorts of stuff to help the employer as well as the staf member.

… but …

As an employer you need to make the running here please. Understand and think about the boy in the playground. Make it as clear as day that you want everyone to be included in your business, you want all your staff to feel confident they can turn to you and tell you about their disability [which may well have occurred or worsened since they started] and that you will bend double to make sure they are resourced, accommodated, protected, treasured, valued, respected – and that it’s YOU who will adjust and adapt.

This is a soap box I’m on. I’m asking everyone to pass it around. I’m asking everyone to stop and think about how you word an advert. Don’t use words like young, energetic, able to attend the office full time, good timekeeping essential etc. you are breaking the law. Find out about Change 100 or go to their parent company Leonard Cheshire. Please.

One day we won’t need laws about this stuff – but I suspect I’ll be long gone by then.

I promise the next thought piece will make you laugh!

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