It was a normal Wednesday and I was travelling home on the train after my Final Theory Test for driving. It seemed to be a normal commute. Beside me were two young Indian kids with their exasperated mother. The squeals and laughter from the children was what I first noticed, because they betrayed no trace of sadness whatsoever. Some people find this annoying but really, how can you? It’s pure, unadulterated happiness.
At this moment I realised something was not quite right. Directly opposite me sat a mother and son. She was probably in her late fifties while he looked to be in his twenties. Though I couldn’t be so sure because it became immediately apparent that he was mentally challenged. I don’t mean this in a degrading way or as a hyperbole, for he was obviously mentally impaired. He clapped his hands every few seconds and slapped his arms and jabbed at his abdomen. To add to this he made grunting and whining sounds at irregular intervals. His mother sat beside him with a look of annoyance on her face, as if his mannerisms were a fly that flew and landed on her every now and then. She did nothing to intervene or correct his strange mannerisms. From once glance you could tell — she was used to this.
An uncomfortable air hung over everyone. His grunts were audible even into the ends of the carriage, where people craned their necks to have a better look. The people that were in his immediate surroundings had to be more discreet. The two Malay women beside him attempted to maintain their less-than-excited conversation while stealing occasional glances at him. The Indian man opposite stared straight ahead while blasting a familiar tune through his earphones. From his tense body language, you could tell he was affected by the presence of this mentally challenged man.
I, too, couldn’t help but feel the tension and contribute to it. I kept looking at my phone as if it would make this situation any more normal, and tried my best not to stare but I couldn’t quite help it. Half of me was curious, but the other half was definitely forming unnecessary preconceptions and judgements. That was when the idea to write about this came to me, I needed to understand, what made us as a body of people behave this way towards those with disabilities?
I watched a play called Fat Pig late last year. It was about a handsome young man who dates an obese woman and eventually breaks up with her for fear of society’s condemnation. A quote from the play really stuck with me. It went something like this; that we fear the back flip gone wrong, or that one extra Oreo we shouldn’t have eaten. As you can already guess, both actions have supposedly undesirable outcomes, be it permanent spinal damage or obesity. In other words, humans are scared of being a deviant from the norm. It seems to me that this is a vicious cycle. We are scared of becoming like these unfortunate people, and therefore condemn their existence, for it is a reminder of what we could become. Yet the more we condemn this the more we are afraid that we, too will be condemned as well if we fall into this category. To put it simply, fear breeds condemnation and condemnation leads to fear. Our justification for their alienation stems from fear itself, the reminder that the stability in our lives could be so easily compromised and our lives plunged into abject misery.
Not to fret, for there are positive reactions to disabilities and abnormalities. You just have to look to your bookshelves and self help sections of your local bookstores. You’ll see various examples of victims of horrific accidents or physical disabilities speaking up about the strength they have gained through their problems. Nick Vujicic, and some victims of acid attacks are among those who have had the courage to speak up about their experiences and are celebrated worldwide. You also see a lot of physically disabled and socially out casted contestants on talent shows win the hearts of millions with an incredible voice or quirky talent.
These are all positive examples but to be brutally honest they are largely for the bookshelves and TV screens. For in reality most of those with disabilities, especially mental impairment, do not have the capacity or motivation to speak up about their problems, much less inspire those around them. I saw this very clearly on the train. The man had no way of communicating and was reduced to grunts and awkward hand gestures. His mother must have struggled for years to bring this child up into this world, only to find it to be so, so cruel. The people around did not give her any encouraging gestures or hearty smiles, but awkwardly tried their best to dissociate themselves from her son. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we as a society have failed, but we have certainly let fear and resentment cloud our empathy and understanding towards each other. That was as much as I could conclude.
I don’t want to offer a clear-cut solution to this because I feel like this tendency to alienate outcasts is too deep within our psyches to root out. There is no simple solution. In a place like Singapore it’s all the harder to change. From young it is drummed into us to follow one solid path and be useful in society. Alternative lifestyles and career choices are not encouraged or even shunned. We see the government turn a blind eye to gay right activists, while the arts scene in Singapore is criticized for being largely contrived. These may be cliche examples but I hope to bring across the point that playing it safe and staying within the norm is a very central part of the Singaporean identity. Our time in this world has taught us that yes, this is the way to live so you better stick to your script! and so acceptance of abnormalities will not be something we can get used to anytime soon.
It is interesting to note that the only two people not affected by this man were the two Indian children playing directly opposite him. They laughed and clawed at each other while the man made strange gestures and sounds the whole time; but not once did they find this odd. They carried on and treated the man as one of us. What makes children so indifferent to such abnormalities? Was there a time when we were unassuming and all accepting as well? This was a good question I asked myself. We think we’re growing as we find our way through this world but what seems to be really happening is a narrowing of our minds. We open ourselves to less possibilities and variations that our experiences have taught us to beware of.
In the final analysis, we could perhaps take a pointer or two from these children: to be more open and view everything on a clean slate, and more importantly, to be kind to one another even when no one else is.