I have been having a bit of a crisis of conscience over the weekend.
I was born in Edgware General Hospital(remember that) in 1962. At Easter 1967 I started school at St Vincents Catholic School on the Ridgway. Being (undiagnosed) dyslexic, my schooling was difficult. At age 11 I started at Finchley Catholic High School in September 1974.
It is fair to say that I didn't enjoy much of my time at school. I had several disadvantages. Firstly I'm born in late August so I was the youngest in the year. Secondly my mum had me six weeks premature, so biologically I was really an October baby. For many kids born in August, there is always the issue that you are a year younger than your oldest classmates. Chuck a bit of dyslexia in, especially during the 1960's when the official term for the syndrome was "thicko" and you have all the makings of a really unhappy time.
Now luckily for me, I managed to adapt and turn my education around. I am also 6'1' so by the time I hit puberty, I'd caught up and overtaken many of my previously bigger peers. Having said that the experience taught me a lot about human nature. When you are 11 and you have a reading age of five, you are not made to feel great about yourself. Many of the teachers at my primary school used to think that this stupidity was elective and so rather than support me, they simply berated me. It was the same with maths. I've never been able to do my "times tables". I just couldn't learn by rote. We used to get tested on these and every week I'd fail. Strangely enough I am not bad at the subject. I got an O Level and an A Level in Maths. I was just bad at memorising random bits of information. Things take a while to sink in. Same with names.
When I was nine years old, I became aware that not everyone had even my limited gifts and skills. Let me explain. When I was a kid, my annual holiday was a week away with my Dad to the Roman Catholic pilgrimage site of Lourdes in France. Every day involved attending masses and processions. Now you may not think this was much fun for a nine year old, but in actual fact it was great. My Dad was a big gruff Aussie, and once he'd done his praying for the day, we'd go to bars & cafe's. I'd get all the fizzy drinks I could drink, all the waffles, cakes and crisps I could eat and we'd always end up with some group or the other from some strange place on the planets, who my Dad would strike up a rapport with, As he was Ex RAF and widely travelled, he'd always entertaion various groups with tales of bombing Germans. When he met Germans, he'd always end up talking to ex aircrew and comparing stories.
Anyway I digress. One year our group was joined by a Downs syndrome chap called Stephen and his brother, who I can't remember. Stephen was 27 and in a wheelchair. My Dad informed me (in his usual gruff, non PC way) that Stephen was backwards and had the mind of a five year old. For me this was good, as it meant I had someone who was technically around my age to talk to. Even better news was the fact that Stephen was obsessed with football. He collected football cards. He was also a Newcastle United fan, so there was no obvious clash of teams. I soon became very jealous of Stephen, as his folks took him to watch every Newcastle home game and he got a seat at the front of the ground. He had numerous signed items of memorabilia. Our group would tour the bars of Lourdes and we had a grand old time. At the time I didn't really get the concept of a "mental age of five". As I had a reading age of five, I sort of figured we were peers.
I asked Stephen if he went to school. He told me rather indignantly that he was "grown up". He had a job and he earned proper money. His folks, hearing the conversation and clearly worried I may inadvertently say something which would upset Stephen, butted in and said "Oh, Stephens the richest of the lot of us. He's a celebrity in Newcastle, as he knows all the players in the team". So now I was completely confused. Realising that I couldn't carry the conversation on with Stephen, I waited until we got back to the Hotel. I had a conversation with my Dad which went like this.
Me : "Dad, something I don't understand, if Stephen has a mental age of five, how come he doesn't have to go to school?"
Dad : "He's 27, you stop going to school when you are 18".
Me : "But he'll never grow up properly if he doesn't get taught?"
Dad : "No, boys like Stephen grow up, but their brain is only able to do stuff a five year old can do"
Me : "But Stephen has a job and earns more money than his parents".
Dad : "That's a figure of speech. They have special jobs for people like Stephen, so he can do his bit and feel proud of himself, People like Stephen aren't lazy or worthless, they are just different"
Me : "So why do people say he's got a mental age of fivc if he's got a job and he can do stuff?"
Dad : "Well, we use these sorts of labels so we know how to help him. It doesn't mean he thinks like a five year old. It doesn't mean he's broken in any way, it just means we know he might need some help"
So anyway, I then decided that when we say someone has a mental age of X or a reading age of Y, all it really meant was we need some help. Maybe a bit more help, but that is all. We are not worth any more just because our "mental age number" is higher. So hold that thought. People with a lower "mental age" just need some help. They are not "Broken"
So anyway, fast forward a year. Same hotel, same group of people. I was really looking forward to seeing my friend Stephen again. We turned up, but Stephen was not their. I was really upset. Where was he. Later that evening, my Dad took me to one side and said "Roger, don't talk about Stephen. He died a couple of months ago and his family are very upset. They'd already booked the holiday and it would be better if you didn't keep reminding them of him. Don't mention him again". For some reason, I'd not actually realised that he'd died. No one had thought to say, so they'd just said "He's not here".
A couple of days later, his mum took me to one side. She told me Stephen had really been looking forward to seeing me and talking about football. Having been told by my Dad not to discuss him, I was now in a quandry. I said "I was really looking forward to seeing him. I brought some football cards for him". At this, his mother burst into tears. I expected to get an almighty clobbering from my Dad, for upsetting her, after he'd told me to say nothing. When we got back to the hotel, I said "Are you cross?" He said "Why should I be". I then said "I upset Stephens mum..." He replied "No, she wanted to talk about him. It helps women sometimes to have a good cry". I was now even more confused.
Our little group had our own chaplain. At one of the masses, he said a few words about Stephen. He said something along the lines that when you get to the Pearly Gates, there is a massive long queue. People like Stephen, who have had a very hard life, are ushered to the front as a reward for putting up with a difficult life. He then said that those of us who care for people like Stephen and were his friends will also get to jump the long queue and Stepehen is up there waiting to see us all and get us to the front. He said that was one reason we should all be happy we had Stephen in our life and were his friends.
Over the Easter holiday, I got to thinking about these events. Probably for the first time in 40 odd years. The events at Mapledown School, where the Council has cut the funding for after school clubs and family respite activities by £45,000, whilst still finding millions to do up Tory wards (see earlier blog) have disturbed me. As I consider the life of Stephen, the superstar, who knew the 1970 Newcastle team and was richer than the rest of his family, I considered how the Coalition had closed Remploy factories, presumably the type of place Stephen worked? Wheras back in the late 1960's we had the decency to see that Stephen needed to be valued, now we have the spectacle of Tory Councillor Tom Davey, spitting bile at the disabled and benefits claiments. Lets face it, if Stephen was in Barnet today, there is no Remploy to give him dignity. To Mr Davey, he'd be just another scrounger on benefits.
As I consider the government we collectively elected and the changes they've made and the council we collectively elected, the type of people they have in power and the policies they are enacting on people like Stephen, I conclude that I have got it all wrong. The only people who are broken is us. We are the sick bastards who tolerate politicians who stick the boot into the likes of Stephen and all of the other disabled people and people who for whatever reason cannot get a job.
The Government claim that "keeping open Remploy factories is not economically viable". Well lets take this argument to its logical extreme, Have we reached the point where only those who are economically viable have a role to play in society? Are only the economically viable going to receive medical treatment? Is this a society in which you want to live?
My youth taught me that it is horrible to be mocked, excluded and treated differently. Life experience has taught me that people like Stephen can enrich your life. They can only do this if they have a chance.