Dealing with prejudices
by Peter Tan. Posted on October 26, 2013, Saturday
“YOU cannot walk?” a woman with a wide brim hat asked in Mandarin. She was seated on a bench not far away from me.
I shook my head while forcing a smile.
“What happened to you?”
I told her about the accident with a smattering of Mandarin. How I wished I had paid more attention during Chinese classes in primary school.
“How long ago was that?”
I was beginning to be piqued by the continuous probing. I was out with friends to experience the sea breeze by the promenade and was not expecting to play 20 questions with a tourist from Taiwan. That was where she told me she was from. Not wanting to appear rude, I pandered to her nosiness with short replies and hoped that she would stop.
“It is such a pity. You are so young. So nice of them to take you out for a walk.”
I could not find a response to that. A wave of sadness fell upon me when I heard those words. Was I really trapped in a hopeless situation? Was I lucky to have nice friends who took me out occasionally? Would I amount to anything in the condition I was in? She might not have meant to be offensive but what she said affected me to the core.
That incident happened 20 years ago. Times have not changed much since then. Strangers still ask me the same questions and make similar comments. “Pity” and “less fortunate” are words that are often associated with my impairments. I am considered helpless, unable to fend for myself and in need of charity.
Nowadays, the curious ones who get acquainted with me for the first time are surprised to know that I am married. Their muted expressions of disbelief reveal their prejudices. Yes, disabled persons have feelings and can fall in love too, but that is disregarded and they choose to focus on my impairments instead.
“You are so lucky. She is so nice to marry you and look after you,” they would say.
I have learnt to not take those words to heart now. Society at large still has very little understanding of disabled persons. These are situations my disabled friends and I experience every now and then.
The general impression is that impairments are impediments to fulfilling relationships. Why would a non-disabled person want to ‘sacrifice’ her life to be with someone who cannot walk? In reality, this kind of thinking is a reflection of how these people view their own self-worth. Should they be afflicted with an impairment in the future, this is the prejudiced treatment they would accept unquestioningly.
It does not help that some disabled persons’ organisations knowingly or unknowingly use sympathy to garner donations. The manipulation of emotions using images of disabled persons in wretched poses is very effective in tugging at the heartstrings to loosen the purse strings.
This further entrenches that perception of helplessness and the need for charity, not only in society but in the minds of disabled persons as well. Such techniques to raise funds must stop. They are inflicting untold damage on the dignity of the entire community.
Imagine the effects when such negativity is allowed to grow over time in the minds of disabled persons. Without guidance to manage such perceptions, a sense of worthlessness would certainly fester. It would eventually become a barrier to our psychological well-being and affect our relationships with the people around us.
There are ways to deal with the emotional aspects of these situations though. One of them is through peer counselling. This practice is employed in Independent Living programmes to reaffirm the status of disabled persons as members of society with equal standing.
The three goals of peer counselling are recovery of self-worth, rebuilding relationships and social reformation. Peer counselling is always conducted by qualified disabled counsellors as they are able to empathise with the challenges faced by another disabled person who is known as the client in this context.
The goal towards recovery of self-worth allows clients to be acutely aware of their own feelings and abilities in order for them to regain confidence. Counsellors provide space and confidentiality for clients to draw out their innermost feelings and express them freely as a way of discharging suppressed and oppressed emotions. Clients are then encouraged to identify past distresses, find solutions to overcome them, set goals to achieve Independent Living and move on.
No man is an island. Peer counselling recognises this. It encourages the rebuilding of supportive relationships, firstly with the counsellors, and then with family and friends as another move in the renewal of the self-image. This goal is crucial in ensuring that clients become socially functional and are able to forge meaningful relationships with disabled and non-disabled persons without reservations.
In social reformation, clients set goals to work with the communities that they live in to break attitudinal and environmental barriers. Peer counselling is utilised by clients to discover the ways this can be achieved. Living among the people and interacting with them on a regular basis becomes a powerful tool to demonstrate that life is more meaningful when lived with mutual support, acceptance and understanding.
Disabled persons who are confident of their own self-worth will not be affected by the negative impressions other people have of them. They have learnt to shrug off the emotional baggage caused by the imposition of societal norms on people who are ‘different’. I have achieved the first two goals of peer counselling. The third is still a work in progress.
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