A funny thing happened on the way to town the other day. No-one batted an eyelid as I wandered through the packed streets of Brighton, the wee, bijou ones they call the Laines. This may seem a little self-regarding, but I usually have to deal with swathe of subtle and not-so-subtle staring. It’s not, sadly, due to my unfeasibly handsome visage, nor to my burgeoning fame. It’s all about the way that I walk. The looks start at my feet and end at my eyes, as if it is here the answer lies, as if the eyes will explain. As if the eyes will be cold, lifeless, the eyes of the undead. I’ve blogged before about the comments, the insults, the sniggers that I elicit as I shuffle along, an experience accentuated by the Brighton hills, the gradients of which make my shuffling, staggering gait even more pronounced. At least, I seem to hear the word ‘zombie’ mouthed behind me followed by sniggers on a regular basis. Perhaps these models of empathy assume that he who walks as if one of the undead needs must lack functional tympani. Why they do not include blindness too is a mystery to me.
There are two points of interest here (to me, anyway). The first is that it appears that people (not people like you obviously) feel that it’s perfectly ok to insult other people (to whit those different or challenged) in the street, and even to get all indignant when you challenge them about it. Those ‘not like us’ are treated as if they cannot in any way comprehend what is being said of them: they are escapees from the zoo, benign and comical, here for our pleasure alone. The second is that without some sort of indication that the reason for their difference is beyond their control (a stick, for example, or a wheechair; a yellow triangle), the go-to explanation is the one that humiliates the individual the most, the one that most strips away their dignity, their humanity. The default is disrespect, if you like.
Those ‘like us’ are invisible.
The other day, however, the invisibility I occasioned occured as I walked through the laines clutching my rather splendid bespoke electric guitar by the neck. I did this because I lacked a case for the beast, and it was off to london to receive some tlc in preparation for its first stage appearance for (oh my) some fourteen years. It’s my fiftieth, you see, and I reckon that’s as good an excuse as any. To travel to London, of course, it needed protection. So we walked to the guitar shop with it in full view of the world and no-one batted an eyelid. The guitar being fully visible acted as a normalising object, rendering the visible invisible: the object removes the dissonance of occlusion that makes contemplation necessary, the dissonance that demands categorisation. When we arrived at the shop, however, the curious in/visibility of the guitar took on a new dimension.
We walked through the door and I held up this rather beautiful instrument to the shop person, and said ‘I need a case for this’. He looked up for a second, looked back down at whatever comic he was reading and pointed (I made the comic bit up for effect. Though I may still be right). We followed the direction of his finger and there, indeed, were the guitar cases. We ummed, ahhed, ummed again and picked one. We put the guitar in it and approached the counter.
‘This one will do nicely,’ I said, holding up the tag for scanning. The shop person, the very same shop person who had totally ignored this beautiful, unique instrument when it was grasped by the throat (so to speak) in front of him and held up to gain his attention, could not now contain his curiosity. ‘What guitar have you got in the bag?’ he said, as his eyes lit up. ‘You tell me,’ I said, unzipping the bag and removing the instrument within. Built to my specifications some 28 years ago it’s a unique instrument, and over those years its curly maple top and ebony fingerboard have acquired some real character (or dirt, as it’s sometimes called). He made cooing noises as he realised it was rather delectable, and not a marque he knew (obviously). We then packed it up again and wandered off.
What struck me about this exchange, following hard on the heels of a journey in which the fully visible guitar acted as an invisibility cloak, was that people see things differently when they’re hidden, especially when hidden by something that tells you what’s hidden. With occlusion comes obsession. ‘What’s in the bag?’ is a question only really asked when the answer is known.
It’s a little like the difference between the looks I get when walking unaided to those I get when walking with a stick. The stick (which I adopted partially because I needed it, and partially because it was suggested that it would reduce the looks and comments) also served to give some manner of explanation as to my gait: the stick says ‘this person expects to have difficulty walking.’ This renders the individual as remarkably unremarkable. And thus invisible. When walking unaided the reason for the gait is occluded, rendering the individual painfully visible. But the question cannot be asked, and allowing an unexplained visible to wander abroad is unthinkable, so an explanation must be decided upon. And it is this necessity to invent an explanation that is the opportunity for people to indulge in their favourite pastime.
I’ll let you decide what I feel that is.
Parkinson’s is an invisible disability. We parkies suffer all sorts of crap, but to me the worst of them all is the assumptions made, the ‘parky thus useless’ theme. Our true disability is to be found in the attitudes of the ignorant. And that’s why awareness (of the possibility of an invisible condition) is more important than a cure.

2 thoughts on “Indisability

  1. It’s good to hear you’re going to play guitar again, not that it was the point of your piece, but…

    You were one of my tutors at GIT in Wapping back in the day. You probably won’t remember me, but I was the bloke with the ‘JV’ strat with a Kahler, ebony fingerboard and EMGs, very similar to yours. (I still have it by the way, minus the EMGs).

    I can empathise with what you’re saying about Parkinson’s, from one degree of separation, in that my father was a fellow parkie. I would get annoyed on his behalf by the looks and sniggers he sometimes got due to his shufffling gait. He was far from useless though, fiercely independent he would walk to the shops daily (albeit very slowly) eschewing a walking frame in favour of a stick, and care for my disabled mother despite his own disabilities. It was only when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer that he finally relented and agreed to come with my mother to live with us.

    There is no correlation between uselesness and disability. Most of the people I’ve come across in life who one might describe as being ‘a bit useless’ have been completely able bodied, whereas most of the people I know with disabilities have proved their usefulness time and time again in myriad different and surprising ways.

    All the best.

    Jim Goddin

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