Notes to a stranger: Thank you for smiling at my daughter

Published by The i paper (30h December, 2020)

This is a note to the woman I passed a few weeks ago on the street. But it could also be to the older lady in the shop many years ago, to the affable politician I met for coffee, to the gawky teenage boy with his skateboard in the park. I wanted to say thank you for smiling at my daughter.

It might not have meant much to you. Indeed, you probably do not even recall the moment as our paths crossed. And my daughter would not have seen your smile, since she is blind. She also uses a wheelchair. She is smaller than most people, has learning disabilities and suffers from profound epilepsy that results in horrible near-daily seizures. 

She loves being outside, feeling the wind on her face. Sometimes a goofy smile will spread across her face the second we leave the house. Other times she bounces with enthusiasm in her chair. When we return, you can sense her disappointment and desire to be back in the park or pounding the pavements.

But while she is happy to be out and about, enjoying the breeze and the bustle, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the looks of pity on some people’s faces, the stares, even the odd flicker of fear over how to react. Perhaps I would have shared such fumbling embarrassment if I was not her father. But this does not dull the pain.

For the averted eyes and uneasy looks are a routine reminder of how people with learning disabilities are excluded from so much of mainstream society. This lack of daily mixing and normal social interactions – in homes, in schools, in workplaces – has profound consequences – it ends up ‘othering’ them. 

Sometimes this leads only to that fleeting look of panic as we pass on a pavement. But it also fosters alienation, fear rather than friendship. It leads to important voices ignored in all those passionate debates on diversity. And at its worst it sparks the corrosive, dehumanising attitudes that lie behind brutal abuse, broken families, dire housing, inadequate care and disturbing death rates in the national health system. 

This explains the dearth of  concern for people with learning disabilities and their families seen this year in a pandemic despite high fatalities. The ease with which medics impose blanket “do not resuscitate” notices on healthy people. The lack of outrage or political action over grotesque detention of innocent people in secure mental health hellholes due to those appalling deficiencies in care. 

So that is why I want to say thank you to that woman I passed briefly on the street. That simple smile was a mark of respect for a fellow human being and a sign of shared humanity. My daughter may not have seen it. But I did, and it meant a lot.

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