Let it pass. I’m here for a quiet drink and the big fella scares the crap out of me.
Here is a true story by George Lamb, written before recent reports that welfare cuts are fuelling hatred of disabled people.
What I have for you is a true story, an incident inspired by a desire to put right wrongs and to stand up for myself. But let me say very clearly that most of the time when confronted by situations that make us feel awkward we make a judgement call. This may lead to outcomes we would never have imagined.
Scene: my local bar, a dingy backwater, catering for poorer drinkers from a large and notorious housing scheme. Time: about 8.30pm. I have had a third of the first pint and am idly keeping track of the football on the big screen. In walk two regulars and a new guy.
All three appear to have been drinking. Two, I know, are regular blokes: mid 30s, like a laugh, tabloid readers. The third is massive, way over 6ft 5 (I am 5ft 5). Wider than a B road, this guy is perfect for those planning a ram raid who can’t be bothered stealing a JCB. His very first action is to point directly at me and make a derogatory remark. Big laughs. They sit down at the next table to me.
Let it pass. I’m here for a quiet drink and the big fella scares the crap out of me. After the three sit down conversation gets back to me. Oh joy! For the benefit of his friends and as a helpful guide to the rest of the bar, the big guy repeatedly points his thumb over his shoulder, directly at me. I move so that at least his thumb will be pointing at open space.
They drink more. I decide to drink less.
So what would you do? Yep I probably should have done that as well. But I was pissed off. No real reason. Ever since I was old enough to understand the spoken word, I also had to get used to people saying unpleasant, cruel, and hurtful things about me. Did I say I have a physical disability? Well, I have and the genes thought it would be nice if it was one others could see, just to keep things nice an easy, like.
By now the big fella has moved his chair so he can start spearing me with his thumb again.Time to act. I go to the bar, buy another beer and find out what I can about the three all stars, including what they drink. I buy the big man a drink and ask the bar staff to take it to him.
Why did I do that? Strange as it may seem, I decided I needed to point out to him that I, the butt of his jokes, was not really enjoying the cabaret. Another foot and a half on my height, several pounds lighter and 10 years younger, combined with years of hard, disciplined training in judo, and I might just have beaten the shite out him.
Buying someone a drink has all manner of psychological advantages, but in this situation the most important one is that it confuses the hell out of the receiver. The drink arrived and he shut up. Instead of the thumb I got strange looks. But he did not come over.
O.K. time to create space. I go to juke box and hey presto he comes over. I love it when a plan comes together! He takes my hand in three of his fingers and shakes it. He means a friendly gesture. He asks:
“Why the drink?”
“You seem as if you think we have met before,” I say to his chest; looking up into his eyes I see I am wasting my time. This guy is way, way, way past being drunk.
What I wanted to say to him was this: my disability is his social construction of who and what I am; the things he finds funny about me are absolutely none of my business, I would just prefer not to hear them. But I have spoken to enough drunks to know a lost cause when I see one.
I had steeled myself to take action. I looked round, the other two were sitting with an empty seat and I thought, “What the hell”. I went over, sat straight down and said all that I outlined above. Took 20 seconds. I stood straight back up and went to my seat where I collapsed with fear and nerves.
The big guy came back from the bar. I swallowed half my pint. He sat down but after only a few seconds got up and went to the loo with the guy I could not see. Then the third guy, perhaps the least offensive certainly the least drunk, came across and he was very, very, angry, accusing me of…wait for it… listening to their conversation! Much worse though, and the thing I knew I was really gonna pay for, was the bigger crime of showing him up in front of all those present: the way people saw him was much more important than my right to have feelings.
At this moment I would have put money on getting a severe beating; the guy had thrown off one bar person trying to get him to sit down. It was “fkng” this “fkng” that and “don’t you ever” kind of stuff. I was looking him in the eye and repeating over again that all he had to do was not let me know he was slagging me off. And then….it was all over. Why, I do not know. Was it my point of view getting in, or the bar manageress coming over with a steely look in her eye.
No idea! He went, apologising for what they said and that I heard it. Hands were shaken and I was left feeling sick with fright. And dismayed.
I hate confrontation. I would not have said a thing if I had worked out the exchange that followed my action. I was dismayed about my motivation. I agonised. I told myself it was the drink, except it wasn’t. I wanted to believe it did some good, ripples in the pond type thing; even if the three amigos never get it there were others there who knew what was going on. Truth is I will never know.
The moral of this tale?
We never know the full extent of our actions. Even if, like me, you survive with no physical damage be prepared for the emotional fall out. The upside is that if we knew all the results of our actions we would live dull, boorish, boring lives. We would choose safety over conviction and dishonesty over being proud of ourselves and confident in our right to be members of every community.
George Lamb is one of the founders of the Disability History Scotland a creative Leith-based organisation formed in 2011 to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of disabled people.