Thursday 09 January 2003


Ayako had no sympathy for the disabled.

This morning, when I read in an email from UsableNet that the European Union has designated 2003 as the “Year of the People with Disabilities,” I recalled a conversation we had one evening over dinner. There’d been a story in the Herald about a group of disabled Japanese who were here on a fact-finding tour, with a photograph of a young paraplegic man being carried down the stairs from a Qantas aircraft to a wheelchair on the tarmac.

“Naze kita no kashira. Ano hito.” Ayako asked. I wonder why they came. Those people.

“To check out how we help people with disabilities in Australia,” I replied.

“They shouldn’t be here.” She struggled to suppress her irritation.

“Why not? They just want to see how we do things here. Maybe they’ll get some good ideas to take back to Japan.”

“They’re an embarassment,” she told me. “The government shouldn’t have allowed them to leave Japan.”

I was stunned. I’d spent much of my childhood with an intellectually-handicapped girl named Jennifer who was a year or so older than me. Jennifer had no hair so she always wore a wig or a woolen beanie, she had steel braces on her legs, and her speech was severely limited. Almost every day a dozen or so kids would play in the street and in each other’s yards for hours at a time—running, chasing, hide-and-seek, roller-skating, riding our bikes and billy-carts—and for an hour or so Jennifer’s parents would allow her to join us. Whenever she did, we switched to gentler games so that she could join in. Occasionally a new family would move into our street and the routine was always the same. One of the new arrivals would poke fun at Jennifer and would be very quickly put straight: “She’s just like you and I,” someone would tell them, “only different. When she comes out to play it’s our job to look after her.”

“How would you like to be in a wheelchair?” I asked Ayako.

“I wouldn’t mind,” she replied. “How could I be upset if I’d never known anything different?”

“What about if you’d had an accident? You’d always been able to walk and now you couldn’t. Or if you’d been born crippled, how would it feel to see everyone around you walking and running?”

“You don’t understand!” she said passionately. “People have accidents or they’re born like that because they did something terrible in a past life. They have to spend this life atoning for their sin.”

I knew Ayako saw the world differently—from the start I’d been attracted by her ability to surprise me. And I knew better than to persist.

“Let’s do the dishes,” I suggested, “then we’ll drive down to Bondi and buy an ice-cream.” She loved lemon gelato.

Stuck behind a bus on Bondi Road, Ayako sitting quietly at my side, I remembered Kevin, another handicapped figure from my boyhood. When I was in senior high school, Kevin—who had Downs Syndrome—must have been about twenty. He lived with his mother. His father, who’d been a bus driver, had died suddenly when Kevin was young and, once he was no longer attending his special school—there were no jobs for the handicapped in those days—the guys at the bus depot, his dad’s workmates, did this marvellous thing. Realizing his mum needed a break now and again, they got Kevin a bus conductor’s uniform, with a leather satchel, a ticket holder, and a whistle.

Conductors were only assigned to buses during peak hours or on busy routes; the rest of the time the driver collected the fares. So, a couple of mornings a week, a neighbor would drop Kevin off at the depot after the morning rush. He would board a driver-only bus and spend the day riding back-and-forth, handing out tickets and putting the coins he received into his satchel. At the end of the day, one of the drivers would drop him off at home and he’d proudly show his mother the money he’d earned.

It could never happen now. Everyone would have a nervous breakdown about workers compensation and public-liability insurance, do-gooders would complain that Kevin was being exploited, and the Transport Union would argue that he was doing a conductor out of a job. But back then, we all thought it was marvellous to get on the bus and find Kevin walking up and down the aisle, blowing his whistle when all the passengers had alighted, calling out: “Fares please!” and “Move right down the back of the bus.”

Ayako ate her lemon gelato at the water’s edge, salty foam lapping at her toes. We drove home and went to bed. The first night she came to sleep at my place, many months before, she’d brought a nightlight. “I don’t like to sleep in the dark,” she explained. I didn’t mind. We spent hours making love in its soft glow.

“When I was little,” she said as she lay with her head on my shoulder, “around four or five years old, if I was naughty my mother would lock me in the tansu for an hour.” A tansu is a Japanese chest of drawers or a cabinet with deep drawers at the bottom.

“That’s unbelievable,” I said. “You must have been terrified.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” she replied. “I was lucky in a way. If my older brother was naughty, she would tie him to a maple tree for an hour, even in the middle of winter when the garden was covered in snow.”

I held her tight, speechless once again.

“When I grew older and became too big for the tansu,” Ayako added, “my mother told me that if I was naughty I would come back in my next life as a cripple.”


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Simply tragic, moving writing. Thank you

Posted by john on 10 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Every culture has its fears and particular set of learned responses. It's not easy to learn a new response, and horribly, sometimes it is too easy to overlook why the response is there in the first place.


Posted by David on 10 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This reminds me a lot of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.

It can be tragic how we treat the "ones we love," can't it?

A powerful piece, Jonathon.

Posted by Loren on 10 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This is, indeed, powerful writing, and some of Jonathon's best. But too uncomfortably close to home, and a bit difficult.

It's almost as if I want to pull it into my quotes system, and then bury it so I don't read it again. Jonathon, that's not an insult. If anything, about the best compliment I can give.

Posted by Burningbird on 10 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks for sharing.

"You don't understand!" she said passionately. "People have accidents or they're born like that because they did something terrible in a past life. They have to spend this life atoning for their sin."

I'm blessed to live in the country I live in. My coworkers who have immigrated here have told me so and I believe them. Stories such as this hammer it home.

They've explained to me how unlikely my current station in life would be where they come from.

It's hard to rise out of the circumstances of our upbringings and birth here - and society can be cruel - but - but - it's not deemed impossible or incorrect.

There are those that - seeing you struggle - are willing to take your hand - and not assume you are paying for some past life's sins - or just wash their hands of it.

I just started reading - yesteday in fact - "To Kill a Mockingbird". I love coincidences :)

Posted by Karl on 11 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Then again...

How we treat children and the elderly is a reflection of the society we live in.

Posted by Karl on 11 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Institutionalized abuse masquerading as superstition. Just great. How disappointing to see this persisting. But it's nothing new. Most cultures have some deep-seated traditions that are little more than abuse. Racism, xenophobia and this story are all examples of what coping mechanisms get twisted into over time. Being tolerant of the conditions of others is not the same as just giving up and going overboard with so-called political correctness. Abusing children by reaffirming societal traditions of abuse is doubly heinous.

Posted by Bill Kearney on 5 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

How strange. I came here looking for information on tansu and ended up with enlightenment.

Posted by Beverly on 11 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour