A Lesson in Psychology and Perception

I had an interesting experience on the bus the other day. It’s a common journey for me and one I make often from my local town to the nearest big city as there are more shops and amenities which I can access.

I am a big music lover and a particular fan of HMV. However on the way in on the bus a small child asked of me “why are you sitting down?”

I could tell the child’s mother was embarrassed and wanted the ground to open up. However when you have a disability, open questions like this are pretty run-of-the-mill. Children are known for their curious mind and nature. I believe firmly that education begins not in the classroom but as soon as the child has the ability to comprehend and make sense of particular realities. I think also that there is nothing wrong with this. Asking questions helps ameliorate prejudices and fears in later life. Not being able to walk, I was a very curious child myself. From my vantage point of the wheelchair I saw the micro as well as the macro aspects of the world.

So I simply explained to the little girl that I was sitting down because I was born that way and my legs didn’t work properly. I then explained that the messages of the brain didn’t always translate into the body. Rather the messages from the brain go down to the body but they don’t come back up again. I applauded her courage in asking. I would far rather she asked than ended up with a confused nebulous jellylike mishmash in her mind. She then said to me after I said I can’t walk, well I can.

Good for you I said and she smiled at me.

What I haven’t told you up until now is that her mother chastised her for even asking the question at all. She told it was rude and that some people would like it. This was in spite of me telling her I didn’t have a problem with it.

She looked embarrassed and pulled the child away to the back seat as quickly as possible where she repeated the warning again in louder decibels I would surmise for my benefit.

I am only too happy to answer anyone’s questions. I’m a very placid gentle and easy-going person. This girl was only little. She may never have seen a wheelchair before. So, I made allowances for that and accommodated her curiosity.

I cannot condone the premise that it is right to shut down a curious mind due to your own fears. That little girl ended the bus journey having learned something and probably will be less fearful of those with disabilities as a result.

I have seen babies with their eyes out on stalks because I am sitting down like them, but yet I am much older. Life to them must be a strange contradiction.

But for me the whole thing was down to perception. In case mine was a little wrong I asked the passenger opposite me if he thought the child had done anything wrong. No he said she was just curious.

I answered the questions of the child good-naturedly. What would be the alternative? To leave her pondering not knowing? No the younger she learns about these things the better. I am also in favour of people with disabilities being integrated into mainstream school alongside their non-disabled peers. Education is a formative time in life. The ideal time then  for people with disabilities to be part of the social fabric of society and the children to see this as the norm, not the exception.

I suspect in this case the mother was projecting her own embarrassment at such a question onto the child. Adults and children have different sensibilities, and I guess we know as adults that asking such direct questions is thought to be socially inappropriate. But the thing is children break down these socially constructed maxims in the pursuit of knowledge. We should give them that knowledge.

The saddest thing for me in the whole encounter was that in raising her voice to the child in public the mother felt she was doing her job under the glare of society.

But actually her overcompensation made me feel worse than the actual question. It made me feel really small because if I could hear her at the other end of the lower deck of the bus that I anticipate the rest of the lower deck must have heard also and I find this highly embarrassing.

Publicly I’m not the sort of person who likes to draw attention to myself. If I could I do the sort of person who would sit at the back of the bus either with earphones on or a good book. Sadly the wheelchair space in the middle of the bus renders the possibility of not being ubiquitous a non-starter.

I wish I had an invisibility cloak sometimes! In summary what I’m really trying to say is the child did nothing wrong. My lack of upset or anger should have been a fairly good indicator to the mother that a further high-volume post-mortem was not necessary.

I sometimes wish adults thought more like children. Inquisitiveness is not under be stifled it should be encouraged.

Before having a further shouting match especially after I thought I had diffused the situation her mother should have considered the impact on me rather than what a bus load of people might think of the hardly deviant behaviour of her daughter.

I have never met any person with a disability who has been intolerant of questions from a child. We were all children ourselves once. Plus I would rather a child understands directly from somebody in the situation rather than a discombobulated third-party. Parents should never shy away from the children asking difficult questions. It makes my life happier and more bearable in the long run.

Perception is a funny thing, isn’t it?

Where the child’s mother saw the possibility of offence and rudeness, I saw the possibility of opportunity and education. Lots of people after all make up the world and not every child is identical. In my view the more quickly children find that out the better.

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2 thoughts on “A Lesson in Psychology and Perception

  1. Yeesh! It’s upsetting to imagine that the little girl might get the message that just talking to someone in a wheelchair is taboo. This reminds me of a recent chat with a friend about children’s TV. Apparently parents had written to a show with a presenter who had one short or amputated arm complaining that their children were frightened by the sight of her. My friend said “who taught them to be frightened?!”

  2. I so agree with you. I have been in similar situations myself and it is usually the attitude of the adult that bothers me for more than the questions from the child. If I can help the child to understand why I am in a chair they will better understand when they meet other wheelchair users in the future.

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