At Shape's Headlining Disability debate on media representation of disability, Will Self, in conversation with Mike Shamash, posed the question of what it would be like to live in a world where disability didn't attract prejudice or stigma.
In response writer John O'Donoghue imagines such a parallel universe...
“It’s bad news, Mr Smith. I’m afraid you’re normal. Completely normal, in fact.”
John looked into Dr Shamash’s sorrowful eyes. It was as if an avalanche of ice had fallen on him. Normal? Johnny Smith?! But how could that be?
“Are you sure, doctor? I’ve always thought I was different – you know, special, in fact, like you.”
This was the part Dr Shamash found the most difficult, the most distasteful. The way sufferers tried to personalise the condition, to compare themselves with those who weren’t normal. It was always awkward at best, painful at worst.
“I’m afraid all the tests confirm the diagnosis, Mr Smith. Psychological, biometric, cultural. You are normal. You’re not like me, nor ever will be. Now this does not mean you can’t go on to lead a full life.”
He hesitated before saying, “Given the severity of your impairment,” but thought that some tact was required. The boy needed hope, after all.
“You’re – what? – 18? The prognosis is not all bad. You’ll probably do OK in your A levels. Take a gap year abroad, somewhere people like you always go. Thailand, or Peru or perhaps Camp America. Somewhere like that. You’ll get into university and do one of those degrees designed to help you deal with your condition: law, perhaps, or failing that accountancy, or marketing or –” and here Dr Shamash shuddered – “media studies.”
Oh, God! thought John. No, please, God, no! Not me, not me! I’m in a band.
“You’ll graduate, and through a friend of your father you’ll get a nice job in a decent company. It will be specially adapted for you, with offices that are open plan, good access, and – if you really need it – ‘flexible working'.”
Dr Shamash knew of several such places. Pharmaceutical companies mainly. They all reeked of normality, of that dreadful adequacy the caring professions were powerless to confront. He shuddered again – the poor boy! But he had to be professional about this. He couldn’t let his natural sympathies cloud his judgement. The painful professional duty he had to carry out. The lad had to know what was in store for him.
“You’ll get engaged after your first promotion. Of course, this will be to someone normal like yourself. We don’t encourage…”
Here he trailed off. Better not to spell it out.
“By now any sense that you may be – ah – different will have dissipated. You’ll start adjusting to your – ”
Again he hesitated. 'Handicap' was such a horrible word.
“Condition,” he continued. “You’ll get married following the landing of a successful contract you will have a major hand in securing. Children will follow.”
A stricken look came over John’s face.
“It’s likely, I’m afraid,” said Dr Shamash, sounding extremely grave, “that they’ll be normal as well.”
“Isn’t there anything that can be done for me, doctor?”
The kid sounded desperate.
“Some kind of operation? Drugs? A clinic in Switzerland?”
Dr Shamash winced. This was one of the worst cases he had come across. Most normal people he treated had a similar reaction, on receiving the diagnosis, though not as extreme. But this! This was off the scale.
“We do not advocate such measures in the medical profession,” said Dr Shamash. “Although your condition will be life-long, it is ultimately not life-threatening. Like I said, you can still go on to lead a full life.”
The consultation was coming to an end.
“I suggest you go home and research just what normality will mean for you. Current medical thinking is that the condition may be genetic. We’ve identified one or two genes that – once they’re triggered – seem to condemn the sufferer to a lifetime of trips to IKEA, bank holidays spent having barbecues, wanting to be Jeremy Clarkson. Perhaps in time advances in gene therapy will mean that you can be different. But for now…”
He trailed off. Dr Shamash had done all he could for the boy. Now it was down to him to show the same reserves of courage and fortitude any normal person worth their salt had to muster. Normality. Dr Shamash shuddered. He knew that in his heart of hearts, he would sooner really end their suffering.
But he had taken the Hippocratic Oath.
Life, even a life as bleak as the one John Smith was in for, was sacred.
That’s what he kept telling himself as he showed the boy out…