I first met Kiwi Katie about four years ago, when I was still using my legs and she had just started using a wheelchair. The Citizens’ Information Board was conducting research into the housing needs of people with disabilities, and this was their final focus group: one which actually included a few people with disabilities.
Katie caught my eye – or more accurately, my ear – as another articulate, young and motivated person with disabilities. It was something of a relief not to be the only person talking in the room.
We finally got a smoke break, and Katie and I got to talking. At some point in the conversation, she described the experience of using a wheelchair as “apartheid”. I was shocked. It’s a very loaded term, especially for those of us who witnessed the release of Nelson Mandela with joy.
But Katie went on: “I can’t go in the front door – I’m sent around to the servants’ entrance. Our toilets are segregated. I can’t use the mainstream bus service. I can’t get onto a college campus or into an employer’s business premises.” And I saw, to my horror, that she was right.
The parallels between the experiences of people with disabilities and people living in an ethnically segregated regime were deliciously demonstrated for me in an unexpected form. “Better Off Ted” is one of those rare, witty, intelligent, satirical US sit-coms – and yes, it got cancelled after only 2 series. The “sit” of this particular “com” is a department of a massive and sinister multinational corporation, “Veridian Dynamics”, and the characters work in research and development and product testing – from cow-free beef (“the meat-blob”) to weaponised pumpkins via glow-in-the-dark squirrels.
*** SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! ALERT! THERE’S A SPOILER COMING! ***
In one episode, “Racial Sensitivity”, one of our scientist buddies finds things in the lab mysteriously turning themselves off and on. He tries to activate the motion sensors which control the lighting, then the doors, the toilets, drinking fountains, the lift… all to no avail. The heroic Ted (his boss) goes to find out from Veronica (Ted’s boss) what’s going on.
The answer turns out to be that the company has upgraded all the systems in the building from being motion activated to being light activated; specifically, light reflected off human skin. This means “it doesn’t see black people”, which Veronica is told by her superiors is a positive thing, since it sees Asians, Hispanics and Jews.
Rather than reverting to the old system, the company starts to install “Manual Drinking Fountains: For Black Employees Only”and the like. Our scientist buddy at the centre of this says; “Thank God we don’t have a company bus”.
Their next attempt is to employ a bunch of minimum-waged white guys to follow every black employee around to “activate stuff” for them. But Human Resources is concerned that this is discriminatory recruitment practice, so they’ll need to hire another black guy to follow the white guy who’s following the black employee, then the second black employee will need another white guy to follow him, and so on ad infinitum. The case is finally made to the company bosses that they simply didn’t have the parking to employ every human being on the planet by 2012, and the old motion detectors are reinstalled.
The experiences of the black characters in this episode finding themselves unable to open doors, turn on the lights or use the lift are instantly recognisable to a lot of people with disabilities. It even follows the parallel “solutions” of installing separate facilities for us, or of employing “normal” people to bridge that gap for us. When the central character in these events (Lem) decides he’s had enough of this segregation, he says to his colleague, Phil: “I still have my dignity! Now will you please come with me so I can use the toilet!” Sound familiar, fellow mutants?
This may be quite a convoluted way of making a point, but I think it’s a good exercise in context, perspective and humour. It is valid to describe the supports and services and basic amenities available to people with disabilities as “apartheid”, and it is also valid that this is schocking. So it should be. I have no idea whether the writers of “Better Off Ted” had any thought in their head about disability rights issues, but they have nonetheless created a challenging, effective and funny picture of what it takes for person with disabilities to do those “simple” things that others take for granted, be it using a toilet or walking through the front door.