This year seems like a particularly bad time to be an Australian. The press is dominated with stories of politicians’ entitlements, racist social commentators, terrorist threats, overseas death penalties, children in detention, detainees being mistreated, the denial of marriage equality, and on top of all of this, someone, for some reason, has decided that watching children spell is a worthy form of weeknight entertainment.
At times it may feel like we are a climate change-denying, tennis-losing, Bachelor-watching, incompetently-led, joke of a country. But in response to this, we ask you to ponder three things:
1. The old (circa 2000) Qantas ad.
The one with all the beautiful children singing “I still call Australia home”, which makes everyone feel uncharacteristically nationalistic.
2. Red dog.
As in red dog (the dog), not Red Dog (the film). That dog caught a boat to JAPAN to find John for goodness sake. What an Aussie hero.
3. What you are about to read.
We have an intellectually handicapped cousin. His name is Simon, his favourite pastime is catching trains all over Sydney, and he hates animated movies. No matter how many times he plays golf, he will always hit the ball to the left, and no matter how many times you ask him, he will always lie about whether he has already had lunch.
We have grown up with Simon. He is the son of our intellectually handicapped aunty (she once hit a bus driver with a walking stick. Note: She does not own a walking stick), and was raised by our grandparents.
One could not have asked for a better upbringing. Simon is loved and adored by our family and friends. We were taught from the moment we were born that Simon was “special” – and not in a condescending way.
Our grandmother would explain to us that Simon might be different, but he was caring, funny and clever, with skills that were unique but equally valuable.
We will never forget a story she told us about being on the train with Simon, and a group of high school children imitating the way he spoke. The saddest part was that Simon understood.
Stories like this had marked his mother’s childhood as well. Tales of ridicule and ostracism, which, ultimately, represent a lack of understanding.
A few weeks ago, we took Simon out to see a musical. Or rather, Simon took us out. We’re pretty sure it was his idea, he always knows where the best restaurants are, and where the cloakroom is, and what time we best be seated by, so indeed it is more apt to say he took us out.
He had his special shirt on, which he wears to all his musicals. It is buttoned up, long sleeved and checkered. He wears a singlet and at least two t-shirts underneath. He also had his back pack on, as he always likes to sleep over afterwards, and thus he needs his pyjamas, a toothbrush and of course somewhere to put the program.
He had his Asics runners on his unusually big feet, which somehow manage to step on everyone’s toes. Most of all, Simon was beaming with excitement, because Simon loves musicals. And not in the way you ‘looooove’ musicals. Not in the way you ‘looooove’ Ryan Gosling. Not in the way you ‘loooove’ wine. Multiply whatever you love by three million, and you may just be nearing the love Simon has for musicals.
Sometimes we worry about Simon. We worry, particularly for women, that they might be frightened being approached by a large (he likes his coffee and cake) man nearing 30, who does not entirely understand conventions of personal space. Or that they will be concerned for their children when Simon yells that he is seeing a musical and then asks if she knows what time that musical will finish.
We worry for the people employed at the theatre, who have probably had a really long day, and are in no way obliged to answer Simon’s circular questions. We worry that people will be afraid because he looks different. We worry that they will not be nice, not because they are not good people but because they do not understand, and Simon will be hurt.
It was not the first time we had taken Simon to a musical. It has become somewhat of a tradition. Each and every time, Simon speaks to people he shouldn’t, asks to borrow the program from a couple probably on their first date, and runs towards the people working there, characteristically rubbing his hands together, asking “Good? Good?” while pointing to the poster.
Simon wants to (and does) order his dinner as soon as he sits down, and wants all people within a 200m radius to know that he is doing an activity tonight.
But there is something that remains largely unsaid about the people he borrows the program off, the staff to whom he asks about the musical, the waiter who serves us dinner, and the people who have found themselves in the danger zone of Hurricane Simon (level: intense; motion: circular; range: everyone, everywhere, at any time).
After borrowing the program, and being encouraged (forced) by us to give it back, Simon decided to buy one.
Here, he was met with an enthusiastic conversation by a woman who helped him with his money. When overly excited by the poster, a staff member offered to take a photo of us in front of it, which Simon proceeded to show other staff members, who agreed that he looked very handsome and that it was, indeed, a spectacular photo.
It is probably important to note here that in his excitement, Simon did accidentally take a selfie and began showing that to everyone, which has to be one of the top three greatest things that has ever happened.
Whilst ordering dinner, the waitress nodded and encouraged Simon, and was patient when he wanted to pay (with our money, taken from one of our wallets).
When we ran into a friend there, she shook his hand and introduced herself, to which he responded, “Simon. Simon. Simon”.
Those who found themselves in the grasp of Hurricane Simon smiled and laughed, and answered his questions (“what time do you start work?” “what time do you finish?” “where do you live?” [Simon… that’s getting a bit personal]).
One conversation went like this:
Simon: “Dirty Dancin’, dirty dancin’, dirty dancin’”
Us: “Sorry, he wants to tell you he is going to see Dirty Dancing”
Hurricane Simon victim #63: “Oh!! I’ve heard that is SO good! My friend saw it the other night!”
Simon: “When does it finish?”
Hurricane Simon victim #63: “It finishes at 10pm, so, like, pretty late”.
Lateness is exciting for Simon. It was as though she knew this. This girl was literally on red dog, Aussie legend level.
Simon: “Show was good, show was good. Bye, I’m Simon. ”
Hurricane Simon victim #134: “We know! We know you Simon, because you are always so friendly”.
Well, of course they know Simon. Hurricane Simon is a bi-monthly occurrence.
These individuals might not have any idea how much these interactions mean to Simon. We don’t mean to glorify them, because Simon is, of course, completely deserving of this level of respect and engagement with others.
However, in some parts of the world, and in some moments in time, Simon would have been treated very differently.
Our grandmother, for instance, did not experience this level of acceptance with her intellectually handicapped daughter 40 years ago. People are not obliged to understand (though they should), they are not obliged to be kind (though they should), and they are certainly not obliged to answer the context-less questions of a man they do not know, and likely will never see again.
But they do. An overwhelming majority do.
We live in a busy, individualised world, which seems to be increasingly fixated on the personal pursuit of happiness rather than the interconnectedness of all human beings to each other and the world they live in.
In spite of this, people do not hesitate to take the time to befriend our very special Simon.
So, disheartened Australians… We have holes in our Ozone layer, we oppress and ridicule expressions of Indigenous culture, and our Prime Minister is too conservative to allow members of his party to participate on Q&A.
We’re not perfect.
But, what an exceptional moment when we can embrace difference, and show kindness to a demographic that has historically been degraded, oppressed, shut-in and then shut-out.
Australia has a long way to go when it comes to disability politics. We recognise that the lives of intellectually handicapped individuals are not the utopia we have presented.
However, lets just appreciate this experience for what it was. Simon, having the time of his life (pun completely intended), at Dirty Dancing, because as a country, we don’t like leaving anyone in the corner.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.