October, 2010

Oct 10

Unconscious bias – Diversity Council Australia journal

I was asked to do an interview for the September issue of the quarterly journal Diversity Matters, published by the Diversity Council Australia. You can read the interview, and the rest of the journal, here.

Oct 10

Be Careful What You Wish For

A funny thing happened on Tuesday afternoon. That was the same day I’d had my Heckler article published in the SMH (see Sorry, Mate, below) and, among other topics, had criticised drivers for saying ‘sorry’ to me when I thoughtlessly cross the road in front of them.

I was out walking the dog again, and received a message from my wife that my son was already home from school and waiting at the front door with his driver. I wasn’t far from home, but I wasn’t there, so I had to hurry.

Blossom (the dog) was keen for a run, so we covered the last 2 blocks at full speed, and had only to cross the last road to be at our house. As we crossed the road, in my peripheral vision I could see a car turning into the street, but cars always stop for me. Hell, they stop and apologise for just being on the road. But I’ll admit, I didn’t stop and really look. I kept on and crossed the road.

Now, the car was perhaps a little closer than I had anticipated, but we missed each other comfortably enough. As usual, he wound down his window and shouted several words. ‘Sorry’ was not among them.  It can be hard to discern all the words shouted from a moving car but I caught ‘idiot’ and ‘statistic’, each preceded by an extended form of the most popular four-letter-word in the English language.

I wonder if he’d just finished reading my article. I he had, I’ll call that one an instant success!

Oct 10

Sorry, mate

This piece, previously published on Barrier Free, was Tuesday’s Heckler column in the SMH. Link to it here or read it below.

Why do people constantly apologise to me? If I dash across a road in front of a car, chances are the driver will wind down the window and shout ‘sorry’. If I bump into a pram on a busy street, and wake a baby, the mother will usually say ‘sorry’. If I run over a man’s toe in the isle of a shop, he too will offer ‘sorry’. Sorry for what? Just for being there I guess.

It doesn’t stop at sorry. I also get called ‘mate’ and ‘matey’. Not so bad? Mate is defined by context in Australian English. ‘G’day mate’ is always a relaxed greeting, whereas ‘turn the music down mate’ spoken through a locked screen is one step short of threats of physical violence. With me, it is usually coupled with ‘how are you feeling mate?’. And, when spoken in a gentler tone than regular speech and often accompanied by stroking my hand or a reassuring palm on my shoulder, it feels a little like I’m living in an endless rerun of Andrew Denton’s brilliant 1990 program The Year of the Patronising Bastard.

Now, it’s admission time. I do look a bit odd. Due to my medical condition, I use a wheelchair. Due to weakness in my facial muscles, I have a fixed expression, somewhere between startled and bored. When I think of something funny I let out a big, inexplicable, laugh. I can’t talk.

A few weeks ago, I was walking the dog, using my chair, as I do most days. As I need my good left arm to drive the chair, I walk the dog on my right. A cyclist dashed past, hurrying as if he was late for a Tony Abbott look-alike contest, and shouted to me ‘tiges, you should have her on the left’. Tiges? Short for Tiger I guess. When was the last time you heard a 44–year-old able-bodied man called ‘Tiger’? A while, I suspect.  

My take on all this? I think ‘sorry’ is just a natural reaction to any minor collision or near-miss with a wheelchair. People assume it must be their fault. It’s not, but it’s understandable.  Mate depends on the user and the context. Genuine mates get a pass. But others should be cautious – especially with the tone and the touching. Do you regularly touch pregnant women on the belly without asking? Matey is worse. It’s akin, I think, to men who insist on calling all women ‘girls’ or ‘love’. It’s best avoided.

And my friend in lycra? Sorry, mate, you’re a twerp.

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