It was weird being back. We parked in the disabled spot and then wheeled in the front door and were greeted by a guy with a disability who worked the reception desk. He walked us back to where the training would be held. Once settled in what used to be the cafeteria, I filled Joe in on what the building used to be. It was, during my days as a behaviour therapist, a day programme that was filled to bursting with people with disabilities. There, I point out, was where I saw two people with disabilities lip locked together, they sprang apart with fear that I'd tell - I never told. There, I point again, was where Don made me tea. There, one more time, was where I used to meet with staff to talk through issues.
I notice him staring at me from the hallway. As we had come in there was a young guy, standard issue handsome, installing lights in the building. I had said something innocuous as we came in by way of greeting, he said something unmemorable in return. But now he kept glancing in the room, appraising me and the situation. I think it surprised him that I was at the front of the room, behind a lecture table covered with notes. I became distracted by getting ready. Joe was preparing the flipchart and I was setting things up the way I like. We have about an hour before beginning so we've no need to rush.
Catching the guy staring through at me again, I have a realization. In about half an hour he's going to be surrounded by fifty people with disabilities. If he thinks I'm something, just wait. I shouldn't grin, but I do, the mental image is wonderful. Joe asks what I'm thinking but I don't have time to answer. I'm watching as a van drops off some people who are attending the workshop. Out comes several people, some with Down Syndrome, some with odd gaits, all with differences. The extraordinary walk by the ordinary - shock is on his face. To a one they greet him with warmth, his frozen smile melts into something more real - it's hard to have artiface in the presence of genuine humanity.
Suddenly the hallway is filled with people. They mostly knew each other so there were shouts of greeting, bursts of conversation, a buzz of excitement. He's stopped working now. The light boxes rest untouched on the table before him. He's pulled into conversation, I see him explaining what he's doing to an older guy who's stopped to talk with him. Shyness leaves his demeanour as he explains what he's doing. I see him pointing at the boxes and then at various spots on the ceiling where, I presume, he's indicating where they are going to be placed.
At one point there must have been thirty or forty people with disabilities milling around the hallway at the entrance to the training room. He looked like an Italian Gulliver having his preconceptions tacked to the floor. Someone says something to him, I don't hear what, and he bursts out laughing and says something back. As people come in and take their places he goes back to work. I couldn't tell you how he'd changed but I knew he had. Subtly different.
That's one way to confront prejudice ... total immersion.