“Are you mentally handicapped?”
“He’s too low IQ to give a proper response.”
“I’m sure you’re retarded.”
The use of cognitive disability as an insult has always bothered me. It’s demeaning and hurtful to people who have such disabilities, and it shows a lack of understanding of how these conditions actually affect a person. When these insults are flung about in a discussion on the conflict in Palestine and Israel, my usual distaste is tinged with a sense of something very like irony as well.
Before I started work in Bethlehem, I had a job in a residential college for young adults with learning disabilities. Most of the students were eighteen or nineteen when they came to us, although the college could accept any student between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. It was a marvellous place, set in one of the wildest and most beautiful counties of England, with a river flowing beneath it and a ruined castle in the grounds. Also dotted about were several little cottages (once the houses of farmhands) where the students lived together in groups of half a dozen.
They all had very different abilities and impairments. Some could speak fluently, and others couldn’t speak at all. Some could cook a simple hot meal almost totally independently and others needed close support just to make a piece of toast. Some loved writing poems and others couldn’t write their own names. Some didn’t even realise what writing was. The goals for each student were the same: to learn to be as independent as possible and to enjoy life to the full.
That was one of the most varied jobs I’ve ever had, and by far the most exhausting: over the course of a fourteen-hour shift I might find myself helping a girl to put on eye makeup according to her exact specifications (rarely a success), helping somebody with his reading, teaching French (for some reason, this optional class was popular with students who couldn’t speak at all – I had to get quite creative with that one), chasing after escaped pigs, tending to somebody who had just had an epileptic seizure, playing Snakes and Ladders, teaching a student how to use a bus, cleaning toilets, cooking dinner, and trying to persuade one exuberant young man that it wasn’t a good idea to get in the river with his clothes on. Or even to get in the river at all, really.
I haven’t been able to use my elite pig-herding skills in Palestine yet, but the other things I learned in the special needs college come in handy every day – especially a lesson I was given by one of my students as we took some freshly baked cookies out of the oven together. “Let’s give a cookie to the other students,” I said to Sam. “Can you count the right number?” Slowly and methodically, Sam began to count. We had seven students in our cottage, but he didn’t stop at seven. He put down an eighth, and then a ninth.
“No, Sam. We’ve only seven students here. Think. How many biscuits have you got?”
“Seven – students. Two – staff. Biscuit – for you.”
“Thank you, Sam.” I was startled that he had managed to count that high; usually he got lost around four or five. “You’re very clever.”
“No,” Sam said, carefully picking up the cookie plate and walking towards the lounge with an expression of intense concentration on his face, “Sam not clever. Sam kind. Open the door, please, Vicky.”
A couple of days ago I saw spiteful remarks about intellect being tossed about in the comment thread of a blog on Israel/Palestine. Sam’s words came back to me then. He was right. He isn’t clever. But as far as peace work is concerned, it is the qualities that I saw in him – self-respect, honesty, humility, and regard for other people – that are the most useful. I witnessed this one memorable day in the persecuted and poverty-stricken village of Nabi Samuel, when I met a small boy who obviously had learning difficulties of some sort. He was easily distracted. He couldn’t speak very well. He was very tactile – getting close up to people’s faces, touching them experimentally, then dashing off to explore something else with those inquisitive hands. Children with language impairments often do learn about their world in this tactile way, and if they have additional learning difficulties they may not realise that it isn’t considered socially appropriate to wander thoughtfully up to where the strange foreign lady from Bethlehem is sitting and poke your nose in her ear. The child’s grandfather was hobbling around after him, trying fruitlessly to put a stop to these unconventional greetings.
There were a lot of soldiers with us that day. Not long after we began our picnic, between thirty and fifty of them (I couldn’t count them properly – they would insist on moving about) turned up in jeeps. We soon realised that they were afraid we had been planting, as they combed the village olive groves and farmland, examining the earth closely. (It’s forbidden to plant new olives in Nabi Samuel.) The air was tense and sullen. We had been planting, but we were confident that they wouldn’t manage to find the saplings; we had distributed them between the older trees. What we couldn’t be confident about was that there would be no arrests.
Eventually they decided that it really was just a picnic, and most of them left. The remaining soldiers gathered in a shady corner, lolling against a wall, chatting with one another quite cheerfully and seeming to relax. The villagers and their visitors stayed in our own patch of shade.
Except for the young boy who had been so fascinated with my left ear. As you may have already noticed, it was no use telling him about appropriate social boundaries. Quite calmly, he walked right through the gathering of soldiers and stopped in front of one who was standing towards the back. They looked at each other. Then the child reached out wonderingly and gripped the barrel of the soldier’s gun.
My heart missed a horrified beat. Literally. Dear God, Palestinian kids have been arrested for doing less than that, and this is a tense day, and I – . And before I could intervene, the soldier had dropped to his knees so that the child stood over him. The child let go of the gun. He reached out his arms and pulled the soldier into a hug.
Within seconds, the grandfather was there, tugging the boy away sharply. He was terrified. I had never seen him hobble so fast. But that one gesture changed the atmosphere of the day, and no one but that young boy could have done it. We planted trees, but he planted an idea. He knew nothing about the conflict or the injustices that are meted out to this village. He wouldn’t have known the meaning of the word ‘occupation’. He just wanted to be with people, and he couldn’t see that there were two separate groups there that day – to his supposedly damaged mind we were all one. Activists could have given that soldier a comprehensive fact-packed lecture on the history of the village and the impact the occupation is having on its residents, but would it have had the same effect as a spontaneous hug from that child? I suspect that he did more with that one small action than any online debaters who make catty remarks about low IQ ever have.
I hesitated before I told this story. It happened back in March, and I’ve started to write about it many times since then. Each time, I deleted the draft. It is all too easy for people to take stories like this and use them to sanitise the occupation. That must not happen. There was a reason for the grandfather’s sheer terror, and for my own panic as I saw the boy reaching out to grip the gun. All Palestinian youngsters are vulnerable under occupation, but for those with learning disabilities (adults as well as children) the situation is worse. They often lack the basic skills and intuition needed to keep themselves safe. Palestinians with learning disabilities have approached checkpoints and roadblocks in exactly the same way as this little boy approached the soldier, not realising that it could be dangerous, not understanding what is going on around them, and they have died.
This year there have been two such deaths that I know of. On 15th May, seventeen-year-old Khamis Salah Muhammad Habib was shot dead as he strayed too close to the perimeter fence east of Gaza City. Last month, on 16th August, another Gazan teenager with a learning disability died as he wandered within four hundred metres of the perimeter fence (in an area that had not been expressly declared as prohibited). A military spokeswoman reported: “IDF forces opened fire at a suspect approaching the security fence. The forces identified a hit.” According to paramedics in Gaza, the boy had been shot ten times in the head.
There are literally dozens of reports of people with learning disabilities straying into danger like this, incapable of recognising the risks. They all deserve to be remembered, but there are more of them than I could ever mention in this post. I will give just one more story, the one that came to my mind as I saw that boy in Nabi Samuel clutching at the soldier’s gun. On May 6th 2009, twenty-two-year-old Mohammad Nasseruddin was shot near the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron after he grabbed at a soldier’s gun and seemed to ignore soldiers’ orders (in reality he couldn’t understand them). If that child whom I met has not learned that you do not grab IDF guns by the time he’s twenty-two, I don’t fancy his chances of staying alive very far into adulthood.
This is why parents of children with special needs are often afraid to let them out. “My daughter would not cope at the checkpoint,” the father of a girl with Down’s Syndrome told me. “She doesn’t know how to act. She doesn’t understand the situation. I would be afraid for her.” And it’s not just the checkpoint: even their own streets can be a hostile place for Palestinians with cognitive disabilities. Back in July, soldiers in Silwan arrested a twelve-year-old student of a special needs school, Mahdi Abu Nab, as he played outside with a plastic gun. “When I saw what happened I moved immediately towards the jeep and tried to stop them from taking my son by blocking the vehicle’s path,” Mahdi’s father Ahmed reported. “I hoped that they would realise that Mahdi is disabled and release him. They refused, telling me that my son had threatened their lives with his action. After an intense argument they let him go on the condition that I bring him the following day to the Salah al-Din police station for interrogation.”
The care and education of Palestinian children with learning disabilities is a particular passion of mine. They deserve a better life than this, shut up in their houses or in ill-equipped residential centres, hardly going anywhere because of restrictions on their movement and worries about their safety. My dream is for them to have the same opportunities that were given to the students in my old workplace. The things they have to endure are an antidote to apathy and despair; I could never give up so long as there are neurologically disabled children south of Hebron who have nowhere to learn and nowhere to play.
But while they may need special protection from the occupation’s effects, they may also contribute to its eventual downfall. In July, only a few days after the arrest of Mahdi Abu Nab and at a time when I was thinking a lot about learning impairments, Brenda Rothman wrote a thought-provoking post about skin colour, racism, and how her autistic son perceives people:
Suppose we didn’t categorize by skin color. Like Jack. Jack’s brain is wired slightly differently. From the time he was a baby, he’s looked at people’s foreheads and hair. His brain made categories: dark hair, light hair, freckled forehead, wrinkled forehead. He then made comparisons. That man has dark hair. Daddy has dark hair. Therefore, that man looks like Daddy. It matters not that the man is African-American and that Daddy is Caucasian. Both have dark hair and both have smooth foreheads with no freckles. So, yes, it’s true. That man, who happens to be African-American, absolutely looks like Daddy, who happens to be Caucasian.
If I look at the world the way my son sees it, I understand what he means. The man does look Daddy. But if I see Jack in terms of being ‘wrong’ because of autism, I would then think: He doesn’t see skin color. He has a problem. I need to fix him.
What if he’s not the one who needs fixing?
Something that always interested me very much about my old students at the special needs college is the difficulty they often had with sorting people into categories. Some of them couldn’t even tell the difference between male and female; I was ‘Mister Vicky’ to more than one. (For one of them, my gender changed depending on where I stood in his good books – if I was in favour, it was Vicky-Dear-Nice-Girl, but if I had done something to displease him, it was Bad Boy.) Brenda’s post – especially her question – made me ask a question of my own. Formal peace meetings between Israelis and Palestinians are often fraught with difficulty, due to the vast inequalities that exist between the two groups. How would it be if a group of Palestinian and Israeli Jewish people with learning disabilities were to live together? Not to talk about conflict or to single-handedly attempt to bring about world peace, but…just to live. Was it doable?
Of course, having a learning disability doesn’t make you an angel. People with such disabilities can fight just as well as anybody else (and I’ve got the bite marks to prove it). But it tends to be, “I am fighting you because YOU have pissed me off, matey, this is personal!” rather than, “I am fighting you because, well, I was born and raised to be in the army that comes and uproots your olive trees. Your group and my group, we have a history and it goes back over sixty years.” Could it work?
“But there is a house like this!” my next-door neighbour in Bethlehem exclaimed, as we were drinking coffee together one day. “Just like you say, Arab and Jewish people with these problems.”
“What? Where? I haven’t heard – “
She reached out and clasped my hand excitedly. “It is in East Jerusalem. I think some nuns run it. I have the permit, I will take you there. I wish I had known before that you were interested. Oh – you are going to England soon. Never mind, when you get back we will go together.”
That visit is pencilled in for the day after my return to Bethlehem. You will get the next installment in this story once I have met the residents of that house.
In the meantime, if you are ever tempted to make disparaging remarks about the IQ of somebody who is arguing with you, please don’t.