Dilemmas

This week: a disabled person demands special treatment Everyone in Peter's class at university has bent over backwards to be kind and helpful to another mature but disabled student, Dorothy, particularly Peter. But now, if she doesn't get special treatment, she gets abusive, and has started to spread rumours about students and staff she feels don't pander to her enough. What should he do?

Virginia Ironside The disabled have never had it so good. They may feel hard done by - and who of us wouldn't if we had something that stopped us enjoying things like other people - but on the whole if they want a ramp put up for their wheelchairs they get it, and if they want a special loo there's more likely than ever to be one available. They're not called cripples or loonies or mongols or spastics any more, and most people bend over backwards to be decent without being patronising, kindly without being pitying. Of course we often fail, and no doubt many disabled people still feel they have an awful lot to put up with - but we're a long way from the times when anyone with a disability was just bunged on a hillside and shunned by society.

But in a way, making special allowances for disabled people can often only be the reverse of the same coin. By endlessly helping out and administering to their every need we may also, at some level, make them feel singled out, and the fact they are singled out for kindness rather than cruelty doesn't matter that much. They are still made to feel different.

If Peter and the other students care about Dorothy they should gang together to try to help her get over her dependency. And that means separating her manipulative and paranoid side from her physical problems, and dealing with it as they would in any other student. Perhaps Peter, who's been particularly helpful, should ask himself if he actually gets off on "helping" others. Maybe he has a self-image problem, and feels that telling a disabled person where she gets off would make him feel bad? Or maybe he needs craven gratitude - gratitude he's not getting from a disabled person who's no more than slightly bolshie?

But it doesn't look like it. Dorothy needs to be told that most of us are disabled in some way, because there a great many people who are cripplingly disabled inside - by shyness, anxiety or depression. They don't get special favours - because their disabilities are invisible; they have to battle on as best they can. I'm not saying Dorothy is lucky to be disabled physically, but it does seem she's blind to the internal problems of other people.

I was talking about this week's dilemma with a clergyman friend, who said he was once discussing kindness and charity with a group of theology students in his rectory. Suddenly there was a frantic knocking and yelling, and on opening the door he found a distraught, angry and insistent man in a wheelchair demanding money. To his students' amazement, he hurled abuse at his visitor and slammed the door in his face. When asked why he had behaved like that, he said: "Because he's my friend. We know each other very well, he's always coming round and asking for money and sometimes he pushes me to the limits."

The kindest way to treat anyone, whether disabled or depressed, is like another human being. Peter and his class should call Dorothy's bluff and tell her to stop whingeing and get on with life. If she takes this as an insult rather than a compliment that they're able to speak to her so frankly, then that is her problem?

What readers say

As a disabled mature student studying law at the University of Luton, I felt incensed by the letter referred to on 3 October, as it creates a precedent in the mind of other able-bodied students. What is the matter with Dorothy? Has she only just become disabled or is she intent on creating the barriers that many other people have tried gently to move aside?

I do need assistance myself in getting from one building to another, but only ask for help if my paid pusher is not available. Students have not come to university to be nursemaids and, while I do find it more than a little frustrating being unable to get into certain buildings, this is my problem. Some students offer help and it is certainly appreciated, but Dorothy's behaviour is not acceptable and Peter must explain to her that her disability is no excuse for being abusive and wallowing in self- pity.

Perhaps the university in question should advise Dorothy on entitlements to receive assistance paid for by her LEA, providing her disability really does prevent her from taking notes. Has she thought of recording her notes and transcribing them at her leisure? Peter, speak to Dorothy as you would any other student and do not think that a wheelchair gives anyone the right to insult and discredit. Linda Ivey, Herts

Peter clearly has a genuine concern for Dorothy's welfare and is willing to help her where he can, but I feel he is going about it the wrong way. He should look past her disability and see Dorothy as the individual she is. We all have different personalities and we like some people more than others. So Peter should not feel guilty if he doesn't like Dorothy, as there are many people in this world we don't get on with. However, there may be reasons behind Dorothy's verbal abuse. People with disabilities face prejudices which are hurtful and can make you defensive and come across as unfriendly. I expect Dorothy has had to fight hard to get where she is, but this does not excuse rudeness and abuse.

I would therefore suggest Peter confronts Dorothy. He should begin with a compliment - saying how much he admires her for achieving what she has. He should explain that he knows she's very competent but if she needs any help he'll be pleased to do what he can, but he's not prepared to take notes for her any more as she's quite capable and it's all part of the course. He must then say he's not prepared to put up with the verbal abuse either. Really try to treat her like he would anyone else. By making allowances he is in fact being patronising.

Christine Holloway, Kent

You have allowed Dorothy to exploit you and your fellow students, and she is doing this to the maximum and probably enjoying every minute of it. I speak as a disabled person myself who also works in training and often encounters the "Dorothy syndrome" from those disabled people who use their disability as a cloak behind which they can behave in a manner that would be totally unacceptable in an able-bodied person. Dorothy's malicious attitude and behaviour should not be tolerated. She wants equality so give it to her - put a stop to this behaviour in the same way you would if it was from an able-bodied person.

Gillian Wilson, Scunthorpe

Next week's problem: my wife has turned my daughter against me

Dear Virginia,

I left my wife and two children four-and-a-half years ago. Although I thought it was by mutual consent, my wife got extremely angry after I left and refused to divorce me, poisoning the children's minds against me. Since then I've seen the children every other weekend, but now the oldest girl, at 14, refuses to visit after a minor row. For the last six months she's refused to speak to me on the telephone or answer my letters and my wife won't discuss it either. I have written to my wife saying I feel that if my daughter doesn't visit it could damage her future relationships with men, but have heard nothing from her. My son is still very affectionate, but how can I make things up with my daughter? How have other men coped in this situation?

Yours, Chris

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, 'The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293-2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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