Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

The other driver of the bus

 

 

Traveling back from a freezing water-logged day of touch football in Hirakata today, (as the old English phrase goes) I had ‘occasion for thought.’

 

Watching a strange young man on the bus reminded me that I’ve noticed a high proportion of mentally disabled people in Japan, when compared to other countries I’ve spent time in.

 

Until quite recently, a Japanese friend told me, these people were typically a source of great shame and embarrassment for their families. Anyone apparently ‘different’ in this way, would be kept indoors, certainly not sent to school, and not talked about outside the home, as if they did not exist. It seems as though this has now changed.

 

Like others though, I still make cruel jokes in my own mind or will satirize them just loud enough so that if I am with somebody else only they could hear.

 

I think of myself as generally a compassionate person, but am quite aware that when I mock, it is because I am being cowardly. I am doing so from a deep-rooted internal fear. (John Lennon, for one, did the same, as a young man)

 

Like many fears, it is irrational and unfounded, but has existed in me from an early age. At the core, it comes from being frightened of becoming a ‘vegetable’, or through some accident, becoming badly physically or mentally deformed.

 

I was however, fortunate enough to spend time during High School teacher-training in Australia with the so-called “disabled,” (Downe’s syndrome kids for example.) These experiences were very moving, to me.

 

Even now, years later, I occasionally wonder how these students are going today: like Mary, who had a huge crush on toothy, game-show host Larry Emdur, or big Jason, who seemed to live for playing clumsy soccer with his older brother. (His preferred answer to any question was “Nuh. Nuthin.”)

 

While my fears have diminished, but stubbornly persisted, I quickly came to regard these students as true individuals with their own distinctive and unique personalities, rather than as part of a clump of the amorphous ‘spastics.’ (A word with it’s own distinct power to label with gross over-generalisation, and one which was used by me and others with great scorn, influence, but also regularity, in my childhood.)

 

I’ve learned to try very hard to follow the humanitarian ideas of the great Oliver Sacks when I observe these definitively unordinary human beings. He believes that each has a talent; sometimes even a “gift” and can possess a keenness of mind that can prove to be extremely insightful.

 

In Australia, many of the “handicapped” are often kept out of sight, and then displayed on well-meaning staged-occasions like fundraising pageants. (Incidentally, why aren’t school kids getting to know some of these wonderful expressive people?)

 

In Japan, it appears to me that there are also separate ‘special schools,’ but that there is more open integration in public areas, where you can regularly see a high degree of tolerance shown toward even quite extreme eccentricities.

 

The young man I studied on this bleak grey day in the Kansai was not provoking too much interest around him though. He was casually well-dressed actually, sporting a fashionable haircut. He had delicate long fingers, (reminding me of former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s “foppish class-traitor” hands. “He never did a hard days work in his life,” according to some, who of course meant physical labour.)

 

What also struck me about my fellow-traveler was that he had oddly light skin and eyes. We had shared a train carriage from Hirakata Koen station, and then the same bus going closer to home.

 

He had been ‘driving’ the bus almost as much as the actual driver, sitting alert, jerking his head around to get a better view of the traffic, and urging us on towards his destination with jabs of his milky, manicured index finger.

 

When not nervously punching the back of the seat in front of him, speaking to the driver, smiling to himself, or quietly reading a brochure, he seemed compelled to mumble aloud.

 

I had to wonder then and there, was he directly expressing, through speech, ideas themselves? After all he was talking to no-one.

 

The desire for self-expression can be profound. Even when made supposedly incapable of expression, the mute who might additionally be hearing-impaired can feel the need to paint or draw.

 

Of course, the absence of words in their experiencing of the world does not mean that they might ‘think less,’ but it does suggest that everyone could be able to find a form for the human need to communicate.