Saturday 17 February 2018

Give us a hand

I love my job: it's not too hard on the knees, I have a great deal of autonomy, the work is within my competence but it's possible to embrace greater challenge if I'm bored. Right at the beginning of my career I had another wonderful job: working in Diergaarde Blijdorp aka Rotterdam Zoo. The work was physical, dirty and often soggy [my position was in Afdeling Vissen - aquarium-land] but I really looked forward to each working day. Every day was different but enough routine so that institutionalised me didn't go off the rails. My work-mates were a motley crew: a taxidermist; an amateur herpetologist with a flat full of live reptiles; the foreman was Afrikaans; one fellow couldn't wake to an alarm-clock but had to be phoned; two guys who'd done National Service in signals and talked in Morse. They'd all left school in their mid-teens because they loved animals, but many of them had a deeper knowledge of biology than BSc me. The only bloke with any sort of formal higher education was Chris who worked in the book&gift shop.  If I ever wanted to talk about things other than work or animals, I'd drift in to visit with Chris for a couple of minutes. If I kept a bucket in my hand it could pass for work.

Chris's eccentricity was that he couldn't walk, his limbs were banjaxed by a neuro-degenerative disease and he was delivered to work by his full-time night carer in a wheel-chair van and collected in the evening. At work, if he needed to get to the jacks, he'd flag down one his co-workers for the small amount of help needed. Some were more engaged in the helping than others. A couple of years before I appeared on the scene, when it was proposed that Chris might be coming to work, the management asked The Lads if they were willing to facilitate this stranger's transition to gainful employment. The response was 'mixed': some willing but apprehensive; some feeling 'whatever'; some were proud to be given a chance to give back. The only person who was vocally against the whole project was Jan; he got really cross about the imposition and the unspoken peer pressure and denounced the management for ticking social-inclusion boxes.  Turned out that Jan had been in a desperate traffic accident in his early 20s, spent weeks in hospital, and months in rehab - it was touch-and-go whether he would ever walk again. Clearly, he had some justifiable baggage about Project Chris.

Things had settled down to same-old-same-old routine by the time I rocked up. At a certain time in the middle of the morning, we'd all down buckets and brooms and schlep off for coffee and buns in the staff canteen over by the elephant house. Chris had a joy-stick operated motorised wheel-chair and someone was likely to hop on the back axle to cadge a lift. Equally likely, if the weather was fine and The Lads consequently frisky, someone would steer Chris into the shrubbery <ho ho> in the same way that we might throw snowballs at each other if there was a dusting of snow. As a late-comer on the scene, I witnessed that the most attentive person for Chris's welfare and inclusion was Jan. He had completely changed his relationship with disability; in a way Chris had healed the sick. When I learned the back-story, I was quite unaccountably buoyed up for the rest of the day.
This all came flooding back to me when I saw a short film about disability made by some local lads for the Donal Walsh #LiveLife National Film Competition. Donal Walsh was a Kerry teenager who died from cancer in 2013. The Film competition is to continue Donal's I'm done for but you-all should live life to the full message . . . and don't top yersel' ye daft buggers.  This may remind you of Stephen Sutton another early departer and The Boy's hi-jinks driving a wheelchair. The filmlet cited above is far better than the competition! Better story board, better acting, better lighting, better continuity. Most importantly, from my experiences in Blijdorp [above], the story has the ring of truth. If Cormac Lalor doesn't win the competition, I'll be calling "Fix!"

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