This is an uninspired dinner, tasty but distracted – a symbol of my mental churning of today’s topic. It was supposed to be a quickie packed lunch. I brought it along with me to the studio but forgot to eat it, so engrossed was I in the work at hand. I also took Lucy to see her beloved Godma, and she had a grand time running around with Godma’s new foster Greyhound. The Princess even cheekily helped herself to the foster girl’s bone. I also managed to sew a new set of pyjamas for my own god-fur-child, Evan, another delightful Greyhound. We are home now, Miss Lucy is in bed and both of us girls have had our tummies filled.
Underneath the busy activity, however, I have been extremely disturbed all day. I learned about this incident yesterday, from a post on the Disabled People’s Asscociation (Singapore) Facebook page. The article was about a well known and popular (among some) radio programme in which the DJ, Joe Augustin, called a blind woman and prominent disabilities advocate, Cassandra Chiu, an “a-hole” on air.
I was unable to access the full report in the Straits Times, but found descriptions of the incident on other news websites. Below is Augustin’s response, quoted from this Asiaone link: “DJ’s strong language on air raises eyebrows.”
“But what I was vocal about was what I thought of Cassandra’s constant complaining.
“For me, it was the action and manner in which the subject was broached on her dog’s Facebook page that was too much.”
“Being real on radio (and calling it like it is) rocks,” added Augustin.
Much ado about nothing, or a reflection of a seriously menacing ‘hole’ in the glittery fabric of Singapore society and human society in general? (Pardon my terrible pun, the cheeky Aspie in me couldn’t resist it.)
The incident is unsettling on many counts, and across multi dimensions. When I first read about it, I was so incensed that I felt a sharp, intensely bitter, burning sensation at the back of my tongue, and I fell into a speechless, mental-flapping and brain-chilled state.
Ten hours later, I am still struggling for prosaic coherence, but it is because this affects the very core of my own existence, and because nobody should have to suffer indignity and abuse in silence, I am determined to push through the sensory molestation to give my indignation a voice. (Please forgive the somewhat fragmented attempts at exposition.)
Cassandra Chiu is a blind woman with a guide dog, Esme. She has a Facebook page dedicated to documenting her experiences and adventures, speaking through her guide dog, Esme. In this casual and delightfully personal way, Chiu has opened up to countless people the private world of a guide dog and blind handler team, and their day to day life in Singapore. Not only has she helped to educate a largely ignorant public about the role of guide dogs for the blind, but she has also become a brave, vocal advocate for inclusivity. Many of her posts inevitably expose the dark side of Singapore society – the intolerant, the ridiculously ignorant, and the downright indecent. This makes many people uncomfortable, especially those who do not like looking into the mirror of their own grim scrapings of morality. However, she does also share many moments where she was met with kindness, acceptance and basic human decency – reasons for celebration, though Augustin did not choose to be irritated by this. I wonder why?
More questions to chew on:
Why is a disabled person’s accounts of her own personal experiences written off as “constant complaining”? Why is a disabled person’s “constant complaining” on her own Facebook page deemed “too much”? Why does Augustin and his ilk need to access the Facebook page of someone he clearly has no respect for, and neither understands nor share the same vision with?
Augustin’s remarks on air reflect his own state of mind – a sampling of the flora and fauna that live and thrive inside the inner world of this man. Not only does it reveal someone who is intellectually unable to grasp the nature of advocacy and its inherent frustrating uphill task, but it also displays a social attitude that is alarming – flagrant, unapologetic ableism. Added to this mix is an unhealthy lack of empathy and an appalling deficiency of propriety. Is this what Augustin refers to as, “being real… calling it like it is”? Is this his reality, and that of his supporters?
The scene is an ominous one.
Here is a simple example of an appalling lack of empathy (and I do not mean sympathy, it is empathy, that I am speaking about – the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, even if indirectly). I cannot help but wonder what his attitude would be should someone he loves and cares for, or he himself, should someday face a similar situation: would he use the derogatory term in the same context, with the same pompous ableist derision, then? What he is basically saying to people with disabilities is, “Shut up, stay home, don’t bother anyone with your disability, and if you are abused just slink away quietly to the nothingness of your existence, and don’t you even dare to tell anyone about it, I don’t want to hear annoying constant complaining!” [ I have since learned that Augustin’s son suffers from Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, as reported in this article. This revelation makes his remark all the more sad, and, to me, frightening at the same time.]
The fact that the broadcaster, MediaCorp, was only fined $6,300 for the offensive language, and not for discrimination against a vulnerable sector of society, which constitute humans with a valid claim to respect, reflects the uphill climb that we are faced with. Until proper legislation is put in place, it is impossible to stop people like Augustin from openly mocking those of us who live in alternative embodiments. How can it be that the use of expletives in the media is unacceptable, but discrimination against people with disabilities is legal and acceptable?
I am utterly disgusted at Augustin, but there may yet be a silver lining in this fetid cloud of toxic gas. Augustin’s fatuous bigotry has brought to light the demons of ableist oppression lurking in the unspoken, unmentioned Stygian abyss of Singaporean society, and in so doing, may have unintentionally added momentum to an increasingly cogent movement towards more respect for and protection of the rights of people with disabilities, and ultimately a superior, embracingly inclusive society.
What kind of society are we? I read the various comments in the news reports with mixed emotions. There were many, egged on by Augustin’s unrestrained folly, who emerged from their closets of twisted bigotry. Yet, there were many others who voiced their contempt for Augustin’s attitude.
What kind of human is Augustin? Actually, a much too common, too ordinary specimen of his own social culture. He is not more, or less, of a monster than many countless others. He merely verbalised the sentiment that sits on the tip of the tongues of too many others, with a homogeneous paucity of vocabulary too.
It reminds me of a heartbreaking and shocking encounter my sister had with a family member of a young deaf couple. She was walking her delightfully cute bichon-poodle, adopted from the SPCA, when she noticed that a young couple was gesticulating excitedly at the dog. Upon approaching, she realised they were trying to communicate with her in sign language. Unable to understand sign, my sister and the couple resorted to writing. They loved the dog. My sister told them they could get their own, they could rescue one from the SPCA or an adoption organisation. It would be good for them, to have a dog to care for and call their own. They told her they are newlyweds and still live with family, and they needed to seek consent. My sister offered to speak to someone in their family, and they gave my sister their telephone number. She called the number, and was shocked to be treated with open hostility. Before my sister could finish explaining the reason behind her call, the person on the other end, who identified himself as an older brother of the couple, cut her short and shouted at her, “Dog? What do you mean adopt a dog? They cannot even take care of themselves!!!” In Singaporean local-speak, taking care of oneself means to earn good money. Our hearts broke for the young couple – stripped of their dignity while being ‘cared for’ by family members who mock and resent their very existence.
This tiny seed of ableist bigotry is what enables and empowers master manipulators like Hitler to rise from the dung heap of humanity to eminence and lethal authority. It is this kind of attitude that rings and jangles at the very edges of horrific carnage, placing us less than an inch away from horrific selective extirpation.
This is why we need enforceable anti-discrimination laws to protect and respect people with disabilities. Singapore has strict laws against racism and religious intolerance. If a similar derogatory remark was so openly uttered against someone of a different race or religion, not only would there be hell to pay but the law would not so blithely let this man go with just a slap on his employer’s wrist. Why are people with disabilities not accorded the same respect as people of different race, culture and religion?
Augustin’s reaction is a small, pathetic and not too intelligent reflection of a much bigger, insidiously malicious social-cultural sickness. The majority ableist populace, i.e. the ‘Colonial Power,’ feels threatened by the ‘subaltern’ figure – Cassandra, the blind woman with a dog – now daring to perform the previously unthinkable, i.e. speaking up for herself, speaking up for her community of the differently abled, eclectivally embodied, and revealing the sickness and decay hiding inside the bright shiny fabric of colonial society, holding up Self in the face of repression, and holding to account the Other who has for too long subjugated Self.
How dare she?!?! It is time we dare. It is time we give ourselves the right to a voice. A personal, intimate, tender one, yet one that is also audible, dynamic, and cogent.
Kudos to you, Cassandra Chiu and Esme. You, along with other advocates, and communities like the Disabled People’s Association, are luminous, brave and courageous forerunners, bringing hope for a new order, a different and better way of harmonious, respectful, inclusive living.