When community breaks through

Yesterday I spent the day hanging out with Malcolm*. Actually it’s part of my job: I am now a fully-fledged disability support worker. Malcolm is a sweet-talking, cheeky-grinned 54-year-old who spends most of his time in an electric wheelchair. He has a mouth like a trooper when he’s pissed off, and likes to race his wheelchair in fifth gear along the open road.

It was my job to accompany him around his community for the day. I was struck by the way Malcolm impacted the people in his local community. Everywhere we went, tired, busy, overworked workers stopped everything as soon as Malcolm walked through the door.

The entire teenaged workforce at McDonalds came out to greet Malcolm, standing around chatting and joking while he lodged a complaint (with a glint in his eye) about some poor kid handling the deep fryer. A girl with bleached blond hair and a ring in her bottom lip shoved a yellow and red striped straw into the plastic lid on his coffee cup. I held his coffee while he sucked deeply on the straw, using my other hand to sip the tea he had bought me. Afterwards a man held the door open for Malcolm as he wheeled out, leaving a string of goodbyes and profanities in his wake.

At the bank, Malcolm shouted to the tellers to bring him Amy, his favourite one. She came around to stand by his chair, while he asked questions that she had already answered numerous times before. She didn’t seem to mind – in fact she seemed to rather enjoy it. Her middle-aged manager grumbled a little but I could tell she was hiding a smile. She jostled back and forth with Malcolm as he made unreasonable demands, while customers looked on smiling.

Then we went to the TAC to place some bets: first on some horses, then on some dogs. Malcolm talked with the man behind the counter in some male dialect that I had never heard before, and he swore when he lost his $15 bet. The man behind the counter told Malcolm he was a “real gentleman”, but he was smiling the whole time. I could tell that he really liked Malcolm.

The only place where people didn’t know Malcolm’s name and where nobody talked to anybody was at the local gaming joint, where I assisted Malcolm to feed $50 notes into one of those money-sucking slots. I was just as mesmerized as anyone else by the flashing lights, electronic jingles and clatter of gold coins. People only looked at their screens, or their pots of money, or their frothy cups of complimentary coffee. Nobody looked at anybody else. When I talked to a person, it was more like talking to a machine.

I was thinking that even though Malcolm has a ‘disability’, he also has an incredible ‘ability’. He has a capacity to reach in and bring to the surface that which is so very human in all of us. For many of us, community interactions are little more than faceless transactions. But when Malcolm is around, the bankers, TAC employees and shiny-skinned Maccas workers suddenly become people, who smile, joke, grumble and ultimately care. The great surprise is that it is obnoxious, wheelchair-bound Malcolm who causes the breakthrough of authentic community. Maybe the presence of a ‘disability’ makes us all realise we need each other?

At the gaming venue, Malcolm was blank-faced, somewhere else. Everybody seemed stuck in their own sad world of boredom and addiction. I don’t think it is possible for anything like community to break through in a pokies joint.

* not real name