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20th January 2016

Strangers on a Train

Sometimes not knowing what to do can mean you don't do anything. Is our typical British reserve its own handicap?

For some years I have been involved with supporting people to be more independent in living their lives, in fact as much as is possible and safe. This means taking a degree of managed risk; if you don't then you might never realise someone’s' full potential. You might find that this involves a level of 'letting go' that causes you real anxiety, but nevertheless as part of a planned and managed approach it is vital to a person's development.

One of the big risk areas for people with learning disability will always be independent travel, since there is nothing more liberating than being able to get out and about and enjoy your community without the burden of a hapless member of support staff in tow. These days, given the higher level of accessibility, security in the shape of onboard bus and train CCTV and a wider range of options for travel, this has really opened up the world for the people we support.

Awkward Commute

When travelling into the city centre recently, a chap got on my train that was rather noisier than the average commuter. In fact, he clearly had some degree of intellectual disability and punctuated his constant narrative of what he was thinking about with loud and explosive 'raspberry' blowing. He sat himself across the aisle from me and, aside from the noise, became one of the many ordinary travellers.

As we chugged along our route, he began to get slightly more animated and his verbal commentary became louder. People around him shifted uneasily in their seats, drawing their bags close (although he was seemingly oblivious of those around him and clearly not about to commit a mugging) One lady with a child actually got up and moved down the carriage away from him.

The man's rambling chatter became ever louder and he was palpably agitated as the journey progressed. At this point he actually did seem to realise other people were there and in fact began to look anxiously about at us as he talked. People turned away, averted their eyes and became suddenly fixated with what was going on outside the window. Nobody engaged with him or even exchanged eye contact. I realised that he was actually repeating the same words over and over, louder and louder, fidgeting in his seat and staring up at the electronic sign that was streaming the station information to the rest of us.

I became aware of the words he was repeating; they were the names of the stations along this route, in order of arrival. In fact, exactly the words that were rolling in green LED lights on the overhead sign. It was only then I realised that the words he was repeating did not coincide with the words on the screen. They were the same stations, but out of time with the signage. His anxiety was now evident to most of the other travellers; he was wringing his hands and looked as though he might cry. This was causing the people around him no small degree of distress, since they had all but exhausted all options to tactfully disengage.

The Penny Drops

I suddenly had a thought; what if he wasn't reading the sign? What if he couldn't read the sign? It was only then that I realised another key issue; the voiceover that usually accompanied the sign was not there. This was probably the reason his talking to himself had been so hard to ignore. We were all sitting there in silence and nobody, not even the posh voiceover lady, was talking, all except him. And then I realised that if he wasn't hearing the list of stations, he might not know where to get off the train.

At the same moment that this light bulb went on over my head, an elderly lady leaned forward and put her hand on his arm.

"Which station do you want, sir?" She asked gently. He started, but seeing her smile, replied with the name of the next station on the line. Seven times, but at least he was clear. The lady patted his arm "Me too!" She said, " We can get off together in a minute."

The man pulled away from her a little, but his mood altered and he calmed visibly. He did not speak further to the lady, nor to any of us, but kept up his narrative until the train slowed, then he rose, waited to let the lady pass him, and alighted the train. Wry smiles all around and the remaining passengers relaxed their body language from aloof to open. But perhaps we all felt a bit humbled by the actions of that lady who saw beyond the fact that here was an odd fellow who made us uncomfortable. She saw a man whose support structure around travelling alone had failed him and stepped up to offer him dignity and assistance.

I wish I thought that examples of this insight and kindness were the norm, but I doubt it. I believe that in our need to stay safe, we often retreat into our own private space and lock others out. This is a natural response to perceptions of our own vulnerability, or perhaps a need to limit the risk of appearing nosy or too familiar. But if you do see a person with a disability, it need not be an affront to their dignity to check if they need your support. Sometimes it can make the difference between independence and reliance.

Ginny Tyler – QCS Expert Learning Disabilities Contributor

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