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Truly independent

by Laurence Clark

11th July 2005

As a teenager at special school, I once took part in something called 'independence week'. The aim behind this was to assess the extent to which I could do things for myself. My school mates and I were watched as we did a whole load of mundane stuff like washing up, getting dressed, cooking, grocery shopping and showering. At 13 years old, the very thought of these few days filled me with terror ...
You see, on the whole special schools are not big on personal space, and the last thing that any teenager wants is to have their privacy invaded. My own worst nightmare was that I would face the humiliation of being observed performing intimate tasks for myself. In other words - and I realise how silly this sounds now - at the time I was scared stiff that the school's occupational therapists were going to monitor and evaluate my arse-wiping ability!

To appreciate this fear, you have to take on board two things:

1. At school, the occupational therapists put me through numerous humiliating experiences in pursuit of something called 'normality' - whatever that is.
Laurence's photo of his childhood pet dog, Rusty, in the humiliating situation of having his bottom wiped in public
2. I was haunted by the pained look on the face of my childhood pet dog, Rusty, as he was having his arse wiped in the picture you can see on this page!

Bit of a weird photo to have in the album, huh? Let me explain ...

On a family day out, Rusty had experienced a particularly bad bout of diarrhoea, so my parents had to clean him up before letting him back in the car for the ride home. Being the mischievous, sick-minded little boy that I was, I could not resist taking a photo of my mother wiping the dog's bottom! Well, what 10-year old boy wouldn't do the same?

(Over the years, I've threatened my mum a number of times with the public exposure of the arse wiping photo - I knew that I should have sent it to So Graham Norton!)

What really gets me about this photo is the wide-eyed, confused look on Rusty's face - a look that seems to be saying: "What the bloody hell is this woman doing to me?!" This new experience was clearly a foreign and humiliating one to him! I couldn't help but imagine that I would have had a similar look on my face had I let the occupational therapists watch my arse being wiped! No way was I going to let that happen!

Now don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying that there's any shame in requiring assistance with this particular task. It's just that I already knew I could take care of myself in this area, and felt it wasn't necessary for my school to verify the fact!

So for that long, long week I completely avoided using the loo, save for a pee, because I was living in fear of the occupational therapists. Quite how I managed such a feat of endurance, I'll never know - it could well be a world record. Terror can do strange things to your bodily functions.

After moving to another special school, I was subjected to a similar experience in their 'independence flat'. Once again I had to do everything for myself, only this time I was also required to do them entirely by myself. I wasn't allowed company, particularly female, unless I left the door open so that staff could periodically check up on what we were doing.

Not only did this teach me naff all about living independently, but it was also probably the most boring week of my entire life!

I left school having had the importance of doing everything for myself drummed into me - no matter how long it took. But since then I've learned that it's better to get things done in a reasonable amount of time using personal assistants, rather than waste my days doing everything by my own hand at the expense of having a social life. For example, I always used to shave with an electric razor as I could use it myself, despite it taking ages and never shaving me close enough. Nowadays I get my personal assistant to give me a wet shave, because it's quicker, it's closer and it enables me to buy macho razors like: CruZer Precision, Mach 3 Turbo and M3 Power.

Thanks to personal assistants, I can now use massively over-priced shaving products with ludicrous names, just like any other man. That's what I call equality!

Today, I guess I've realised that living independently has nothing to do with doing everything ourselves without help, or living in isolation. It's about us controlling our own lifestyles by making choices, taking decisions and managing our own support, as non-disabled people do every day.

It's just a shame that I had to learn this the hard way!

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