My husband informs me that it takes skill and forward thinking to survive in the Arctic.
I believe him. I am not used to extremes of cold or the climatic changes that are the norm for that part of the world. I am not used to being self -sufficient or problem solving on any great scale. It would simply be another world – very much removed from my own. As this phrase was repeated with time, it began to resonate with my experience of disability. Was this not after all, what happened when you became disabled?
As his tales of the struggle for existence in the Arctic continued, the comparison in my mind to the world of disability began to grow. He explained how he had been looked at strangely when he arrived in the settlement, and was given the name of “Kabloonak” or “White Man”. He did not perceive himself as being different. But the Inuit perceived him as strange – and it was not just the colour of his skin. He thought differently: belonged to a different tribe.
Does disability not make you feel similarly? Suddenly, (or gradually, depending on your diagnosis) you find yourself in another environment, to which you are not at all accustomed. You may feel the same as before, yet now you have the label “disabled”: the same individual, the same likes and dislikes, even adapted similar abilities, but with a label. This label means that there are new problems that consume hours, days and weeks in our attempts to solve what bureaucracy creates.
In our world, we would consider the Inuit to be living at a considerable disadvantage, with no shops or roads: where if you wan to eat, you must catch it and prepare it yourself. Every day the task was to go out onto the tundra and either shoot game or fowl or catch fish. Vegetarianism was not an option. Money had no value to these people – there was no use for it– but their environment was respected, as that is where the food came from.
As Kabloonak had come from a rich Western nation, the contrast was marked. In the Arctic you must be aware, or you lose your life very quickly. He learnt that the smallest thing required attention and how to make do with very little. He learnt how to create with material that others saw no use for.
He had deep admiration for the skill and intuitiveness of the Inuit, living in such a hostile climate. These people, who had so little, but had learned how to survive, commanded respect: and respect is one of the building blocks that I believe we must have if we are to be successful.
As Government Benefits cuts cruelly restrict the abilities of more and more people to participate in Society, we need to re-evaluate. Thinkers and planners, visionaries and innovators are required to work a way round the obstacles that are put before us.
By going back to the most basic of situations, we can sometimes understand what needs to be done to improve our present lot. I wrote this blog for this purpose: to allow people generally to see that what was once believed impossible is not: it is simply challenging. Your early efforts may be criticised, as people do not share your experience or have your knowledge. You require self- confidence to overcome this.
This following story is a small example of what can be done, with no resources, no money, no common language and no shared vision. It contains the “building blocks” for a successful outcome.
This strength of collaboration and engagement speaks for itself. It need not take money to create something – but it does require an innovative thinker, and someone who recognises the vision. It is a story of the Arctic and the Inuit; of survival and the consequences of complacency, of education and teaching.
And how, through mutual trust and respect, a Scotsman built a shed.
Traditionally, the Inuit were a nomadic people, who went where food was accessible. Caribou, fish or seal –it was imperative that they knew where it was most likely to be found, and make their way in that direction. They lived on the tundra in skin tents. In severe conditions in the winter, should the need arise when they were out hunting, they could build an igloo.
These wandering habits were not pleasing to The Canadian Federal Government, who decided that such meanderings merely made them difficult to count. The decision was made to provide prefabricated houses for them: to encourage them to stay in one place – in a settlement. These were duly delivered and built, Thus the Inuit’s way of life changed, although they attempted to preserve many of their customs.
The Scotsman found them to be the happiest of people – only taking what was required to live – and passing on their knowledge to future generations.
As a 19 year old Scottish boy, he had arrived one day on the weekly plane, which carried vital supplies to this remote community. He found himself to be the only passenger. The village usually turned out to watch the arrival of this weekly flight, to refurbish their cupboards, and on this occasion to look and murmur at the newcomer. He quickly accepted that Kabloonak was to be his name. Through the coming months, as he watched their ways carefully, he appreciated their wisdom and began to understand their survival techniques in this hostile environment.
Living in a family of three generations, it was accepted that the Scot would take his share of the work: so each day, he hunted and fished and brought home food. The Inuit taught him how to skin animals, pluck birds, and jig for fish through ice holes. He learned the most effective way of preserving food; he learned where, in summer, caribou could be found. It was here that he truly understood that a lack of food sharpened the mind. When you experience real hunger, shooting becomes very accurate.
But most importantly he learned how crucial it was in this landscape to watch your back trail. With no landmarks, nothing was simpler than becoming completely disoriented –and that was a terrifying experience. There were no hills or forests. There were literally thousands of small lakes– so many that they all began to look alike after a while. All the cognitive abilities of a human being were insufficient in this vast landscape if you lacked awareness. It was critical to look round every so often and scan the landscape –to scrutinize how it would appear approaching from the other direction. That was the only way to find your way home – and making an error could be fatal, as thousands of miles open tundra lay before you.
Complacency was dangerous. The price of freedom was vigilance.
In this extended Inuit family, the Scot felt that he could offer some improvement of his own. He wanted to have a shed to store all the family’s tools. This was a real challenge. How could he achieve this with no materials and no common language?
There were no trees in this harsh landscape – winter or summer. There was the occasional bit of wood or plastic, the odd crate that arrived as flotsam and jetsam on the coast. Nails were extremely difficult to find, and he couldn’t buy supplies, as there were no shops. Nails were always second -hand and inevitably required straightening.
He decided to gather any pieces of solid substance, which could be put to use in the construction of a small building. Nails were carefully hoarded and straightened. On his daily trips, he always managed to find something to bring back that could be of use, and his woodpile started to grow. This caused much curiosity and even mild anger among the Inuit, who valued their environment, and saw his growing pile of debris as rubbish. What was his intention? What did he mean to do with all this scrap wood? What benefit did it have? Why was he making a mess?
He managed to explain, without a common language, that he wanted to build a shed – a building that would house tools. The purpose of this plan was dismissed by many, never having known the potential of such a building, and having no woodworking skills. But there was one patriarch of the tribe, a man over sixty years of age, who grasped the value of what was trying to be achieved. He watched the young man in the evening, laboriously trying to make these slivers of metal straight, and eventually realised that this must be an important part of the plan. One day he came to the younger man, carefully bearing a gift: a handful of nails the he had straightened by himself. The Scot was very grateful, appreciating the time and effort the older man had obviously given to this task.
From that moment on, they were allies. The patriarch demonstrated a keen interest in the methodology– in the hammer and the nails and the wood – in how to do it.
So gradually, over a period of many months, the Scot and the older man worked together – finding a way to construct the building. As chance would have it, the most appropriate part for the roof of this shed arrived very early, but there was obviously a waiting time for walls……As time went on, and week followed week, more and more parts were collected. Together they set about building the shed –with no shared language, background or culture.
Eventually it was completed. The older man had followed the vision of the young man from another country, and had learned something from him. It was a challenging collaborative effort – and it eventually became a resource for the Community.
Yet, it started with nothing – literally nothing – but a collaborative effort. So what exactly happened?
- A different understanding of what was useful: a change in perspective and skills.
- A willingness to embrace another’s vision: however meaningless it appeared to be.
- Trust was born, and there was openness to learning on both sides.
- A mutual respect for the skills of the other was an important ingredient.
- The ambition to improve was a driving factor.
- Change was occurring in the community: the patriarch had realised and accepted the need for change.
- Persistence and determination to succeed, using unfamiliar tools.
- Each empowered the other. The patriarch had no experience of working with wood and nails, a new skill he learnt: the Scot was empowered through his vision gaining recognition.
As we go forward in our changing world, where it is so difficult to be heard above the clamour of selfishness, I suggest in this work that these main factors will lead to success. The need for collaboration is strong: to become a partner; to engage in other activities. Once we are known, we can earn trust. Once we have trust, respect follows. The ability to share a vision: to understand: to empower are essential.
It is also important to possess the ambition to alter the status quo: to acknowledge that change is happening and to be willing to move with it. That takes persistence and determination, and not just a little courage.
If you serve in the Army, you have the full backing of the Government. You have maps and compasses, ammunition and firepower: you know when an action will begin, and you have an objective. You have transport, food, rest and relaxation. You are paid a salary for your efforts in the service of your country.
The disabled fighter in the Other World has no such assistance: indeed, much time is gobbled up fighting bureaucracy, (which, it is maintained, is there to assist.) or filling in forms to satisfy Government, demanding the most private of details. Directions are frequently misleading, non- specific or not applicable, so a huge amount of time is dedicated to wondering which way to turn. Clout is completely absent: and firepower is missing. In this Other World, you become used to being called a scrounger, and you will never be wealthy if you started your journey with nothing.
Transport is frequently denied. If you want to drive, there are various hoops you can jump through. It will take years to achieve. With great determination, we managed it in three.
Public transport varies from excellent to non-existent. Trains can be great – but there is no law which extends to wheelchair access of platforms. This makes life very complicated at times, and leads to exceedingly interesting journeys.
Buses think that they do it, but I would like to see a Bus Company Chief Executive use a wheelchair for a week on his buses, and see how he fares. He would certainly earn his salary, and it could bring about improvement.
In this Other World, any objective you set, although clear and vital to your goal, are meaningless to the vast majority of the population. Needs, abilities, values and voice are ignored. They lie discarded in tragic isolation. Nobody notices that small slivers of metal that are being laboriously hammered into nails.
This is evidence, were it required, that the transfer from Policy to Practice does not work. As Florence Nightingale put it:
“Directives do not self execute.”
They never will.
For those who have a disability, every day there is a mountain to climb: every day, society dons its glasses of wilful blindness.
This is the story of one disabled man, who was willing to work with others to bring about change. It observes him through eighteen years of continual fighting, and the relationships he fostered and built. While giving this battle for Independent Living his full attention and wholehearted effort, he was unlike any other soldier.
His was a never ending battle There is no R&R. You are always in the front line. You dare not become tired and despondent. This battle continues for as long as he has the strength and willingness to fight. The exhaustion cannot be described.
His efforts to live in an ordinary house in the Community took eight years.
He fought on – through the doubts of the able-bodied – through fireworks being put through his door by teenagers just out for a laugh. He persisted: and like the Scotsman in the Arctic, eventually succeeded in creating a bespoke building that met his needs.
That was his reward.
His name was Shand.
© Linda Jane McLean