by Laurence Clark
BBC Ouch 19th June 2006
An occupational hazard of having Cerebral Palsy like mine is people constantly assuming that I’m drunk because of the way I speak.
I get many of the negative aspects of being inebriated, like: people not taking me seriously; lack of co-ordination; sometimes not getting served in pubs. But unfortunately I miss out on the positive side, you know: the inflated sense of self-esteem; the over-confidence; the ability to talk to total strangers in pubs.
A friend of mine, who also has cerebral palsy, was picked up several times by the police for being drunk in public, despite the fact that he is teetotal. I figure this has never happened to me because I use a wheelchair but my friend does not.
When people see I’m in a wheelchair, they assume that my slurred speech is part of my impairment, so without it I’m just another annoying lush.
This was made all too clear to me a few years ago whilst on a flight to South Africa. When you fly you have to surrender your wheelchair to the mercy of the baggage-handlers, so I was sitting in a regular aircraft cabin seat looking deceptively normal.
When the trolley arrived by my side I requested a glass of wine from the head flight attendant. He refused to give me one. It seems he didn’t realise I was disabled and thought I’d “had quite enough”. When I argued that I wasn’t drunk, he told the person with me that they should keep me “under control!” From the way he spoke about me, you’d assume I was some sort of caged animal! I half expected to be banged up in quarantine for six months when we got to Cape Town.
Of course I wrote the obligatory letter of complaint after the event and received vouchers from the airline to fly with them again, but somehow I’ve never been able to bring myself to use them.
Though speaking face to face can be difficult, Speaking on the telephone has its own set of problems.
If I dial a wrong number, I’m sometimes mistaken for an obscene phone caller… especially if I’ve forgotten to take my inhaler! On one occasion, a woman that I’d rung in error began to panic when she heard my voice and shouted for her husband, who then proceeded to angrily lecture me on moral values:
“How dare you start harassing my wife? What do you think you’re playing at…?”
“… You should be ashamed of yourself – drinking at this time of the day. No wonder this country’s going to the dogs.”
… I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.
Computers are just as bad as people when they are on the other end of a phone line. For example, the automated National Rail Enquiry line can’t recognise a single word I say. It’s quite common to see me yelling into my mobile phone: “Liverpool… Liv-er-pool… I said bloody Liverpool Lime Street.”
The up side of all this is that we tend not to get bothered at home by telemarketing. The minute I reply with a yes to the customary question “Am I speaking to the homeowner”… they just hang up.
Another positive side to people thinking that I’m drunk all the time is that, in theory, they won’t be able to tell when I am actually pissed. After all, the tell-tale signs of falling over, slurred speech and an inability to use a front door key are just everyday occurrences for me.
I say people won’t be able to tell “in theory”, as more often than not they can tell only too well when I’m hammered, mainly because I turn into an obnoxious git. You see, after I’ve had a few too many, all my tolerance and self-control with members of the public goes out the window.
At a nightclub a few years ago, I got steadily more drunk… until I’d reached a point where I decided very suddenly that I needed to go home. However the problem with this was that I was sat in my wheelchair, slap bang in the middle of about a thousand equally drunk clubbers.
Sober Laurence would have patted each of them on the shoulder and asked them politely to let him past. Pissed Laurence, however, decided to pinch the bottom of anyone and everyone blocking his path. Male or female – I didn’t care.
After the first few they got the idea and started to warn the people ahead that I was coming. All of a sudden, a way through the crowd miraculously opened before me. It was like a modern-day parting of the Red Sea.
Bear in mind, this is one of the less embarrassing anecdotes that I could come up with. So you can probably see why I tend not to drink too much any more and am content to just get mistaken for being drunk instead.