All Great Things . . .



There I was rounding the corner of James and King Streets in Hamilton’s Central area again when I came upon this severely intoxicated man lying on the sidewalk. At the same time, two police officers arrived in a paddy wagon to collect this poor soul off of the street and take him to detox.

As I was shooting, one man – a senior citizen, approached me to complain about the homeless and what they’re doing to the downtown core and society. Was this man homeless? I don’t know. He might not have been. Not every staggering or semi-conscious drunk on the street is a stereotypical skid row bum. Sometimes when I come across instances like these, I’m able to get a bit of the story but this is one of the times when that didn’t happen.

One of the uniformed officers asked me why I was shooting. I told him that I’m a local artist with a particular interest in the city’s diverse social cultures. After he and his partner placed the inebriated sluggard into the back of the van, he tossed his head back and to his right, chuckled and then casually said with a smirk and a nod, “You’ll find all kinds!”

What drives a person to such self-loathing and self-destruction that they’ll literally cast themselves away to the street like improperly disposed trash instead of seeking help? I’m not out to save the world but I really would like to know what can we really do to help people end their suffering? Am I supposed to be happy about this or merely indifferent? I live here too, and I proudly have a conscience.

Some people angrily or sarcastically insist that the answer to a lot of people’s problems like poverty, depression, alcoholism and drug addiction is to go back to school and learn a new career that will give them higher earning power. That’s a good idea initially. The 2004 Ontario Early Years Community Profile on the City of Hamilton shows that in 2001 approximately a third of the city’s population, in all age groups over 20 years, had no more than some post secondary education. Unfortunately, the brick wall ahead of sending mature folks back to school is the matter of all those people who have genuine learning and/or social disabilities. They’re simply not going to be accepted into any college or university, even if they are somehow able to scrape together the tuition through their cycle of dire poverty. Virtually everyone who has gone to school in Ontario on government assistance programs like OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program) also say that the government has never exactly been generous either.

It’s hard to find stats on such disabilities that have come out since the start of what we used to call “the New Millennium”. The old reports, however, are still enlightening. Perhaps it’s an indication that new studies about this problem are unnecessary:

• According to an old Ontario Ministry of Labour, Handicapped Employment Program, “Adults with learning disabilities, who have not received appropriate education and/or training, typically hold a job for only three months. Employers when questioned, report that the reason for termination in most cases related to the person’s social skills deficits rather than to any job skill problems.”

• The Dr. Dan Offord, Ontario Child Health Study, Chedoke-McMaster Hospital, Hamilton, Ontario said that, “15% to 20% of Canadians with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) also have specific learning disabilities.”

• Dr. Reid Lyon’s testimony before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, a committee of The US House of Representatives, July 10, 1997 stated that, “75% of children with reading disabilities in grade 3 who did not receive early intervention, continue to have difficulties learning to read throughout high school and their adult life.”

• The National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center said in 1994 that “30% of adults with severe literacy problems were found to have undetected or untreated LD (Learning Disabilities).”

Despite the usual complaints, does anyone really care about what happens to such people and how adversely their economic position really impacts society? It doesn’t seem like it. There are a huge number of government and private non-profit agencies dedicated to this issue; many of them have been around for decades but as resources, they continue to be grossly ineffective in stemming the tide of poverty problems related to learning and social disabilities. I’m afraid that for Hamilton to get on top of its own major poverty crisis, it will take much more than people going back to school.

Funny thing about those old reports though, and people’s opinion about others’ lack of earning potential. I’ve come across many who are quite willing to share their profound examples of people whom they feel they know have landed management positions in companies, one way or another, while severely lacking interpersonal skills, and even training and experience for those jobs. Nepotism is usually blamed. If this is true, it begs the question; is the importance of developed work skill and competence, in reality, as important as many like to believe or is it largely just another baseless perception? Could the answer be the reason why it is so difficult to find reliable new reports?

As with any other genuine world city, drug culture has a profoundly strong presence in the lives of many, although not all, of those people with social and learning disabilities. Whether alcohol or narcotics, I’ve met many just within this city who have said that they still or used to participate in substance abuse to some extent. I can’t say that I’ve been able to actually get to really know these people to verify any of their claims. They were all merely acquaintances. I’ve only actually known a scant number of people who have said that they used to do it or “tried it” and gave it up because they “regretted” it.

I really can’t say that any of these people I truly know have what I would perceive to be a social or learning disability. Of those acquaintances I have come across, however, it seems a little to overwhelmingly obvious that they have been predestined for difficulty. I find from the few able or willing to express themselves on the matter that they knew from very early in their childhood that they had these deficiencies, even before someone with some sort of academic degree gave them an expert diagnosis. Through their academic and social difficulties in school, they eventually resulted to thinking of and referring to themselves as “retards”, “stupid”, “idiots”, “goofs”, “morons” and “losers” and opted to cop out of the established and rigid system of preparing for life in modern society. Their means of escape quickly became drugs and alcohol.

Yes, there are people who have impressive alternative ways of educating those who seem impossible to train but the truth is those people are rare, and sometimes overlooked because their unconventional approach to teaching isn’t permitted because it’s not recognized by some official board or ministry. Additionally, and in truth, the learning disabled who enter the few such established programs know that they become the subjects of gossip by those who excel in the status quo.

“Oh, he’s in that ‘special-ed’ class,” they say.

“She needs a tutor.”

Whether deliberately meant to be harmful or not, these things negatively affect those who have such low self-esteem and many, not all, retreat into the drug culture. We all know that many of them permanently become part of that subculture.

So how do we fight this? How do we keep more of the learning disabled from joining that culture?

Snobbery helps to drive the problem. There are those whose attitude is (occasionally you find some who will boast about it openly):

“I have the education, money (sometimes the conceited are the worst substance abusers), good looks and connections to get ahead in this world, and even keep dysfunctional, underprivileged lowlifes like you down.”

People with learning disabilities are acutely aware that a variation of social Darwinism is still a pervasive problem in our modern industrialized society. Unable to cope, the self-loathed see this most unfortunate reality as yet more reason to lose themselves in a drunken or doped up haze.

How do we deal with this negative catalyst? Is it possible and practicable to initiate some sort of direct and public ad campaign to try and convince people to be more sensitive and politically correct towards those who have learning challenges for the sake of the everyone’s dignity and even the economy? By comparison, how effective are the contemporary (post-1960’s American Civil Rights Movement) strategies on racism and sexism? How many in today’s society are actually moved to care about those issues? If the answer is not enough, then how can we reach that same group of people who would dare look down upon someone with a learning disability? What do we do?

What about those self-esteem workshops, are they effective? Both juveniles and adults in our community need help but in specific consideration of the young, who are repeatedly said to be the most susceptible to the drug culture, can these motivational discourses successfully help a large number of youth for a long time, if not forever?

Are there any reliable studies on this? If so, perhaps elementary and high schools should establish full-out curriculums on self-esteem. Teaching and counselling to encourage those who need it to believe in themselves more, and a pragmatic effort to educate the privileged to understand the difference between conceit and confidence, even though it’s only a fine line between the two. Probably many of us, young and old, also need to learn the differences between sensitivity, insensitivity and indifference, and how to be more mindful of these psycho-social conditions.

6 thoughts on “All Great Things . . .

  1. I always feel bad when I see stuff like that. Addiction causes much suffering. I try to understand but can never come up with any viable reason as to why. For whatever one wants to escape from there remain still when you wake up again. Terribly.

    • Whenever I see something like this, I consider that there’s a pretty high probability that when this person was an infant, he or she had a mother or father that had tremendously high hopes for their baby; never imagined that their child would wind up face down in a gutter on the street. I start to wonder; as this child grew and increasingly began to reason and make choices for himself or herself, did he or she stop to think about how honourable, independent and grounded their parents must have envisioned they would become. What did it take for that child to say, “To hell with that! I’m going to go to this extreme way of life regardless of my family’s high hopes for me. I won’t bother trying harder, and I won’t ask anyone for the help that I know I need.” What caused such a colossal departure from sensibility and logic? I’d really love to know.

  2. Allan, I don’t have any answers but I know some damn grizzly stories . . . drug addicted parents, unwanted pregnancies and lifestyles sorely lacking in sensibility and logic which, as children, is taken as “normal” – we all want the love of our parents, they are our first heroes, until they are not . . .

    • There it is, the most bitter pill to swallow. The God’s honest truth that there are, and always will be, some percentage of people who absolutely make the worst parents regardless of the fact that they’re quite capable of fertilizing an egg and conceiving children.

      I don’t think there is a real answer for that.

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