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Monday: 10.00 - 13.00
Tuesday: 14.00 - 17.00
Wednesday: 10.00 - 16.30
Thursday: 10.00 - 16.00
Friday: Closed

Registered Office:
Kent Workplace Mission,
c/o Larkfield Methodist Church,
New Hythe Lane, Larkfield, Aylesford, Kent,
ME20 6PN

From John Hougham, Chaplain and KWM Vice-Chair

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One of the things which was emphasised at our recent chaplains’ conference on mental health was how often people with mental health issues are unfairly stigmatised and judged, through ignorance or fear of the unknown. I have no experience of working in the mental health field, but I was powerfully reminded of similar prejudices experienced by physically disabled friends with whom I worked for some years. Let me share the story of one of them.

When he was two years old Mike was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Specialists suggested he would never be able to walk or talk and that he would be completely uneducable.

When I first met Mike, I confess I found myself at something of a loss. He walked in a very ungainly way and did not have complete control of any of his limbs. Much more difficult was the fact that his speech was almost completely unintelligible. As I discovered, most people could only understand Mike at all through a third-party facilitator, just as if he were speaking a foreign language. Being with Mike in public was an education. Sometimes we met in hotels and the reaction of many members of the public to this shambling figure, uttering very strange sounds, was obvious and often unpleasant.

Over a period of time I got to know Mike very well and learned a good deal about his background. Mike had graduated in psychology and neurophysiology at Westminster University. He won a seat on Islington Council, moved to Ealing and became head of that authority’s Disability Policy and Services Department. He went on to run his own disability consultancy, joined the BBC in 1992 and worked as an assistant producer and director for the community and disability programmes units and for schools and continuing education television. He also developed significant skills as a freelance trainer, video maker and management consultant. He won a place to Clare College Cambridge and was awarded a PhD for his thesis on disability issues. All this, and a great deal more, went to make up the man that was my friend Mike.

One story, which I particularly liked, was of Mike at a conference in Rotterdam, addressing his audience, of course, through his facilitator, his interpreter. The process involved Mike speaking a few sentences at a time, after which the facilitator would repeat them to the audience. On this occasion the facilitator couldn’t understand a word he was saying and asked him to repeat himself. He still couldn’t understand, so Mike repeated his words again and again. On the third occasion someone in the front row called out, “He’s speaking in Dutch!” And indeed he was.

By now back in English, Mike said, “Two lessons here. The first is, you should never underestimate someone because they are disabled. The second lesson is that all too often disabled people are only limited by the poor quality of the resources available to them!”

I learnt very many valuable lessons from Mike, and not by any means just about disability. Mike was an object lesson on how our prejudices, our deeply held, perhaps unconscious, beliefs can affect our behaviour towards others. Mike made you look very hard at your own behaviour and how you saw the world. Being with Mike made you question some of your own very fundamental thinking.

As chaplains we are often privileged to be privy to the most intimate aspects of people’s lives, to get to know the real person behind the face that they may sometimes show to the outside world. As such we are in a powerful position to help them in their fight against prejudice and ignorance.
Sadly, Mike died just two years ago. I feel very privileged to have known him. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

John can be contacted via his email address:

jjohn.hougham@kentworkplacemission.org