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Gordon's D-Zone Arcive (2006-2014)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tribute to Wenzu Dalli - disability activist (and more) Part 4 [FINALE]

Eventually, Wenzu was appointed the first president of the Maltese Council of Disabled Persons (MCoDP) – the first local organisation run and maintained by disabled people in Malta. As his successor, believe me it’s tough to be in his shoes. Not just because they would probably fall off but because he was a wonderful person and a leader in his own right.

Back to last Thursday's celebration ...

Ah ... I remember all the speeches delivered by distinguished guests - the President of Malta Edward Fenech Adami, and the Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Mercieca. And the words of his close friends - including the current chair of the National Commission Persons with Disability Joseph Camilleri, as well as the former parish priest of Hal Ghaxaq who became good friends with Wenzu - Fr Martin Micallef. These last two said a lot about who Wenzu was and what he strove for.

Of course, I cannot fail to mention the fireworks and the great ceremony held at Hal Ghaxaq's parish and at the town square - not to mention the abundant food served during the reception (yum!). Indeed, I feel I must thank the Wenzu Dalli Commission for erecting the bust in Wenzu's honour at the centre of Hal Ghaxaq. The festivities and the warm welcome we received from the people of Hal Ghaxaq was remarkable. Truly, we should remember this man.

But it would be a pity if we forget him as a real person. As his friends, we were lucky enough to know him for who he was. Indeed, it would go against what he believed in if for others Wenzu remained nothing more than an icon – “Wenzu, the blind man” – a person only identified by his blindness. Whilst it’s undeniable that his blindness affected the course of his life, as our impairments often do, it goes against all that Wenzu had fought for and sought to achieve if we reduce all his life was about to a fight against his impairment - because it really wasn't!

For Wenzu, like us, wasn’t a saint or a super human figure. He was a man who was unjustly treated in his youth because of his impairments. However, instead of sulking and closing himself to the world and others, he took action. And yet, this doesn’t make him braver or greater than others, but accentuates his humanity and his determination to redress the injustices perpetuated against him. However, he knew that he couldn’t afford to put himself apart from others because at the end of the day, he knew that we all need each other.

This is what Wenzu is all about. He’s not about a man who ‘overcame his blindness’. It is about a man who recognised that if all society worked together then, truly, there will be a more inclusive society. Only then can disabled people be included as valued human beings. That is what Wenzu taught me - the responsibility for change rests with all of us. And that we should celebrate our differences and who we are. At least, that is what Wenzu taught me...

Yes, we miss you Wenzu!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Tribute to Wenzu Dalli - disability activist (and more) Part 3

On the other hand, it would be wrong to assume that Wenzu had only a scholar’s personality (whatever that means…)

In fact, he was also a great joker and storyteller. When he related a joke, you could hear perfect silence followed by an outburst of laughter. When he related an anecdote, we were mesmerised by the detail and the way he drew you into the scene. Once he even visited the desert and chose to travel with the Bedouins for a few days. He described how he and his friend had met this group of nomadic Bedouins.

Once the Bedouins learned that Wenzu was blind, they offered him a trip with them. Apparently, they believed that blind people are endowed with supernatural gifts and thus treated him like royalty throughout the trip across the desert.

Yet, they say if a man has only learning and no kindness, then he is not a full human being. In this too, Wenzu showed compassion and had a deep sense of justice. He loved all animals, and tried to befriend everyone. On the other hand, he knew that he had to put his foot down sometimes or – in Wenzu’s case, shake his head to and fro in disagreement.

Back in 2003, when I met him, Wenzu was also discovering the social model. The idea that it wasn’t the fact he was blind that had limited him in his youth and adulthood. Rather, it was a society that decided that disabled people should not work or develop themselves as it deemed us ‘worthless’ or of ‘little value’. It was then that I was fortunate enough to witness a man who was – like myself – becoming more involved in what I would later know as ‘disability activism’. It was a time when I was also reclaiming part of myself that I had long denied.

In his journey to understand what disability meant to him, he concluded that disability wasn’t an issue of ‘blind people’ or of ‘physically disabled people’, ‘Deaf people’, ‘people with an intellectual impairment’ and so on. Indeed, it wasn’t an issue that only concerned us as disabled people. When he spoke he tried to include every disabled person, whatever the impairment. In his later years, he continued to grow in many ways. OK, at times, he used to mock himself as many of us do to ease non-disabled people when faced by our ‘extraordinary’ bodies (tongue-in-cheek).

It wasn’t the first time he used his large size at the butt of his own jokes with close friends.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tribute to Wenzu Dalli - disability activist (and more) Part 2

So Wenzu had to find a job…

Despite having received education in the mainstream, Wenzu’s employment options were limited. In this, it must be clearly stated that his prospects were not restricted by the fact he was blind but rather by the strong negative social expectations of the day. Indeed, in Malta of his time (around the early 70s) blind people were usually expected to work either as a telephone operator or in a job policy experts considered to be doable by blind people.

Wenzu eventually became a Braille instructor. Given his thirst for knowledge, this was his best choice given his wide-ranging interests. He could not only have access to more Braille books but opened the doors to other blind people to knowledge and education.

This drive for learning and teaching manifested itself in the way he talked with different people. Indeed, Wenzu could discuss many subjects ranging from opera and yes, even art and sculpture. He left a great impression on me as I heard him speak for the first time. It was a time when I was starting to lose my vision in both eyes and looked up to Wenzu for advice at times. Although he was very confident and straight when he made his point, Wenzu never pretended to be better than those who had received a formal education.

In the same years I met him, Wenzu had started using a computer with speech output which meant that he could now access literally thousands of books and information available on the internet. Knowledge that was unavailable to him given the problems with the size and cost of Braille books.

He used to search for information on his favourite subjects, which included nature and animals. He learned quickly but, again, wasn’t a show-off but used to research a topic well if it interested him. Before I forget - did I mention that he also talked on a local radio channel on how to take care of animals? I remember listening to recordings of birds he used to download from the internet and going into great detail about the species of bird, the colour of the plumage and many other aspects of animal care. He was also a source of local guidance on animal issues in his community of Hal Ghaxaq.

Wenzu's passion for learning prompted the National Commission Persons with Disability (KNPD) to name its new resource center after him. The Wenzu Dalli Resource Center (WDRC) was officially opened in 2007.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to assume that Wenzu had only a scholar’s personality (whatever that means…)


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Tribute to Wenzu Dalli - disability activist (and more) Part 1

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of being invited to an unveiling of a bust in honour of Wenzu Dalli (1955-2005), an important contributor to local disability activism. I cannot do justice to his memory in these short posts but I’ll try to capture some of the moments and feelings I had following this event.

Wenzu, which is the Maltese equivalent of “Lawrence”, was blind from birth and lived together with his sister Carmen (who was also blind) in the local town of Hal Ghaxaq. He lived in that locality for all of his life. When he died back in 2005, he managed to touch the hearts and change the minds of many people on what it means to be disabled in Hal Ghaxaq and beyond.

But first, a short biographical sketch…

Wenzu, unlike other children of his generation, had to attend a special school in his early days since he was blind. It was there that he learned Braille. He then proceeded to become one of the first disabled students to attend a mainstream school. If we consider that disabled people were in the majority excluded from mainstream schooling, this opportunity helped Wenzu greatly in developing a thirst for knowledge and learning. Sadly, he couldn’t continue expanding on his formal education. Indeed, Wenzu would have been considered ‘lucky’ to have received mainstream education in the first place!

So Wenzu had to find a job…


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Choice and Prejudice

Hi! I'm here again... At least today I found a few minutes to write a post entry. The truth of the matter is that between the fact that I had an awful lot of reports to write for work (and still do!), I was stuck on what to write about. No use writing if you're not inspired ... This blog has its standards doesn't it?

On the other hand, I have been active on Facebook and had the opportunity to get in touch with some old friends - some even going back to my school days (which in truth are not that long ago!). And as I remind myself of 'those times', the more I realise how much I've changed since then.

However, now that I've become involved in the disability sector - and most importantly being a disability activist - I have no real regrets. Admittedly, I have made it a point to dedicate my time to the things I like such as reading, music and exploring who I am in more depth but inside I still feel I cannot detach myself from my status as 'disabled' without being reminded of this fact!

And how I was reminded! At my office, a man entered red in the face as he saw me passing along and promptly stopped me and showed me the bruises he had on his leg. I looked at him with a puzzled look and then was told, "You people... you wheelchair cases... did this to me..." I left work on that day with a mixture of feelings... I felt angry, frustrated but most of all hurt because that was an insensitive and unjust comment.

For the last month, I've also been reading Stephen Covey's "The 8th Habit" and apart from all it's useful advice, I found that his argument on choice struck a chord. In his book, he argues that we are 'not the products of nature or nurture' but of choice. Granted, there may be many arguments to counter this. For instance, are disabled people that free to choose given the barriers and attitudes that we have to face on a daily basis? Can we really be free to live in a way that our choices come into fruition?

But perhaps the discourse of victimism and blame - that I'm guilty of using (even here) - are not part of the solution but part of the problem. If the residents of Le Court, for example, had given up hope of having justice when they asked Miller and Gwynn for their research support, would there have been a disability movement in the UK? Or if the students at Berkeley (US) hadn't taken any initiative and blamed destiny for their exclusion, would there have been any progress in the US?

Undoubtedly, our 'walk to freedom' (which incidentally is also the title of Mandela's autobiography) requires of us choice to move from being victims to activists, from blaming society to changing society and, more importantly, from choosing not to let society use nature as an excuse for our exclusion.

Now back to the disablist comment of the man I spoke about before. I don't feel the same way I do before. I have every right to be angry. It was indeed an unjust and prejudicial remark to put all wheelchair users in the same box and, on top of that, stereotype us as some kind of 'hazard'. But I should know that this is the price I have to pay for being different. I know it's untrue to be thought of in that way. That is why, I now choose to ignore such remarks but make it a point to change the society which brought on such a mindset. That, I believe, activism is all about ...

For more on the history of the disability movement, you can visit the Leeds Disability Archive

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A dream I had ...

I'm a bird flying over the deep ocean,
I am lost in calm motion.

My white body looks down at the sun
reflected in the blue wavy sea.

No past or future troubles me.
My wings are free in certainty.

I glide to where I do not know.
Yet I do not fear whatever is.

I am a bird.
I am a creature of the world.
Of the universe beyond.

Inspired by a dream I had today. Hope you enjoyed it!