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Prejudice is Still Alive and Kicking in Britain
Richard Attfield

I had occasion to rethink my idea of prejudice recently when Michael Caine, the well known actor, made a stand against the establishment when given an honorary fellowship by the British Academy at the BAFTA awards.  He stated during his acceptance speech that he had been looked down upon by people in the acting profession because he had an 'awkward voice and a duff accent' and also that 'British snobbery' had made him feel like an 'outsider all of his acting career'.

I myself have met with prejudice all my life for precisely the same reason - only unfortunately, unlike Michael Caine, my 'awkward voice' has never made me a fortune! The Reason for my awkward voice is that I am classed as having both autism and cerebral palsy.

I too have tried to make a stand against the prejudice I have had to deal with during my life. Just like the situation with Michael Caine, I usually end up wishing the floor would open up and swallow me whole when some unpopular comment I have made explodes in my face! I wonder whether Michael Caine realised the flack he would take when he made headlines in the Press the day after the BAFTA awards.  I personally would like to extend my thanks to Michael Caine for taking a stand against the prejudice he encountered.

To my mind prejudice is an ugly thing whatever shape or form it takes. Whether it is because of race, background, gender, religion or disability. If no one makes a stand, society at large seems to continually evade the issues and nothing changes. Not so long ago I had occasion to ask someone if they believed one person could make a difference. I do not think the question made the impact it deserved at the time as it seemed to fall on stony ground. 'Can one person make a difference?' I think so. I think each of us has something to contribute to society and therefore I believe each and every one of us can make a difference to the whole.

Michael Caine felt he had been excluded on the grounds of snobbery because of his social background.  I myself, felt I had been excluded, classed as an outsider, denied my right to an education. Which is why I enrolled as a student at Basildon College. You may ask why do I feel I had been denied an education?  Well basically because no one believed I or the other children I was at school with had the intelligence to receive one! I believe I was discriminated against on the grounds of my disability.

One may well ask 'What is Autism?' That is a good question and probably one you will not find an easy answer to, because it is somewhat of an enigma. Ask the question and you will be given a list of symptoms, e.g. inability to communicate, inability to interact socially.  It is said to be, broadly speaking, so I have been told - a communication disorder. Ask the experts to define that statement further and, in my experience, they will neatly sidestep the issue but deep down many believe it is the 'brain issue' - not enough I guess! I will leave you to decide that for yourself having read this article - whether I have sufficient brains or not to communicate on the same level as people who are not given the rather obscure title of 'autistic'.

All I know is that society failed to give me the means with which to communicate as a child. I was actually roughly fifteen years of age before I acquired a communication aid in the form of a Canon Communicator. I and thousands of others like me are left to rot in substandard educational establishments where there is usually only one, inadequately trained speech therapist in my opinion, to stretch between dozens of severely speech impaired children. That, to my mind, is prejudice in its worst form - cutting off children without a life line before they reach an age where they can possibly even understand what is happening to them.

When I myself approached a speech therapist recently in an endeavour to improve upon my 'awkward voice' she suggested I join her in 'banging a drum' to communicate. I failed to grasp the significance of her remark but perhaps I was missing something! My immediate response was 'what was wrong with words' but I received no satisfactory reply. The whole incident left me with the feeling that some how I was in the wrong and was missing some indefinable mysterious concept.

Thirty years ago the same issue revolved around deaf people and the powers that be wrote them off in the same vein - unable to communicate. They too fought a battle against prejudice. Today however many are accepted into mainstream education as equal to hearing people; unlike the many autistic children I have met who are still denied their basic rights to an education. Thirty years ago people with a hearing disability were not allowed to communicate by sign language but were encourage to try to speak verbally. Today a similar problem exists in many units for children diagnosed within the autism spectrum. Fifty percent of children with autism have no verbal language and therefore no means of being able to communicate. At the school I attended there was only one rather inapt speech therapist between 80 - 100 children, despite the effort of senior members of staff and parent pressure brought to bear.

In parts of the USA, so I am told, communication-disabled children as young as three under the umbrella of autism are given training with communication aids with good results. Unfortunately prejudice is still alive and kicking in Britain. An eminent member of the medical profession commented a few months back that I was 'difficult' to communicate with as I 'speak through voice computer'. I wonder whether he would have made the same rash comment to the distinguished Stephen Hawkins! Whilst quite distressed by his comment at the time, I tended to agree with it in principal, however I felt the 'difficulty' in trying to interact in a conversation with him was in fact mine not his. I felt like offering him my communication aid to type each word on to see how well he fared.

As a last thought I wonder how many of you realised that Peter Sellers, the well known actor was autistic, as were scientists Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and also the artist Lawrence Lowry.

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