I am talking at a meeting in a church hall. It is at a time in my life when I am always talking. I have so much to say, and it is too important to keep to myself, and so I tell other people about it. All the time.

Now that I try to remember it, the meeting is not in the hall itself, but in the vestibule. We can't go any further into the building because of the steps. So we sit in a circle and I keep talking, in the hall of the hall. Steps aren't a problem for me, and neither is talking.

Peter is listening to me talk. His body is flung across his chair, as if he is trying to get away from something. His arms and legs are twisted back on themselves. He could be a mantis. On his lap is a board, a battered rectangle of wood that has been painted. Like a Victorian schoolboy learning his lessons, he has all the letters of the alphabet, and the numbers one to ten. Other men have machines to make electronic voices. Peter has patience, and a letter board.

I am talking about the Medical Tragedy Model of disability. This is the bad model, and the Social Model is the good model. This idea explains everything. It is a powerful idea, like a stick of dynamite that can move mountains. I love talking about these models, because when people hear about them, they change. This is not something which I can take credit for. It is not I who enables people to change, but the models. And they are not even my models, because I took them from someone else. The Social Model is so simple that once you've heard it, nothing will ever be the same again. It even changes the way people sit in their chairs. You start looking differently at each other and at the world. That's why I am proud to be in the hall of a hall, explaining about these models.

After the meeting, I am standing next to Peter. He wants to talk to me. We are on the same level. He is sitting and I am standing. This is not the first time he has heard the story about models. I think he probably worked it out for himself long ago. He did not need me to tell him about it. Peter is tapping at his board. It takes a lot of concentration to hear him talk. His fingernail clacks across the white painted alphabet. I am not a patient man.

"I. AM. THE. TRAGEDY. MODEL. OF. DISABILITY", says Peter. I repeat the words after him to make sure that I've followed his meaning. He nods, I smile. Concentrate. The moving finger writes:


Now Peter is smiling. His upper lip is curled and I can see his teeth. There is no exclamation mark on his letter board. But his whole body shakes silently. His is a dry humour. People look at his twisted body and do not see an erudite man, with the barbed wit of Alexander Pope, and a loyal circle of friends.

In the street, people stare at me, and look away from Peter.


When you start writing a story about disability, the difficulty is that people already think they know how it will end. If you write, "he was disabled," then half the work is already done, because it seems to be a familiar story. You can write,

"He was born with a rare genetic condition, and eventually he declined into a tragic death. It might have been better if he had never been born."

Everyone knows this story. We have also read this one:

"She was an angry woman, full of resentment against the world and her predicament. People tried to be kind to her, but she rejected them."

The third story ends:

"Despite suffering and restriction, he achieved great things with bravery. He overcame his handicap and was an inspiration to us all."

Every story about a disabled person risks sounding like an obituary. How can you become a character when the world has already decided that you are a type?


In the dojo, we sit in lines. There is only one way of sitting in Zen. In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don't wobble. It is difficult for everyone. For Peter, the posture is impossible. But the practice comes naturally. The discipline of the body and of the breath leads to the liberation of the mind. To be freed from mind is the goal of meditation. This trick is not easy. Peter's mind pervades his whole body. I would like to follow him where he goes.

The more you try to grasp the world, the more it flows beyond you. Understanding is the punch line of a cosmic joke, in Zen. The parable cannot be explained. You either get it, or you don't. I am not good at telling jokes, although people always laugh at me.

The Roshi tells a story. When Ma-tsu and Po-chang were out for a walk one day, they saw some wild geese flying past.

"What are they?" asked Ma-tsu. He was the master.

"They're wild geese," said Po-chang. He was the pupil.

"Where are they going?" demanded Ma-tsu.

Po-chang replied, "They've already flown away".

Suddenly, Ma-tsu grabbed Po-chang by the nose and twisted it so he cried out in pain.

"How," shouted Ma-tsu, "could they ever have flown away?"

This was the moment of Po-chang's awakening.


For several years, I do not see Peter. I don't have time to talk in church halls these days. I still tell the story about the models, but when I speak about it now, the story doesn't seem to work for me. I am no longer convinced, like I was when I spoke in the hall of the church hall that Saturday morning.

The problem is that the story is too simple, I think. I have learned that in real life, there are more twists and turns. The black is not entirely black, and the white turns out to be a different colour entirely. There are never only two choices. I am trying to find a new story, but I am finding it hard. It takes too long to explain it all, and I keep on losing the thread. I am sure it would be easier if I just told the old story. Many people still like it, certainly. But how can I tell a story if I am not certain that it is true? Of course, this is not a true story either. But that's different.

From time to time, I meet a friend of Peter. Usually, I don't recognise them, because he has many friends. Occasionally, I hear tales. Once, I hear that he wants me to come and see him. I send back a message that yes, I will come and visit one day soon. I think maybe that he has a new joke to tell me. I would like to go and see him, but I never get around to it. I am always on the move. I make where I am going much more important than where I am, to the extent that there is no longer any point in going there. This is not the right philosophy. Peter has read everything, and so he would be able to tell me that.

One day, it is too late to go and see Peter. The friend that I meet in the street is surprised that I have not heard. But of course, no one would have told me. It has been nearly ten years since I last visited Peter. I have been busy for a long time. Later, I hear about the funeral. His family arranged it. They are Catholic. The priest who gives the eulogy has never known Peter. So the story he tells is one of the familiar ones. We have all heard it before. The twisted body and the brave soul. Inspiration triumphing over tragedy.

Of course, all this is true in a way (we cannot escape this obituary), but there are other things that are unsaid, and more true. That Peter died because he starved himself to death. As it says in the Zenrin, to save life, it must be utterly destroyed.

Not all punch lines have a joke.

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Copyright (c) 2011 Tom Shakespeare

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