I met J in a bathroom in the winter of 1994. It was 4pm on the start of my first shift in a brand new job. There was the sound of people chattering over splashing water and a smell of urine and lavender soap. The bathroom was a draughty space with high ceilings and a line of cubicles with flimsy shower curtains. Underneath, I could see pairs of feet in rubber thongs moving briskly on the tiled floors.
I hovered in a doorway, until a shower curtain was pulled open and I faced a wet and shivering man with dark eyes and a huge smile. Tepid water and suds dripped all over his body. I was handed a white towel. Since no one had introduced us, I said “G’day, I’m Charlie” before tentatively beginning to pat him dry. A nurse asked me to help lift him on to a commode-like chair. She then fitted a plastic bottle on to his penis, securing it between his thighs. She told me to wheel him to the large dormitory-style bedroom and “just keep an eye on him”.
The six beds that filled the room all looked the same, but J inclined his head towards one in the corner where posters of the Spice Girls had been tacked up on the wall. I asked whether he liked the band, if he had seen them live and then began twittering on about the Spice Girls.
J communicated by looking at a series of cartoon-like symbols on a board attached to the tray. By following his gaze, I pointed to a symbol, vocalised to check, and used this as a starting point to a conversation of sorts. Other than that, J’s gaze went left for yes, right for no. The limited number of symbols meant that the conversation continued only by me asking as many closed questions as I could.
The communication symbols he had at his disposal - food, drink, bed, toilet, sick, man, woman, radio, television - reflected the life he led. However, he made quick and creative use of the limited vocabulary.
At the time, the large charitable agency that operated the hostel and the day services J attended was in transition. Legislative changes meant that government funding became conditional upon meeting individual needs rather than maintaining institutional arrangements. Standards were set for services to meet. The people we worked with and for became “consumers”, not “clients”. The changes, though slow, led to an opening up of opportunities in accommodation, employment, leisure and education. We increased our commitment to individual choice in recreational activities, but there was a lack of both wheelchair-accessible places and hands-on staff. The bowling alley and movies continued to be regular haunts. Community colleges ran courses on “Legal Rights” and “Making Friends”. Some time later, two trainers from the Family Planning Association were invited to present a groundbreaking course on sexuality.
Looking back, it seemed to take a woefully long time to pick up that J’s desire for sex radiated from his body like an aura. He didn’t have a symbol for “fuck” on his communication board, but he didn’t need it. His non-verbal equivalent of wolf whistling whenever he saw young women on the street or sex scenes on TV was enough to convince me of his desires.
After J attended the sexuality course, we had the same conversation for months. I kept repeating myself to ensure I had understood:
“You want to have sex?”
Nods at the left “Yes” side of his communication board.
“Do you know what sex involves?”
More nods, looks at “Yes”.
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