I went on my regular morning dog walk today and as I approached the local supermarket, I saw a conversation. A man approached a woman and was loud enough that I could hear him talking about grocery prices. I assumed he knew her.
By the time I got closer, I realised that he was vulnerable in some way, perhaps due to learning difficulties or mental health issues. He was launching into the same conversation with each person he saw.
In a fraction of a second, I plotted a slightly new course that would stop me walking as close by the man as my normal path would. I looked down so as not to encourage conversation, until I got closer and then I looked straight ahead so he was in my periphery.
I had no sense that I was at risk. Even if I was, it was daylight and I was approaching an open supermarket with at least a few people probably in the car park.
And yet, I reacted in a subtle way to make myself a little safer.
There are various discussions about how right or wrong this is and I’m not wading into that.
What hit me today was a different perspective.
I believe we all have our own unique blend of opinions and perspectives based on our lived experiences (did I really just type lived experiences?). It’s perhaps one reason why vocality is so important – nobody else in the world can see things the way that you, or I, or anyone else can.
One huge prism that I see everything through is the way it impacts those people in society with additional needs. It’s a filter I can’t switch off as a mum of a child with special needs. I’m constantly considering how small and huge decisions will affect her and others like her.
And so, as I walked by the man and offered him a smile, then continued on my walk, I wondered how many other people will shift away from him and others like him who are out in the community but not behaving as a neurotypical person might expect or understand. How many people will ignore clumsy attempts to begin conversation?
How does our perfectly justified and unacceptable fear affect those people who are harmless and already on the periphery of society?
There are no easy answers.
Of course it’s vital that everyone does what they need to do to not only be safe, but to feel safe. Mental health issues and additional needs don’t mean that a person cannot be a risk, although I’d make a strong argument that it isn’t the weird stranger we have to fear in most cases, and that’s perhaps partly why the Sarah Everard murder has shaken the country so much.
And it really has.
At work in my law firm, clients who are under investigation for offences against women are asking whether they will be treated worse because of her murder. I’ve never fielded those questions before based on a single case.
Hopefully the huge grief and shock will lead to real change, and in a way that doesn’t further isolate the people already most isolated in society.