The mayor of a small town in Oklahoma issued orders that all shoppers had to wear face masks before entering shops or businesses. The order was repealed less than 24 hours later, after a deluge of verbal abuse and threats of physical violence against store employees. 
A security guard was murdered at a discount store outside Flint, Michigan after refusing a shopper entry for not wearing a face mask. 
A railway ticket officer in the UK died of covid19 after being intentionally spat upon by a member of the public. 
What’s inducing such violent tantrums and angry protests against stay-at-home orders and public safety measures? Why was there such a desperate, mad rush on McDonalds and takeaway shops when New Zealand loosened the lockdown restrictions from Level 4 to Level 3 on Tuesday 28 April? What’s driving all this desperation and entitlement, this inability to self-regulate or practice impulse control?
The Great Lockdown has made everyday life feel less accessible for everyone.
People are feeling disempowered. During lockdown, tasks which once seemed trivially easy suddenly became more difficult, or even impossible. My partner and I found shopping at the supermarket to be an exhausting, traumatizing chore which now required special precautions and a lot of extra planning.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities  defines disability according to the Social Model, i.e. “it’s not the impairment that’s disabling in itself, it’s society’s lack of accommodations which is disabling”. In other words,
People are not inherently disabled, they become disabled when presented with barriers.
That’s what we’ve all been feeling over the last couple of months, a sense of disablement after life presented us with a set of new and unexpected barriers. There’s a great article in Forbes Magazine  which does a very good job of explaining how the Great Lockdown has essentially proven the Social Model of Disability.
Many organizations (including my own!) have risen to the challenge by making swift changes to meet the needs of customers and employees. Businesses have accommodated more of their employees to work from home, museums have put their collections online, universities have put their courses and educational resources online, and doctors and counsellors have begun conducting appointments over video calls. That’s fantastic. It’s made the world much more accessible at a time when we all needed the extra help.
At the same time, many folks with disability question why it took a worldwide pandemic which inflicted disability upon the “normals” before any of these accommodations were made. As one student whose whole university has gone online puts it, “I was told [putting film courses online] wasn’t ‘feasible’ […] I am so torn between being so grateful that I can get my education and […] feeling a bit betrayed that it was possible the whole time.” 
What can we do about this? Here are some ideas:
Realise that you are now getting a taste of the barriers which people with disabilities face in ordinary life.
Ensure that we don’t take away necessary accommodations once the lockdown is over.
Build on this newfound understanding to get curious about accessibility needs, and learn what else we can do to help employees and customers with disabilities.
You may think “I’ve worked in offices for years, and accessibility in the workplace has never really come up as a serious issue. What’s the problem?”
THAT’s the problem. The difficulties that people with disabilities face daily are deeply ingrained in our society. Too often, disability is left out of the diversity and inclusion conversation and those who are most affected have learned to accept the status quo, while the rest of us don’t even notice there’s a problem.
Over 20% of working-age New Zealanders identify as having a disability. That’s twice the number of people who are left-handed! I expect we all have a family member or friend with some sort of impairment. I have two teenagers, one with dyslexia and another with profound cerebral palsy. (I also have a brother-in-law with intellectual disability, a mom with dodgy knees, a dad who’s mostly deaf, and my hearing isn’t so flash either). Yet look around you and it’s clear that disability is under-represented in the modern workforce.
Things have improved, but we’re not there yet
Thankfully, society’s approach to disability has changed significantly in the last hundred years. We no longer lock people up in institutions because they have profound physical disability, or complex cognitive impairments, or the “wrong number of chromosomes”. I attended college at an all-boys school with a special-needs unit that was kept separate from the rest of the school—you’d get detention for even entering that corridor! This created an aura of shame and mystery around “those disabled kids”.
By contrast, both of my children went to a local primary school (a KidsCan school!) with an awesome special education programme. Kids with and without disability would visit each other’s classrooms and they all mixed together in the playground. I saw first-hand how this boosted the confidence of both kids with disability and the non-disabled kids. Everyone learned that imperfection is OK, that it’s alright to ask for help or to help someone else, and that there’s no need to get all weird about it.
When I was young, my mom worked as an occupational therapist for the Crippled Children’s Society. As a kid I remember tagging along to workshops for disabled teenagers where we were tasked with drawing faces on bear-shaped plastic bottles with black markers, which would later be filled with shampoo or honey or something. These teenagers (and I) earned somewhere around $1 per hour for our trouble, far less than the minimum wage. Times have changed… the “Crippled Children’s Society” is now “CCS Disability Action” and those kids are more likely to be integrated into the school system. However, it is still legal in New Zealand to pay people with disabilities at slave labour rates, such as a blind woman paid $2.30 per hour by Altus Enterprises to untangle Air New Zealand earphones (in 2019!)
Understanding and embracing disability
While disability has lost some of its shame and stigma, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Many of us believe disability will be the next big worldwide civil rights movement. Diversity is about having a seat at the table, inclusion is about having a voice, and belonging is about having that voice heard. “Disability Pride Week” is an opportunity for people to proudly speak up and own their differences.
What can we do about this? Simply include disability as part of your Diversity and Inclusion initiatives! For help in New Zealand, you can get in touch with Access Advisors and sign your organisation up for the Accessibility Tick programme. For other countries, check the ILO Global Business and Disability Network to find your local equivalent. Accessibility Tick helps you develop an action plan to create a more accessible and inclusive workplace for your staff, and improve accessibility for your customers. New Zealand also has resources available like Workbridge, to both help people with disability find employment, and help businesses put proper accommodations in place.
In the meantime, check out this entertaining and informative video:
Semi-automatic firearms are designed for mass killing, and they do this job with horrific efficiency. For any task where civilians might find semi-automatic firearms to be practical, there are alternative tools which could be reasonably used instead.
While semi-automatic firearms are in public circulation there will always be the risk of a semi-automatic firearms falling into the wrong hands and being used to commit mass murder. This is true even if the weapons are individually registered and tracked and issued to pre-approved license holders. If the Health and Safety At Work Act 2015 were applied to the country as a whole, then this level of risk would be clearly unacceptable, and our leaders in government (as PCBUs) would be rightly held responsible for any loss of life from the misuse of semi-automatic firearms.
The only reasonable response is to entirely remove semi-automatic firearms from public circulation. Some people will complain, but there are alternative tools which they could reasonably use instead.
In 1987 the NZ Government passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act to establish New Zealand as a nuclear free nation. Nuclear weapons were recognized as weapons designed to kill people on a mass scale, a job which they do with horrific efficiency. It was recognized that there are reasonable and responsible non-nuclear alternatives for national defence and power production. It took great courage to stand up to allies and establish the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone. Now is the time to establish New Zealand as a country entirely free of civilian semi-automatic firearms and other weapons designed for the mass killing of human beings.
I make the following recommendations:
Ban public ownership of semi-automatic firearms, and remove these weapons from public circulation.
Declare New Zealand to be a country free of civilian semi-automatic firearms, just as New Zealand is a declared Nuclear Free Zone.
Personal pronouns are complicated in Te Reo Māori (the indigenous language of Aotearoa/New Zealand). For example, the English word “us” can translate into Te Reo in at least three ways:
tāua = me and you (but not them)
mātou = me and them (but not you)
tātou = me, you, and them—all of us
This is tāua
I was born in the USA. After an incident in first grade when I nearly died in the playground of the local public school, I went to an expensive private school full of rich white kids. A majority of girls in my class had their own horse at home (not the family’s horse, the girl’s horse). Some of these kids would go skiing in the Swiss Alps during school holidays. These kids had parents who were specialist surgeons and psychiatrists and lawyers. My family was doing ok, but we weren’t rich (both my parents worked, and my mom’s full-time job went entirely towards tuition). Nevertheless, as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), I fit right in among all the WASPs and Jews. One teacher (my favourite teacher, Mr. Goodwin) did his valiant best to teach us compassion towards starving kids in Africa. Still, when an African American kid joined my class (he and his sister were the only two African Americans in the school) I remember wondering whether it was ok for me to talk to him on the playground.
This is mātou
When I turned ten my family moved to New Zealand, land of the “mowries”. I went to a pretentious Christian primary school, then an all-boys high school with a headmaster who pined for earlier days of old-timey English-boarding-school grandeur. I learned to make vile racist jokes about the Māori and Samoan and Indian boys. I tried to fit right in. It didn’t work so well though, on account of my American accent.
I had the misfortune of arriving Down Under at about the same time that some Australians won the America’s Cup away from the USA (for the first time in 132 years). David Lange boldly stood up to the American allies and announced New Zealand’s new anti-nuclear stance. Relations soured further when Dennis Connor cheated in a later America’s Cup Challenge, racing a catamaran against heroic New Zealanders in the slower, graceful, single-hulled KZ-7 (Dennis Connor was caught on mic calling the kiwis “losers” and “full of shit”). Paul Holmes launched his successful television career by hounding Dirty Dennis off stage (Paul Holmes later called Kofi Annan a “cheeky darkie”—repeatedly—and was knighted for his service). I deeply resented all the anti-American sentiment on the streets during my childhood. My accent marked me as “other” and worthy of casual put-downs, sometimes even from teachers.
I completed my undergraduate university studies in New Zealand, then moved back to the States to work on my PhD. The USA looked and sounded familiar to me, I recognized it from my earliest memories and all the American TV I’d devoured—which made my culture shock all the more shocking to me. Because while I looked and sounded like all the people around me, I couldn’t understand what they were thinking or why they were acting so crazy. Americans hung flags from their front porch all year round and worshiped Ronald Reagan. They bought guns at Walmart, and drove around with rifles in their pickup trucks (there was a campus shooting shortly after I arrived). It seemed everyone brought a bicycle to university, but never rode it—drivers didn’t even know how to behave around bikes (they would honk at me on my bike for some reason when driving past). I was now a foreigner in the USA as well.
My partner and I were living in the USA when 9/11 happened. I remember listening to the news that day, struggling to process what was going on. I remember shock, grief, confusion, helplessness. People on the streets, on the news, were all saying “we’re at war”, then asking “who are we at war with?” People needed more flags. Cars now had flags (plural). Flags flew from car windows and flag magnets were stuck to car doors. Guns were selling like crazy at Walmart. Two days after 9/11, I remember we were at the mall, being served by a lady with some sort of Eastern European accent. My partner said something to her along the lines of “that’s a lovely accent you have, where are you from?” and a look of fear came into the lady’s eyes. I remember realizing in that moment that I shared this woman’s fear. We were maybe a little bit afraid of foreign terrorists, but we were terrified of the angry mob, of the rage-filled, gun-carrying, flag-waving masses who surged all around us looking for a target. That was a very scary time to be a foreigner in the USA.
My partner and I had two kids together. We lived for a few years in Germany and Australia. I finally started to get the hang of being a foreigner and owning my ‘otherness’ without resentment (on a good day). We moved back to New Zealand with our foreign kids.
This is tātou
Last year my family and I went to a wedding in Raetihi, a small town in the middle of the North Island. The bride and groom had two separate groups of friends, equal contingents from Wellington and Auckland who didn’t have much overlap. I was brought along by my partner and barely knew anybody. At the reception I sat at a table full of strangers. I remember sitting next to an Indian guy and wondering how he fit into the picture, so I asked him where he was from—then instantly realized OMG he thinks I’m doing “where are you really from”…
[If you live in New Zealand and look or sound even vaguely foreign then you get used to this routine. A stranger asks you where you’re from. Since you live in New Zealand and identify as a New Zealander, maybe you were even born here, you answer by naming your town or suburb. But this isn’t what the stranger is really asking for, so the next question is “no, where are you really from”.]
… so I asked this guy where he was from—and realized it was coming across wrong—and followed up a moment later by saying “I’m from Lower Hutt, myself”. I saw him putting his guard up, then watched relief visibly wash over him. It turned out he was from Miramar. I loved how we were able to connect. Yeah, I sound American and you look Indian or something, but where are you really from? Miramar? Tell me all about that, one Wellingtonian to another.
Two and a half weeks ago a white supremacist terrorist killed fifty people at two different mosques in Christchurch. I heard the news while events were still unfolding and I realized right away this was really, really bad—most of the people at my work hadn’t figured it out yet. I left for home early. I texted a work colleague in Christchurch and found out that he and his kids were in lock-down (he at work, his kids at school). I read the local news over and over, feeling shock and grief… but not surprise. Damnit, this was not surprising. I’d attended university in Christchurch. I knew Christchurch. I knew all about the city’s baked-in culture of racism and bigotry, which was so overt that I began to question my own teenage racism and bigotry.
Back in the 90s some friends of mine lived in a student flat about a block or so away from some sort of armoured bunker, surrounded by a tall fence of sheet metal and barbed wire, with Nazi flags displayed in the windows. This in the middle of an otherwise ordinary Christchurch residential street. Last year I visited my company’s Christchurch office and discovered that the infamous Bamboozle restaurant was less than a block down the street. I remarked on this to a Christchurch coworker, who was genuinely puzzled by my assertion that the menu was racist. For decades I’ve simply understood and accepted that Christchurch had deeply racist undertones, just like the American and Australian and German cities that I’d also lived in. So I was sad and filled with grief at this attack. I was pissed off and angry. But I wasn’t surprised to hear this attack had happened in Christchurch. This is us. Racism and bigotry is part of how we do things around here.
I feel tremendously proud of the government’s response to the shooting. Jacinda Ardern showed other world leaders how to properly do the job of leading the world through tragedy. Jacinda courageously refrained from vowing revenge against the attacker, instead focusing on showing empathy for the Muslim victims, saying “New Zealand is their home, they are us”. Within hours she announced that New Zealand’s gun laws would change, and within a week she confirmed bans on military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles. I’m sure this and other photos of our prime minister wearing a hijab while comforting members of the Christchurch Muslim community will go down in history as defining imagery of our nation’s history.
One friend of mine is upset about all the memorials which have sprung up around the country, with flowers and prayers “for Christchurch”. She calls bullshit on that notion, because Christchurch wasn’t attacked, Muslims living in Christchurch were attacked. This friend of mine has dear, close Muslim friends who are basically a second family for her. She fears that some people might be taking away the wrong message, co-opting someone else’s grief and trauma while processing their own complex emotions. Another friend of mine calls bullshit on that, pointing out that everyone processes grief in their own way; this doesn’t dilute the over-riding message of love and inclusion, “we are one”. (I think they both have a point).
By the way, the man in the bottom corner of that earlier photo is James Shaw, Minister for Climate Change and Green Party Co-leader and an old uni friend of mine. Notice his black eye. On the day before the Christchurch mosque shootings, James was attacked while walking to work by a mentally ill person who was raving about the United Nations. In an interview (just an hour or so before the shootings) he asked people to stop worrying about him but stated that he’d long been concerned about death threats and social media abuse fielded by his colleagues Golriz Ghahraman and Marama Davidson. In more recent interviews after the shootings, James stressed the need for us all to look out for one other, to seek help and counselling while dealing with all the grief and trauma of the moment.
I’m heartened to see what might be the beginning of a nation-wide conversation on who we are, and who we want to be. Who is us. Because you can’t begin to heal if you don’t first admit that you’ve got a problem. But let’s also remember that this work is hard, and it hurts, and sometimes it can be really scary to confront the ugly parts of ourselves that we’ve hidden away and tried to forget.
Three friends of my friends have taken their own life in the past month.
This is all of us. Muslim immigrants, refugees, and “others” who’ve lived here for generations—they are us. Violent racist white supremacist bigots—they are us as well. Unhinged mentally ill people who lash out in the street because maybe they’re unable to cope with climate change or job loss or rising house prices or whatever—that’s us too. I am he as you are she as you are me and we are all together.
I created a video for Changing Places New Zealand – check it out!
This clocks in at exactly 4 minutes, which was my target. I had been thinking about creating a video like this for a few weeks, ever since I saw the Buildings for everyone guide – which didn’t live up to the name in my opinion. During my research of looking up design standards and building code regulations, I played around with the idea in my head of a stop-motion movie with paper cutouts moving around in this tiny space. The story finally fell into place for me when I read an article last week about the Australians updating their National Construction Code and including Changing Places (sort of) within the new building code. That gave me a clear suggestion of how to fix the whole situation, which completed the story arc.
To make the video, I started by writing the script. I recorded the audio into Camtasia, and loosely edited it into one big audio track. I created my images in PowerPoint, and mostly fed them into Camtasia as still images by taking screenshots and using Paint.Net for tidy-up (along with some images off the internet and a couple of videos supplied by Arjo). The image of a mother and son on the floor of a public toilet came (I believe) from the Changing Places Consortium (UK). That street scene of “pre-Victorian depravity” is actually a famous piece of anti-gin propaganda by William Hogarth in 1751 – see “Beer Street and Gin Lane”.
I hope you find this both informative and entertaining. Please share the link around and join the campaign for truly accessible public toilets!
To round it off, I polished up the script (to match what I actually said in the final edit) and uploaded the script in .txt format as a subtitles track. YouTube automatically autodetects the match-up between text and spoken audio.
[Image shows four icons depicting a person in a wheelchair, a brain inside an outline of a human head, two hands making a sign in sign language, and a person walking with a cane. Below this are the words “INCLUSION MATTERS”.]
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines disability as resulting from a situational mismatch “between people with impairments and the attitudinal or environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society”. In other words: people aren’t inherently disabled, they become disabled when presented with barriers.
There can be all sorts of barriers to participation in society, but even complex needs can be much easier to accommodate than you think. It’s important that you don’t provide a separate, degraded experience for people with disability (for example: “accessible version of this document available by request—one week after everyone else gets to read it” or “wheelchair entrance available—but it’s around the back in the loading bay”).
Here are a few simple things we can all do to turn things around…
Design for accessibility
We can improve accessibility for all users by using the principles of inclusive design. This approach works much better when accessibility is “built in from the start”, as opposed to “retrofitted afterwards”. By applying a few simple tricks, you can lift the game for everyone, not just the disabled!
Use captions and alt text for your images. If a concept is important enough to present graphically, then it’s important enough to describe in text as well. This makes your message accessible for people using screen readers or braille devices—and people with terrible wifi connections.
Use subtitles in your videos. When you upload to YouTube, it’s easy to automatically generate (and then manually correct) a subtitle track for your video. This makes your message accessible not just for the deaf audience, but it also helps people with English as a second language, or people watching with the sound turned down in open plan offices…
Write in Plain English using “Styles”.Styles make it simpler to maintain your documentation, and they help people using assistive technology. Plain English helps people with English as a second language and people with intellectual disability—or people in a hurry.
Engage with the disability community
One way to lift engagement with the disabled community would be to hire more disabled people! Nearly 25% of New Zealanders identify as having some sort of disability, and about 75% of disabled people are unemployed. Disabled people are a fabulous untapped pool of loyal and committed employees who bring unique, diverse perspectives.
Ask the disabled community what they need, please don’t guess or make assumptions. Also make sure to ask multiple people—everyone has unique needs and experiences. I’ve found that people with disability are generally happy to answer “silly questions” … that’s far preferable to blank stares!
Learn to recognize exclusion among customers and employees. There are many disability advocacy organizations who can help you understand the barriers people face. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see barriers everywhere.
Check out the LEAD toolkit from the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development (http://www.ssc.govt.nz/lead). This is a great set of resources to help bust myths and build a more inclusive workplace for people with disabilities.
Finally, here’s a 7 minute YouTube video of Geoff Adams-Spink talking about his experience of getting hired as a correspondent for the BBC.
Alt text is descriptive text which functions as a stand-in for graphical images. A visually impaired user of a screen reader will hear the alt text in place of the image, and browsers will display alt text if the image fails to load.
Assistive technology is an umbrella term for software and hardware solutions that “read the page for you” and present information in a more accessible way. Software solutions include screen readers (e.g. text-to-speech and screen magnifiers) and input devices (e.g. speech-to-text), while hardware solutions include braille devices, hearing aids, and input devices (e.g. “sip-and-puff” or “big button” devices). Check out this link for an introduction to how people with disabilities use the web: https://www.w3.org/WAI/people-use-web/
Braille devices are hardware solutions which allow blind users to read and navigate a page by displaying text as raised pins on a “braille screen”. Braille devices require information to be well-structured using styles and alt text.
Inclusive design considers the full range of human diversity to inform better outcomes for everyone. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with diverse perspectives. It doesn’t mean that you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways for everyone to participate in a product, service, social structure, or environment.
Plain English uses simpler words and simpler sentence construction. This makes information easier to understand for people who are less familiar with the language, people who have trouble concentrating, and people who are simply in a hurry or distracted.
Screen readers are software solutions which interpret and present content for people who are blind, visually impaired, illiterate, or who have a learning disability. Some screen readers simply increase colour contrast or magnification, while others use text-to-speech to read the page aloud. Screen readers require information to be well-structured using styles and alt text.
Styles are a modern way to structure documents by separating content (what you’re saying) from presentation (how it looks). This makes it easier to manage your documentation, and also helps users to navigate and interact with the content. In Microsoft Word, use the Styles toolbar to mark text as “Heading 1”, “emphasis”, and so on. Then it’s easy to change the format of all headings at once, for example by changing all Heading 1 elements to large, green text. Screen readers rely on documents being marked up with styles, so users can skip between headings. If you apply formatting directly to text in the document, then the screen reader struggles to explain to the user why the text is large and green…
Today (19 November) is World Toilet Day! Hurray! What are you doing to celebrate?
For quite some time now I’ve been working on a secret project which I had to keep under wraps until the formal press release. As of today I get to tell you, and I’m very excited.
Most people are unaware that standard accessible toilets (or “disabled toilets”) are not usable by people with high needs. For some people with a disability, using a public toilet may mean lying down on a dirty floor to change, or putting up with other conditions which are undignified, unhygienic, and unsafe.
What we need in these situations is a Changing Place, which is a special bathroom that contains an adult-sized changing table, a hoist, a shower, and plenty of room to move around. There are over 1000 Changing Places in the UK, and dozens of them in Australia. New Zealand has none. Until now.
New Zealand’s first Changing Place is under construction right now at Hamilton Gardens. I’m creating an information guide and a website to support the project, as my final portfolio piece in the Simon Fraser University Technical Communication Certificate (TCOM410).
I’m creating the Information Guide in Microsoft Word, and the website in Madcap Flare. Eventually I’ll shift all the content into Flare, and use Flare to generate both pdf and html output. Then I’ll submit this as evidence to get Certified MAD. That’s the grand plan, anyway. Here’s my project plan for phase 1: [download my documentation project plan]
Jilted by love, her once-fiery passionate sense of romance has stagnated. Armour up! Lock down! Turn inward!
Her once-light bilious frills are become limpid, heavy.
Her once-welcoming gossamer-soft layers, laid down by past loves, are become hardened accretions, cracked and scarred.
Her once out-reaching, light-seeking strands are become withered encircling vines. Armour up! Hold close the key to your heart! Carry the weight of your emotional herstory on your lumpsided humpback! Take care where you step, for the veil of love has left you blind!
The story of when Salman Rushdie schooled me in authoritarian hate and intolerance.
One day, at 4pm on a Friday afternoon, around March 1996, I received a call at work from my mother. She had just heard on the radio that Salman Rushdie would be holding a public book signing in downtown Wellington on the following Monday afternoon. Invites were only open to members of the public who called some particular bookshop or publishing house phone number before 5pm today, and if I’d like the chance to go then I’d better act quick!
At that time I was a young, broke lab assistant. I worked up the courage and asked my boss for a couple of hours off work. When I called up to reserve my spot for the event, I was told that security would be tight. I would be allowed to bring one book with me to be signed, or else I could purchase a signed copy of his new book, The Moor’s Last Sigh.
I remember being excited that weekend. Salman Rushdie of course had been living in hiding since the Ayatollah (and Cat Stevens) had called for his assassination in 1989 after the publication of The Satanic Verses. Salman’s story had been sporadically covered in the media, with interesting tales of witness protection programmes, public sightings, and being hunted around the world by rogue assassins. It was clearly going to be a big deal—a personal historic moment for me—to get to see the man in person.
The big question for me was “which book do I bring?” Being an immature, naïve, self-absorbed twit at that time (I flatter myself that I have since grown up), I had an absurd and daring plan. A few years earlier I had picked up a beautiful old hardback English language copy of the Quran in a second-hand bookstore. If I brought this with me, could I maybe convince him to sign it? How cool would that be, to have my own personal copy of the Quran signed by Salman Rushdie himself! Would he go for that? Was it too bad taste? Would I be beaten up and ejected by his security detail?
In the end, I decided to bring along my copy of Midnight’s Children, which I had recently read (it won the Man Booker prize in 1981, and it’s a fantastic read). I turned up on the day, and after going through a metal detector and a bag search, I found myself in a small hotel conference room. Salman Rushdie was shorter than I expected. There were only about 30 or 40 people there. It turned out that the radio announcement on Friday afternoon had been a mistake—the message was really supposed to go out on Monday morning, so potential assassins had less time to plan. It turned out that this was his first public book signing, since the fatwa had been declared in 1989. It was calculated that New Zealand was sufficiently peaceful and far off the Ayatollah’s radar to give “appearing in public” a try at last.
Salman Rushdie was a wonderful speaker. I remember that he told stories about living in hiding, in different cities and countries around the world. He told a story about one time that he was living in London and his security detail had fit him out with a fake wig—people on the street saw through the disguise and pointed him out, laughing “Ha ha, there goes Salman Rushdie in a wig!” He spoke of how those people on the street were right, the situation was entirely absurd, to be living under fear of assassination by proclamation of a foreign leader.
But Salman Rushdie explained how it’s not such fun and games when your friends and colleagues start getting murdered. He told us about Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, who had been stabbed and killed. He told us about Ettore Capriolo, his Italian translator, who was stabbed but lived. He told us about William Nygaard, his Norwegian publisher, who was shot three times and seriously injured. He told us about how an angry mob had burned down a hotel in Sivas, Turkey, killing 37 people, in an attempt to kill his Turkish translator. He told us how it was one thing to live with the extreme inconvenience of moving house every few days for years at a time, or having a personal 24 hour security detail, but it was another thing entirely to know that his friends and colleagues were in mortal danger without the same level of protection.
Salman Rushdie explained that his most vocal accusers had never even read The Satanic Verses, didn’t know what it was about, didn’t understand the major themes in his writing about cultural identity, fanaticism, forgiveness, living together in divided cultures… if only there was more listening and understanding then there might be less hate in the world.
Later on, when I stood before him getting my book signed, I was tongue-tied and humbled. I didn’t know what to say. I felt shame about the ignorant, offensive stunt that I had almost pulled. My heart grew three sizes that day.
Bigotry is no joke. Mob violence is no joke. Anti-immigrant hysteria is no joke. Sexual assault is no joke. Threats against the LGBTQ community are no joke. Openly talking about lynching members of the media or your killing political opponents is no joke. Donald Trump is no joke.