‘As good as you’

▪️ ‘As good as you’ ▪️ Help, I’m stressed ▪️ Bionic man

One recently warranted lawyer, a certain Christian Camilleri, has pulled the carpet from under people who look at persons like him with prejudice and put obstacles in their way.  Born with cerebral palsy   ̶   an incurable condition affecting movement and posture   ̶   Dr Camilleri sees law as a way to make a difference in the lives of others, a belief inspired by his own experience.

Interviewed by The Times, Dr Camilleri recounted how he had to face prejudice from a young age, his parents being pressured to take him out of mainstream schooling and into a resource centre.  But his parents thought that he could reach the same academic levels as non-PWDs (persons with disabilities).  So, they fought for him with those, including some academic staff, who thought otherwise.

Even today, when ideas about disability are very different from what they were in the 1990s, he comes acrosscertain obstacles. But he sees the moment he received the warrant to practise as a moment vindicating his parents’ early struggle and one he describes as “liberating”.

Getting to where he is today wasn’t an easy path, with negative experiences chipping away at his self-esteem.  For a while, he almost gave up on his childhood dream entirely. In fact, he reluctantly embarked on a teacher training course, achieving a bachelor’s degree in education from the University in 2012. But even what he thought was an easier path was short-lived.  He faced difficulties finding employment after graduation.  Though Dr Camilleri does not go into details, I say “shame on those involved”.

The 34-year-old lawyer lives independently in Mellieħa with the help of a full-time carer and works as a lawyer for the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority (MCCAA).  Few people would understand what this involves, since studying for a law course and working are extremely challenging for people like him.  For example, the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that people with cerebral palsy use up to five times the energy as able-bodied people when moving.

Dr Camilleri brooks no nonsense from those who might take pity and think he needs favours just because he has a disability. It reminds me when, as a young man, I met the late journalist and politician Lino Spiteri.  I remember the first time I came across him I offered to carry an old Underwood mechanical typewriter for him.  “Put that down immediately,” he screamed, “I can carry it as well as, if not better, than you!”  And, with one hand, he carried the blasted heaving thing from one room to another.  That was the last time I offered my help, fearing for my safety if I were to transgress again!

Lino Spiteri

It was interesting to learn that Dr Camilleri has an interest in human rights cases – and not just for those living with disabilities. He is interested in helping all those facing discrimination, whether because of their race, nationality, or sexual orientation.  In fact, he has already set up an online group called ‘Achieving Independence’. The group helps connect those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, seniors or their relatives with carers, drivers, gym instructors, and other professionals.

Christian would like to see the government intervene to keep mobility equipment more affordable and to regularise the market for such equipment.  While the government already gives some financial assistance for such things as Dr Camilleri’s mobility chair, the cost is still significant, creating an additional barrier for those with disabilities and for whom such equipment isn’t a choice.  It’s not that I must always criticise, but why on earth do we give thousands of millions in direct aid and other incentives to businesses, yet skimp when it comes to spending a few million on people who start with huge disadvantages in life?

Dr Camilleri is also right to demand reduced bureaucracy for those who, like him, employ carers.  He likens this process to running a business, as one has to take care of taxation and national insurance contributions.  He thinks carers working on a one-to-one basis with PWDs should be tax-exempt, stressing they are “not people we employ so we can make some kind of profit.”  Indeed.

So, welcome Dr Camilleri.  In my books, you are already a successful person.  May your story be an inspiring example to other persons with a disability, and may it also take down a peg or two those who feel superior and enjoy lording it over those they call “the less fortunate”.  Bollocks to them, I would add.

Help, I’m stressed

Financial problems and serious work issues are more stressful to the Maltese than the death of a loved one or getting divorced, according to a report titled ‘Stressful life events and perceived repercussions amongst the Maltese population’.  Carried out by Anna Grech, Graziella Vella, and Giulia Borg of the University of Malta’s Faculty for Social Well-being, the purpose of the study was to bring to the fore the endless stressful situations that impede many from getting on with their life.

It does not surprise faculty dean Dr Andrew Azzopardi that people are increasingly concerned about financial issues.  “The more time passes, the more people are becoming obsessed with money, and the more difficult it is becoming to navigate the financial challenges,” he says. 

Where I part ways with Dr Azzopardi is on his penchant for blaming all social ills on the last 10 years.  For example, he attributes this stress to the past decade’s economic model that ‘promotes affluence’ and allegedly makes people believe ‘their relevance depends on how much wealth they can generate’.  “We have turned into a consumerist nation where the value of money supersedes all other factors of well-being,” he bemoans.

Dr Azzopardi may be an excellent sociologist, but his history sucks.  Today’s consumerist nation is nothing like what it was 50 years ago, let alone 10 years ago, but not the way he thinks.  According to World Bank data, consumer expenditure as a percentage of GDP in Malta today is 60.9%.  In 1975 it was 90.0%, while in 2011 it was 80.8%.

When he was just 36 years of age, Dr Azzopardi would probably have seen a huge billboard set up along Aldo Moro Street that bellowed  ”Don’t Save, Spend” at motorists passing by.  It was put up for the festive period but remained there for a few months.  The Times of Malta, which reported on it, said on 24 January 2006 that “Year after year more shops open up, offering a bigger choice from where to buy. The internet is arguably the most important interactive communication tool ever invented. It too is fast establishing itself as another shopping arcade.”

Coming back to the report, the 21 traumatic life events covered by the report included such instances as failing exams, bullying, work problems, break-ups, miscarriage, death of a loved one, caring for a sick relative, being abused by a parent or a partner, being sexually assaulted, and having serious financial problems. 

Granted, financial problems topped the list of the most stressful traumatic experiences, cited by 17% of respondents, with 49% saying it caused psychological problems.  This was followed by experiencing severe problems at work that led to official complaints or being sacked – something experienced by 13% of respondents.  Data also showed that 12% were stressed by physical or psychological mistreatment by a partner.

Photo: Nathan Cowley

Anxiety and psychological stress are nothing new.  In a series of apocalyptic novels, the British author J.G. Ballard speculated about how advanced modern societies could impact human behaviour.  As they struggle to cope with new modes of work and wealth and with expanded leisure, the disaffected middle-class characters that inhabit Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), and Millennium People (2004) seek release from the stress of life by resorting to violence, sexual license, and deliberately calculated forms of madness. In Ballard’s dystopian vision, the frustration, insecurity, and loneliness of modern lives produce communities oppressed by social unrest, political instability, immorality, and injustice.

Ballard’s portrayals of a species under stress, though fictional, captured an emergent reality.  Between 1990 and 1995, there was a 30% increase in occupational stress according to the British Health and Safety Executive (HSE).  Only four years later, the Whitehall II study put the spotlight on the role of stress in shaping sickness patterns amongst civil servants.  An estimated 13.5 million working days were being lost to stress each year whereas the annual cost of work-related stress was in the region of £4 billion.

The socio-economic impact of work-place stress has been exacerbated by rising trends in hypertension, heart disease and depression. The American biologist Robert M. Sapolsky claims that many chronic diseases can be explained in terms of the neuro-endocrine disturbances generated by attempts to cope with the stress of rapid social, cultural, and technological change. Though a certain amount of stress is necessary for performance and productivity, unmitigated stress appears to imperil the health and happiness of modern Western populations in particular.

But even before that, in the 1970s, the left-wing American writer Alvin Toffler argued that post-war populations were suffering from what he called ‘future shock’, a state where too much change in too short a time induces ‘shattering stress and disorientation’ in individuals. In the modern ‘throw-away society’, he insisted, people were struggling to adapt to the ‘unwanted tempo’ of life associated with the transience of people and places, the speed of technological innovation, and the surfeit of choice in consumables, education and the media.

As Toffler and many of his contemporaries saw it, the inability to cope with change was directly responsible not only for epidemics of heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, and suicide, but also for escalating levels of aggression and crime, the demise of sexual standards, and the instability of international relations.

What scientists were observing 50 years ago means that the stresses of modern life have nothing to do with a particular economic model.  All economic models aimed at increasing prosperity will generate them.  Does that mean that the battle is lost or that we should return to the supposedly happy agrarian times?  Of course not.  I don’t have the answers, but as an academician, Dr Azzopardi will agree with me that, if the diagnosis of today’s stressful life is reduced simplistically to a condition one might call the JM-SEC (the Joseph Muscat Stressed Economic Model), the prognosis would surely be wrong.

Bionic man

And since today’s blog is about people and their condition, I must mention the story of 37-year-old Shawn Mifsud, a soldier who lost his limbs after a virus led to a severe septic attack.  The public generously donated €200,000 so that he could purchase prosthetic bionic arms which can considerably improve his quality of life and ease the financial burden on his family.

The husband and father of two girls aged four and one, Mifsud was a normal family man trying to improve his household’s fortunes by supplementing his salary through a side business using his passion for videography.  Who could have prepared him for the overnight loss, first of his limbs, and then the amputation of both legs?  And if you think that is already a disaster, think again, because the resulting kidney failure means he requires dialysis three times a week.

Did Mifsud give up on his life and treasured family?   No way, he is fighting like hell.  His wife Graziana says that the public’s support “has instilled in us the strength to face the future with optimism, even though the journey ahead is undoubtedly challenging.” 

Shawn and his wife Graziana.

Mifsud still requires bionic legs, hearing aids, and modification to his home so he can have increased independence.  So, anybody who wants to help, could possibly donatem, even a small sum, on IBAN no MT13VALL22013000000050011233201, through BOV Mobile on 79327955, or contact him on the Facebook profile Shawn U Graziana Mifsud.

Brave men rejoice in adversity, just as brave soldiers triumph in war.

Main photo Lawyer Christian Camilleri (Chris Sant Fournier/Times of Malta)

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