New Internationalist

Maria De Lourdes

Issue 95

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THE DISABLING WORLD [image, unknown]

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Maria de Lourdes
A disabled person is usually defined as one who is `unable to do all the things which a person of that age and sex can normally be expected to do'. Going further, the World Health Organisation has recently argued that it is usually the attitudes of others which converts impairments into disabilities. Alex de Costa, writing from a small town in Central America, tells the story of Maria de Lourdes - a woman whose only impairment is poverty and illiteracy but who is effectively disabled by the attitudes she encounters when she tries to do something which an adult `can normally be expected to do' - cash a cheque in a bank.

Maria de Lourdes A neighbour, brought the letter to Maria de Lourdes. It was from her son Manuel in Canada. When she opened it, it contained a photograph of him looking very smart, smiling, with a girl she knew to be his wife, and carrying a baby. There was also a piece of paper which looked official. The neighbour whose name was Maria Elena said, `This is a cheque. It's money your son has sent'.

`But it's not our sort of money,' protested Maria de Lourdes.

`Yes it is, but we have to go to collect it at the Bank,' said the neighbour, `it's like a promise of money.'

`How much?' asked Maria de Lourdes doubtfully.

`I don't know.'

The next morning they set off for the Bank, but Maria de Lourdes had a slightly uneasy feeling as she put the paper Maria Elena called a `cheque' back in the enveloper, and then put the envelope in her bag.

A girl at the Bank looked at the cheque, then took a long piece of paper and banged it with a rubber stamp, and picked up a pen, giving the envelope back to Maria de Lourdes.

`Maria de Lourdes d'Oliveira Moraes? Is that you?' asked the girl.

Lourdes nodded - who else could it be? 'Alright, now we need your signature.' Lourdes hesitated for a moment, fumbled in her bag, found her identity card, placed it on the small rubber mat on the counter, and looked up.

But the young girl, who could have been no older than her grand-daughter, was apparently still questioning her. The girl had a pained look on her face as if she, Maria de Lourdes, was a small child that had to be dealt with gently. Really today's young people seemed to have no respect for anyone! Signature? So that was it. Lourdes now remembered why it was she had had that uneasy feeling of wanting to go to the Bank and yet not wanting to. She didn't know which way to look, but before she could think what to say the girl grabbed the envelope and started making some marks on the back of it. Then she pushed it and the cheque back to her, turning the cheque over as she did so, pointing her finger and muttering something Lourdes didn't catch.

The girl had certainly not been properly brought up. She had addressed Lourdes in a most familiar way shoving a pen towards her unceremoniously and then running off again to her desk at the back, without even waiting for a reply. Maria de Lourdes couldn't help noticing that the girl's trousers were too tight for respectability.

The neighbour picked up the pen and said, `I think we've got to try to write what she's put', and she started to form the marks on the back of the cheque like the girl had made. But just as Lourdes could see she was getting on nicely, a tall young man in a green shirt, even younger than the girl, came up behind the counter and said quite rudely, `That's no good miss, granny's got to do it herself!', taking the pen from the neighbour's hand and pushing it into Lourdes' hand.

`Oh well I'll try,' thought Lourdes, who had noticed that nearly everyone else in the place seemed to be picking up pens and writing with them without a second thought. And so quickly, was that writing too? More like running one's fingers over a fruit before eating it.

She started forming the bits of writing like the girl had done. As she began she thought, `This girl is no older than my own Maria de Fatima's little girl, but surely Fatima had taught her to respect her elders more than this one? Or can they all be like this today?' She resolved to speak to Maria de Fatima on the subject of her daughter's respect for her elders.

The pen kept slipping but she found that she had done about half of it when she came to a difficult bit; `Look Lourdes I'll do that bit if you like', said the neighbour, `while they aren't looking'. `No, it's alright, thank you, Maria Elena, I think I can do it,' she replied, holding the pen as tightly as possible. After sometime she finally reached the end. Her hand ached. They waited. The girl was busy; the young man in the green shirt was talking to a woman about something called `dollar drafts'. Maria de Lourdes started wondering if the fish would be good in the market in the afternoon. The girl came back, looked at the marks Lourdes had made on the paper, taking the pen back as she did so. `Tch! It's not right; what about de, de, d'Oliveira, not Oliveira?'

`Yes miss, d'Oliveira Moraes, that's me, Maria de Lourdes d'Oliveira' she repeated, not detecting the connection between what the girl said about the marks and her name - but the girl had cut her short, `You'll have to do the d'Oliveira properly. I tell you what, there's room just above - just there' and without more ado she gave Lourdes back the envelope, the cheque and the pen. Then she gave her the most artificial smile imaginable and moved away. Lourdes felt like slapping the girl's face. Shifting from one foot to the other, Lourdes began to feel hot. She picked up the envelope and started fanning herself with it, glancing at Elena who gave her a consoling look.

The girl was by now talking animatedly to another customer, a very smartly dressed young man who was just giving her a cigarette. Lourdes watched as the young man leaned over and lit the cigarette for her with, what Lourdes thought, was unnecessary familiarity. The girl grinned at the boy. Maria de Lourdes looked back at the papers. `Shall we come back tomorrow?' she whispered to Elena. Until that moment the thought of the money her son had sent her from Canada had been encouragingher. It was as if she only had to turn a couple of corners and she would reach it and have it in her pocket. But now she was beginning to feel that the money was still a long way off, as if she would have to turn many corners before she even saw it. Was it really here at all?

`Come on,' said Elena, `I think we've nearly finished, just do that bit again.' Lourdes tried again looking carefully at the marks the girl had made on the envelope.

Again they waited. Lourdes fanned herself with the envelope. At last the girl returned and picked up the cheque, grimacing at the marks Lourdes had made. `Alright, that will do, I suppose,' said the girl, as if she meant, `that certainly won't do'.

She picked up the pen herself and scribbled something on the long paper so fast that Lourdes' eyes could hardly follow it. This writing business was certainly something! While she was looking round the room they were in, and thinking how superior these proper buildings were, the girl said, `Eh!' and pushed a small flat metal box across the counter towards her, indicating her thumb as she did so. Elena whispered, `Your mark', and Lourdes wiped her perspiring hand in preparation, pressed it on the black pad and held it up, waiting for the girl to show her the place where she was to put it. The long paper was pushed forwards, and she made a mark where the girl pointed. Now maybe she would get the money?

The girl now handed her what looked like a large coin, except that it was the wrong colour, a sort of yellow. `I think she wants us to wait some more.' whispered Elena, `Look, there's some seats.'

They both sat down wearily. Lourdes closed her eyes and thought about her son: he must have gone through all this to send me this money, and in a foreign country too...

At last an older man in spectacles tapped on the glass of a small booth in the corner and when they looked up he beckoned Lourdes to come.

`Give me your disc please, number twenty-one?' he said.

Lourdes passed him the yellow disc. The man smiled and passed her a paper and then at last started counting out the notes. Lourdes crossed herself without thinking. `Thank you so much,' she said. The man was still smiling showing her two or three gold fillings. `It's from your son in Canada isn't it?' he said. Lourdes nodded gratefully and put the money in her bag.

`You know,' said the man, `the younger generation still look after us don't they?'


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