The problem with the question “What makes us human?” is that you have to find universal characteristics that link people such as Hitler with Mother Teresa. I could have a stab at it, and say freedom of choice and the desire to humanise everything, but an anthropologist might hiss: “What about X?” And you’ll always get the plonker who will yell: “You don’t even look human, love, so how can you talk?”
However you cut it, human beings are incredibly diverse, so this is a nightmarish question, unless you are an expert. But I’m only an expert on my life, and the challenges disabled people face. Based on that, I think there are four vital things that make us human: the need to love; the need to be loved; the need to be accepted; and to be respected as a human being in the first place.
In a scene in the film The Elephant Man, John Merrick is chased into a railway toilet and trapped between two rows of urinals. With his back against the wall, he screams at the mob: “I am not an animal! I am not an animal! I am a human being!” And of course he was. But to be treated like a human being, you have to be accepted as one.
When I was trapped at Chailey Heritage School (for disabled children), I was too afraid to scream, but then I was only tiny and didn’t even know that I was different. I understood that I was one of the 250 “strange little creatures” that lived there. But we were in the majority, so acceptance wasn’t an issue. It only became an issue when we were faced with the outside world. That was a whole different ball game.
As toddlers, we were taken to Brighton Beach, and we emptied it in ten minutes! We were never asked if we minded being repeatedly sprawled naked in front of ten to 15 medical professionals and endlessly poked, pulled, rotated and photographed. Every Wednesday afternoon, wealthy donors would peer at us through the classroom windows. They didn’t seem to see children, just poor, pathetic, unloved creatures.
Although we’ve come a long way since then, I’m still stared at; some passers-by will do a double-take if I’m heard making an intelligent comment; I’m told I intimidate people; I make people feel uncomfortable, or even turn their stomachs. Why? Disabled people aren’t a different species. We are human beings with the same needs and aspirations as everyone else, and everyone has a basic need to be accepted.
I think that is why John Merrick said to the doctor Frederick Treves at the end of the film: “My life is full because I am loved.” Now he could die in peace, because society had finally accepted what he had always been – a human being who just happened to be disabled. I believe that loving and being loved also make us human.
When I was little, the ward sister would say: “Put that crying baby down. They don’t need a hug.” In her eyes, children like us didn’t need human contact, let alone love. We were all treated the same way, so we grew up thinking that that was normal. Mind you, at the age of five I also thought it was normal to be taken to Lewes Prison to visit the inmates. Our surroundings were so alike, that it seemed that the only contrast between us was that we were locked away as punishment for being different, and they were locked away as punishment for doing wrong.
Yet I was aware that kindness made me feel loved. Kindness that I had experienced from my foster parents, my sister, some of the nursing staff and all the teachers at Chailey. But of them all, my rock was always Nurse Mary Shepherd. Because of her, I recognised that human beings were more than just fed, watered, educated and disciplined.
Despite my upbringing, the need to love and be loved was instinctive. As I grew up, I felt love and respect towards my friends and myself. As I grew older, I fell in love, I made love and experienced the joy of parental love.
I still do, but these feelings – feelings that make us human – are often denied to people like me because of our disabilities.
So, what do I think makes us human? Four needs: to love; to be loved; to be accepted; and to be respected.
This is the latest article in our series published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show