Ready, Willing and disabled? Not in her kingdom

A private school owner with discriminatory hiring practices proves that the blinders of prejudice can be temporarily lifted by celebrity, but only temporarily

Michael was born with fused wrists. It's not immediately noticeable when you meet him, but having such a mild disability means Michael can't manipulate his hands as much as you and I can. He cannot wai, for example.

While it is unfortunate, it is hardly a huge barrier and this young New Zealander went to university and got himself a degree before heading off into the world to gain a little experience. That is how he ended up in Thailand, teaching English at a government school in Khon Kaen.

I supply teachers for a school in the North of Thailand and when a vacancy came up, Michael applied and on the basis of some very glowing references, I gave him the job starting in the new school semester.

This school was a private one, owned by an 80-year-old matriarch who ran her kingdom with steely precision. Her 50-plus teachers were mainly women with dour looks on their faces most of the time and who could blame them.

Grandma, as she was called with enforced affection, was petite but imposing. She dressed in Thai silk as crisp and unbending as her pursed lips. Her office overlooked the school grounds and thanks to her daughter and son-in-law, two people I called ''Sir'' and ''Madam'' to their faces but ''henchmen'' behind their backs, nothing escaped her attention.

I have nothing against deference, even of a sycophantic nature, as long as the real job (ie educating young people) gets done. My teachers were told to concentrate on the task of educating, while bowing at all times to Grandma and her royal henchmen if ever they happened to float by their classrooms.

Two weeks into the semester and I got the phone call.

It was from Khru Toy, the head of some department within the elaborate power structure of the school, a structure as intricate as it was irrelevant. When it came to the real administration, all roads led to Grandma.

''I've just received a phone call from a parent,'' Khru Toy boomed down the telephone.

''Her daughter just came home from school and told her she's being taught by a cripple.''

I was driving at the time. I asked Khru Toy to wait as I pulled over to the side, but she wasn't waiting for anybody.

''This parent wants to know why she is paying good money for her child to be taught by a second-class person. She has a point. Is this the type of quality she is paying for? What's Andrew Biggs doing, supplying grade B teachers? Change him immediately,'' she announced. Was that an ageing breath I could faintly hear down Khru Toy's neck?

The message was simple. Get rid of Michael, she'd announced, before the school got rid of me.

I couldn't change Michael on the grounds of having a disability. On the other hand, I couldn't say no to the school.

So I did the next best thing. I went about it the Thai way.

I flew up to see Grandma. She was most gracious as she sat in her crisp Thai silk on her office throne, flanked by daughter and son-in-law, Khru Toy, and a few other school officials whose names, like any distinguishing character traits they may have possessed, escape me.

''Don't misunderstand me, Khun Andrew. I feel sorry for your teacher as anybody would,'' Grandma said to my bewilderment, as her entourage nodded vigorously all around her.

''Nevertheless, he can't stay, not while he has this affliction. And we have received complaints, remember. So when can you change him?''

I launched into my prepared speech.

Why not turn this situation into a learning experience? Nobody was complaining about his teaching technique; instead of getting rid of him, why not have Michael in front of students as a way of showing we human beings come in all shapes and sizes?

''Why not have him as a living demonstration that disability is something to be overlooked rather than attacked?'' I asked. Yes, I sounded like Mike Brady in the last two minutes of any given episode, but I did have a point.

Grandma sat with pursed lips throughout. It was clear I was getting nowhere.

So I brought out the big guns.

''What a pity we have this situation,'' I said, shaking my head and heaving a sigh. ''And just when I was going to invite my dear friend Krissana here to speak to your students, too.''

Grandma jolted to attention.

She leaned forward. ''Khun Krissana?'' She broke into a warm smile. ''Oh, how I love Khun Krissana! And he is coming here? To my school?''

Krissana is a dear friend of mine and together we have done radio and TV shows for 15 years. Everybody loves him, not just because of his amusing and very straightforward reporting technique, but because he is in a wheelchair.

A champion of the rights for the disabled in this country, older people particularly love him.

''And, of course, if he came he would bring his TV cameras along, too,'' I added.

Grandma was melting before my very eyes. ''Krissana with TV cameras?'' she gasped. Imagine her school on national TV!

''That was my plan. So is it possible for you to have a rethink about your stand on Michael?'' I asked politely but just a little brazenly. ''If you do, I'll see what I can do.''

The first thing I did after that meeting was call Krissana. ''One bottle of the best Australian wine I can find,'' I pleaded. ''Just be available for a quick one-day trip to the North sometime next month.''

''Two bottles and I'm yours,'' said Krissana.

One month later with great fanfare Krissana and I arrived at that school, complete with TV cameras, and the only thing missing was the red carpet.

Grandma stood at the school gates to meet him, hands clasped together, a beaming smile, so excited I almost detected indentations in her Thai silk, not to mention the occasional wet patch.

The entire school had been summoned to greet us. In the auditorium Krissana and I took the stage. After 20 minutes of playful banter, I went in for the kill.

''Tell me about life in a wheelchair,'' I asked him.

For the next 30 minutes he spoke about the need for young Thais to be blind to disability, about how access for all is a sign of a civilized society, and how any one of us could end up in a wheelchair in a split second. The speech was magnificent, dear reader, and the kids were transfixed.

I even managed a question about Michael, to which Krissana answered: ''Just be blind to the affliction and wide-eyed to the knowledge he is imparting. That knowledge is far more important than anything that may be a little unusual around his wrists.''

The kids cheered and took pictures. Facebook creaked and almost fractured under the weight of all the photographs that were suddenly uploaded.

After the speech Krissana interviewed Grandma in front of the cameras. She was glowing, wearing a smile without a purse in sight.

Everybody won that day.

The students received a visit from a superstar. They gained knowledge about acceptance. The school learned to view disabled teachers in a different light. And Grandma got on TV.

Everybody won. Except for me.

Two weeks later, Grandma cancelled our contract to supply teachers. The reason? Failure to implement changes to teachers as ordered.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Andrew Biggs
Position: Writer