We live in an ableist world. When Scott Morrison said that he and Jenny were blessed not to have a disabled child, they were repeating a historic belief that has been echoed by the world. It’s a perception that a disabled person is less than. That they are a burden. That families with a person with a disability are not blessed. So, if they’re not blessed, have they sinned? Is the inference that disabled child is a punishment for the sins of the parents? It’s a horrible, toxic statement. But what was worse I think was that he didn’t ‘get’ it. He didn’t ‘mean’ it that way. Sorry, there is no other way to mean it. It’s what generations of people have said and not been called out. That’s how embedded these beliefs are.
This was ableism front and centre. The PM’s thoughtless gaffe exposed how ableist our world is. It also put the conversation centre stage, where it needs to be. We need to talk about ableism. We need to be aware of how we make our world hard for people who aren’t able bodied or who have a disability to navigate. How we don’t make our spaces physically or psychologically inaccessible. How we perpetuate a story that allows us to occupy ALL the space and then offer just a little to people with disabilities. ‘See, we gave you two carparks outside the shop.’ But when you get inside, you won’t be able to reach over half the products. Welcome. But please, only two at a time.
As an able-bodied person I don’t realise my privilege. That’s because I am the person who belongs to all the other carparks. I don’t realise that everything I do is streamlined by a system that is built for me. My ease of passage through life is a given. I don’t question it. Because I am able-bodied.
Most venues I work in have disabled access. This provides access for people with mobility issues to attend an event. But most stages I work on don’t. I have had people with disabilities perform and had to get in a ramp for the occasion. Or physically lift someone backstage into their chair. When Ballina had a mayor in a wheelchair I once witnessed him give a speech from the floor at an event because there was no access to the stage. This was the mayor! He accessed the top job on local council but couldn’t get on stage. That’s because the ableism tells us that people with disabilities can attend events as audience members. We have parking, we have lifts. But there is no provision for a person with a disability to occupy space on stage. They have been sidelined in the story of who they can be and where they can go. This is ableism.
How many restaurants offer menus in braille? Where are the pathways to the beach? Why aren’t there quiet rooms in every shopping centre? Why don’t we all learn Auslan at school? Ableism isn’t just in the architecture of the world. As our PM has shown us, it’s in what we say and how we think. Saying things like ‘you don’t look disabled’, viewing people with a disability as inspirational when they do typical things. That is ableism. It creates barriers of discrimination and prejudice that make the world inaccessible. It pushes people to the fringe, rather than recognise that people with disabilities are our sister or our brother, our friend, our daughter, our son, our uncle, our colleague, and us. Yep, any of us could become a person with a disability at any moment of our lives.
In my early 20s I was employed as a disability support worker. When I told people what I did they would say, ‘Wow, you must be amazing. Such a compassionate person. I don’t think I could do that.’ It used to make me really angry. My job didn’t elevate me to sainthood. I was still a vain, self-centred girl. What I loved telling people was that it was actually one of the most enjoyable and fabulous places I have ever worked. It was fun. We laughed a lot. I learned a lot. I was 23. I appreciated that my workplace supported me. It was the first job I’d been able to stick to.
To be an inclusive society it is not up to people with disabilities to change; it is up to people without disabilities to stop dominating the space, and the narrative. It’s about leaving space for others. It’s about losing judgments and bias about disability that can’t be seen. We have to stop colonising people with disabilities with our broken and limiting belief systems.
We need to keep talking about ableism. And most importantly we need change.