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Australia’s Culture of Disability Discrimination

'People with disabilities face discrimination every. single. day.'

Depending on your experience, you may read that and think “yes!! That is so true”, or maybe you’ll think “do they? Surely it isn’t every. single. day!”. The typical examples of discrimination we get from the media are often significant discrimination incidents: like Vanessa Vlajkovic, a deaf-blind woman refused to be boarded on a Jetstar flight or when a group of teenage students with autism in Hobart were kept in a ‘cage’ style playground. The community are usually outraged by these incidents, but then it is forgotten in the whirl of the news cycle. What we do not often hear about is how people with disabilities are excluded from everyday activities and how it’s generally a well-accepted practice. You know, local business has a step to get in so people with disabilities that effects their mobility can't get in. No one puts a ramp there, it just stays that way.

This is what I am calling out to be, “Australia’s Culture of Disability Discrimination”.

Culture is defined as “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time’. When we reflect on our way of life to include people with disabilities, it becomes pretty obvious that inclusion is often an after-thought, if a thought at all. The result is that people with disabilities are left out. They are not usually on our buses, in our cafes, in our schools, teaching at our universities or working as the CEO.

The Stats

I hate numbers, but let me paint a, less than, pretty picture with the 2015 results from the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers conducted by the ABS about the 4.3 million people with disabilities in Australia (18.3% of the population):

  • People with disability have an employment participation rate of 53% compared to 83% of people without disability,

  • The average weekly median income is $465 for people with disability, less than half of the $950 earned by people without disability.

  • Education rates for school leavers slump to 41% for people with disabilities, compared to 62.8%.

  • 35.1% of women with a disability and 28.1% of men with a disability had avoided situations because of their disability.

We fall behind in every race. Not because we can't get jobs or don't want to be educated but because we often can't!

The history

Culture is formed by history, and historically, the narrative about disability has been consistently negative. Its roots are tied in the ‘medical model’ of disability were to have a disability was something to be cured, fixed and stopped. This narrative has informed public policy, law-making and community attitudes alike. For generations, Australians told stories about how having a baby with a disability is the worst outcome, to care for someone with a disability is a burden and how we just aren’t built to cope with people with disabilities, so it’s best they live somewhere else (... like an institution). While Australia has mostly shifted to a social model of disability, today’s generations still hear these stories. The narrative of the burdensome, ugly, inconvenient disability sticks to the entire community (disabled, and non-disabled).

This narrative has made our Culture of Disability Discrimination in Australia.

De-valuing people with disabilities

In the context of inquiring into the violence, neglect and abuse of people with disabilities, the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs said “... a root cause of violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability begins with the de-valuing of people with disability.” In my, the same applies to the everyday discrimination that I am talking about in this blog post. We, as a community, de-value people with disability. There have generations of shutting people with disabilities away, excluding them and isolating them. Sometimes it is really direct, like putting people with disabilities in institutions. Other times, it can be more subtle like public places that are inaccessible or movies without captions.

Famously, Stella Young spoke about non-disabled people using people with disabilities to inspire them. “Inspiration porn” describes images of people with disabilities, doing ordinary things but being claimed to be “inspirational”. The concept is based on ‘the assumption that people with disabilities have terrible lives’. This is a prevalent way that everyday Australians continue to de-value people with disabilities.

The practicalities of our Culture

The people who have developed building codes, teaching programs, health clinics and legislation all live in this culture. So when it comes to doing their everyday jobs, everyday accepted discriminatory practices ooze through. For example, building codes: there was once a time where there was no provision for disability access in building codes. That shifted, and now there are specific regulations for buildings to meet a certain standard. But there is not a requirement for some buildings to be subject to current-day laws because we still accept, as a community that sometimes people with disabilities just won’t be included. It’s not that I am not concerned with historical architecture. Big fan of beautiful buildings, right here. BUT I am not a fan of leaving them in use for others, knowing that a whole part of our community can’t use them equally.

Most people know that excluding people with disabilities from their businesses or services is not on. But some people don’t know what to do about it. Others don’t want to do anything about, perhaps they think their business or service isn’t needed by people with disabilities, or maybe they’re just not the best people… But practically it means people with disabilities don’t get to participate.

Not being allowed to participate might be something as inconvenient as not being able to access one coffee shop so you go three doors up to one who will welcome you. Or, it can be as serious as denying a child the opportunity to be educated because the School Principal does not believe that children with disabilities can have the adjustments needed to continue at that school.

The culture needs to change more rapidly than it is right now. The longer it takes, the more generations fall behind; children fall behind in their education, adults can’t get jobs, people become homeless, and violence continues to soar. So let’s talk about changing culture...

The new Culture

Changing culture is easier than changing law, policy and regulations because it all comes down to a conversation. The conversations you are all having at brunch on Sunday, in the communal kitchen at work, even on the bus (does anyone still talk to people on the bus?) can shift this culture pretty quickly.

For me, the new Culture will still involve coffee shops, cinemas, workplaces in cities and school days between 9am-3pm. But it will look different because there will be people in wheelchairs moving around next to people who walk (not “going through the back door or taking the long way around”), people with intellectual disabilities learning in schools next to their non-disabled peers (not in a “special unit”) and our workplaces will be representative of people with all abilities.

If everyone who reads this blog, talks about how they could make their business or service more inclusive for people with disabilities, there would be a trickle of knowledge about disability and respect for inclusion start to occur. This is how culture changes. You have these everyday conversations already, but I am calling on you to lead a different narrative and embrace disability. Lead the shift toward being more inclusive to 4.3 million Australians and creating a culture that will survive the current generations. A future where people with disabilities don’t face everyday discrimination is possible, and starts here with you!


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