11 Dec 2020
The last 23 years have been a real trip for me I can tell you. I went from being an athletic world-famous mountaineer and rock climber to a person with a disability in a second.
From a young fit athlete to becoming the subject of staring eyes in the street. My accident showed me that the circumstances of your life can change at the drop of a hat (or a rock for that matter).
Ever since that rock landed on my head I have experienced prejudice and discrimination first hand: whether it be people shouting ‘spaz’ at me in the street, or turning around to find people mimicking my walk. I’ve even been in a university tutorial where a fellow student said that people with disabilities shouldn’t be allowed to have families.
I found myself in the process of becoming ‘othered’, which was all very strange. On a more than one occasion I was challenged whilst taking pictures of my youngest at soccer or, looking for my daughter in the school grounds. I won’t go into the psychology of why most Bond villains have a disability.
“Suffice to say that it was through these first-hand experiences that I recognised how stereotypes of us within the media and arts, support and compound the notion that people with disabilities are frightening, adject and separate.”
Obviously, the same situation exists for people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, sexualities, religious persuasions. This is what it means to be ‘othered’.
Luckily, I have a dark, some would say sick, sense of humour, and I can kind of see the funny side of these moments. But, it’s hard to see the funny side of physical abuse. Yes folks, I have been on the receiving end of some bashings – once when I used to use a wheelchair, and once when I was taking my children to a matinee performance of Wind In The Willows.
My lurching gait attracted the attention of a man who, unprovoked, attacked me, knocked me to the ground. My head hit the pavement. The man ran off, and a passer-by helped me to my feet. I’m just grateful my kids were already in the theatre and didn’t see what happened.
So, I’ve had to deal with some shit that nobody should ever have to deal with.
I’m not telling you this painful story in order that you’ll feel sorry for me. It is to illustrate that most people with disabilities have to put up with stuff like this on a regular basis. Maybe not daily bashings but tiny aggressive behaviors and comments such as:
“What happened to you?”
“I wish I didn’t have to work!”
Or my personal favorite, “Can you even have sex?”
But you have to be wary, sometimes these micro-aggressions are disguised as empathy, or feigned compliments:
“Never mind, I’m so forgetful too.”
“I didn’t know you could drive!”
Or the classic, “You’re so brave!”
These micro-aggressions are like mosquito bites, not that bad if you only have a few of them. But, day in day out, constantly being told you are pitiable or incapable is wearing, irritating, exhausting. Being defined by a set of rules that doesn’t include you is not only absurd, but cruel as well. Perhaps this is the motivation behind all those Bond villains.
And, while I’m here to celebrate inclusion for all people regardless of the colour of their skin, their gender, their nationality or their sexuality, it is specifically one’s ability that goes straight to the heart of our common humanity, more than any other form of difference.
“For any one of us, regardless of this perceived difference can join the ranks of the disabled at any time. And with 23% of Tasmanians identifying as having a disability, most of us know someone who has a disability, even if we ourselves do not.”
I won’t go into the mechanics of why there is such a lack of goodwill toward people with disabilities. But I think it has something to do with lack of government initiative. With some figures putting unemployment for people with disabilities at 60.2% nationally, and, get this, forced sterilization of Australian people with disabilities still legal in 2020 (If that’s not against the Human Rights charter then I don’t know what is). It is not surprising that some able-bodied people have little respect for us.
One could argue that government policy is the lens through which the public see us. If the government asserts that it’s acceptable for 80% of downs syndrome pregnancies to be terminated, then of course this is going to inform public perceptions of disability. That is why businesses such as Inclusive Creatives are so important in society. By normalising difference, we can reject discrimination and reduce disadvantage. We can all regain our humanity.
“My personal experience of prejudice and discrimination, which stems from harmful stereotypes, has made me less confident and more timid in social situations. I am wary of unpredictable or people and try to stay away from them now. Obviously, I had bags of confidence when I was climbing mountains – you have to.”
Yet, without the hardships that I’ve been through I wouldn’t have learned some very valuable lessons. I learned determination by the bucket load, and patience too. And, personally, I have found that people with disabilities are often strong, diligent and creative. Our experiences can lead to a different approach. Our understanding and appreciation of struggle, and innovative adaption from our embodied experience can bring great benefit to many. An inclusive workplace actually makes a lot of sense, and who knows what ideas could be lost by not adopting such an approach.
So, watch out all you *T.A.B.s (*Temporarily Able Bodied) – the Disability Revolution is upon us!
(or should I say The Inclusive Revolution!).
Inclusion (or exclusion) has at its root the unconscious biases that everyone has.
These biases are an evolutionary trait, a way of making quick decisions on whether a fierce hairy animal is going to attack, or whether someone is friend or foe. But, in this modern age our unconscious biases can cause no end of grief. It is the reason why many of us are racist, sexist, ableist or scared of difference. And the reason some of us have difficulty finding blonde jokes funny or trouble with the justice system, or why we can’t get a job.
It is a rare person who is completely without bias and so I encourage all to take the Implicit Association Test on their smartphone. It reveals some level of bias in pretty much everybody.
The good news is that we as a society can overcome our evolution and change society’s structure. That is what Inclusive Creatives is attempting to do.
I used to think that good intentions were all you needed but now I see that it takes ongoing work and motivation to become a non-biased person. “Micro-interventions to address micro-aggressions,” as my boss at the Hobart Human Library likes to say. But luckily, we are human animals, and perhaps the only animal capable of overcoming our biases.
So, I thank Sunny and Sam for creating this space and advocating for under-represented people. Challenging our biases again and again is THE only way we can end all this stereotyping.
“Finally, it must be said that support is key. I have had a lot of support in my endeavors – as you saw in the film, it was nine people that helped me carry food and water, climbing equipment and filming equipment out to the end of Cape Hauy.”
Just as a ramp makes it possible for a wheelchair user to feel included in society, or, reading glasses might make it possible for many people to read a newspaper or sit an exam. So too, my team were my support. Without them I would not have been able to realise a. long-held dream. Employment opportunities such as that afforded by Inclusive Creatives are to be included in this idea of support. For with support, all people, not just people with disabilities, are capable of extraordinary things.
That film was made in 2016 and I still look back on that weekend with incredible fondness. Thank’s Catherine and everyone at Rummin for showcasing disability in such a sensitive way.
And, once again thank you Sunny and Sam and all at Inclusive Creatives for noticing difference and actually embracing it.