What is it about?

The rollercoaster adventures of parenting three kids, dealing with disability and mental health - and discussing disability discrimination and how to tackle it.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Invisible People

We all know how discrimination works. But we tend to think about the big moments of discrimination, you know, not serving someone because they are Aboriginal, letting black people ride on the back of the bus, or park benches for whites only.

But we often forget about the little things - especially where practicality or cost offers a seemingly legitimate reason. Most people would find it unacceptable that a building would have a sign saying "female entrance around the back". Or imagine that people wearing glasses are only able to take every third bus that comes by because the majority of busses are build in a way that makes them unsafe for people with glasses. Would it be acceptable that women need to book special taxis that can take hours to arrive?

Silly examples? You may think so, but daily reality for people with a disability. Not only are many buildings only accessible through the back door, people with disability are meant to be grateful for it. As they are supposed to be grateful for the few limited accessible public transport.

As a mother of three children, two of which have a disability, this attitude makes me mad.

My children face inaccessible places on a daily basis. Have you ever noticed how many shops have steps? Even basic amenities such as doctors surgeries, chemists and post offices in my suburb are inaccessible. On a daily basis, this is annoying, inconvenient, and psychologically denigrating for my daughter.

But mostly highly discriminatory. It's the constant knowing that we are left out and ignored. In the end you are left with the feeling that we are the ones being an inconvenience to others. In the best case scenario we are stared at, whispered about, or pitied.

When she does get noticed it is often in a "poor dear" moment. We get those sideways glances or sad smiles. My young daughter regularly gets free sweets and treats - she obviously inspires people to feel pity for her because she cannot walk and uses an electric wheelchair to get around.

But the small discrimination goes deeper than access or pity. It's so small and insidious that most people, just like that one step into the shop, never even notice it.

Recently something happened that illustrates well what I mean.

My local newspaper, the North Shore Times, proudly reported the opening of a local accessible bushwalk. It was a nice article, about a nice event to mark the International Day of People with Disability. The photographer took a nice photo, and an upbeat article was written about "creating the opportunity for people with disabilities to enjoy the experience of trekking through the bush". Look, here is the link:

The photo has four people in it. In the foreground are a young girl in a yellow powerchair and an adult male in an electronic wheelchair. Their faces are clearly recognisable. In the distance behind them are a man and a woman, talking. Their faces are not clearly recognisable, but locals would not find it difficult to see the man in the suit is local MP, and Leader of the Federal Opposition, Barry O'Farrell

In the original version online, and in the print version of the newspaper, which goes to every household in my greater area, the credits for the photo stated as follows:

"Ku-ring-gai MP Barry O'Farrell has congratulated Ku-ring-gai Council on its wheelchair accessible bush track."

Every person in the North Shore Times pictures gets their name published. Why not the two wheelchair users in this photo? Are they not worth of basic politeness? Would the newspaper do the same in a story on people who use glasses? Or mental health? I suspect not, I have a feeling it's just the wheelies that don't count. Are the chairs they use more important to the photo than the people who use them?

That happens to be my daughter, Billie Boele, to the left, and Professor Simon Darcy, to the right. They are people in their own right, not just props for Mr.O'Farrell's picture.

Wheelchair users are people like you and me, they have names and lives. To deny them that, their very names, it's utterly disrespectful to say the least! It's the small, little discrimination at work. Many people don't even don't notice the anonymous wheelchair users' names are missing.

I wrote a letter to the newspaper's editor to ask for an apology to Ms Boele and Professor Darcy. Nearly two weeks later, I haven't heard peep from them - although the editor kind of apologised in the online comments and their names have been added. But no apology in the printed version. I am still angry and am not going to take this lying down.

But really, what I would like is a change in attitude all round.

Yes, it can be expensive to build a ramp at the front of a building to make it accessible. Yes, changing the layout of public transport will take money and time.

But the one thing we can all do, right now, is to stop ignoring people with disability. Don't stare. Don't pretend you haven't seen us. Just see us as one of the many expressions of human diversity. Don't deny them their lives. Please stop pretending people with disability are invisible.


Susan, Mum to Molly said...

And just like that, she's back!

And with an awesome post!

Great to hear from you.

Hope the coast was fabulous, and that your long-service is booked...


Susan, Mum to Molly said...

Still like the idea of that t-shirt:

I'm invisible.
What's your superpower?

Dianne said...

Oh Heike. I am stunned. That's so ridiculous, so terrible that I almost can't believe that's what they did, but yet, they did.

I hope you get your apology.