This past month I’ve become involved in a number of heated online discussions around disability, equality and ableism. The conversations were around the use of accessible toilets by people without disabilities and the ableism shown towards a prominent disabled Australian by a media personality on a TV program. I conversed (and face-palmed) with people with disabilities and without.
(In one instance I was called a ‘judgemental piece of work’ – I’m proud of that because I stood my ground on accessibility issues when no one else in the conversation believed that accessible toilets are priority for people with disabilities. I used factual, calm language and didn’t resort to name calling. A friend told me that I get proud by laughing off those insults – the insults that are used when they realise their behaviour is wrong. I am proud to be an activist.)
In both conversations I was told (by people without disabilities) that there are bigger issues to worry about. (I agree, there are bigger issues relating to disability – employment, pensions, abusers in care, sheltered workshops, education and the list goes on. But these so called smaller issues impact on our days.) These bigger issues weren’t named in the conversations – but I wonder if bigger issues relating to disability came to their minds, or whether they were issues that weren’t specific to disability? And while in isolation, these issues may seem small, these are the issued faced by 20 percent of the Australian community on a daily basis. I see the dismissing of these issues as another barrier to disability.
The attitudinal barriers towards disability are as limiting as the physical barriers. If we keep saying there are more important issues than a disabled person’s right to use an accessible toilet or how we use language about or towards people with disabilities, or ridiculing disability on TV, attitudes towards disability won’t change.
The more I talk about disability issues, the more I realise the attitudinal barriers towards disability are still so present. There’s such a blasé attitude. It doesn’t affect them…it won’t happen to them…try telling a child to wait for a disabled toilet…disabled people are other… no disrespect but… And frankly, I’m tired of non disabled people deciding what’s offensive, and what access requirements and issues are important. Sure, have input into conversations, ask for advice, but don’t tell us our issues aren’t important enough to be voiced and progressed for change. Because that contributes to inaccessibility.
These conversations I had recently weren’t about the issues that I face. And I haven’t always been aware of all the issues the disability community faces – it’s through getting to know people and research that I’ve discovered them. I don’t use accessible toilets unless I need to wash my face in transit. And I haven’t been mocked on national TV. But they’re issues for my friends – for my community – and so I take ownership and responsibility for them. I’ve become an ally, even when I’m in the disability community. We need allies to progress disability issues – to show the wider community that disability issues need to be spoken about and supported, and is nothing to be ridiculed or feared.
As writer and disability ally Clementine Ford wrote for The Age,
“It’s time the status quo starts declaring our solidarity with our disabled peers, colleagues, fellow Australians, children, elderly, family members and citizens, all of whom have been saying this for far too long with too little response.”
We need to work together to create change, and we need to start with these smaller issues. We can’t accept them, overlook them or dismiss them as too small to address. It’s up to all of us. Because we’re not there yet.