"But Young People Can't Be Disabled": The Difficulties of Being a Young Person with a Disability

I think there has always been this preconception among “abled” people and older disabled people that young people cannot be disabled. In itself that statement can seem as outlandish as the stereotype, but over the last year I’ve been confronted with it time and time again. The most common incidents are the ones where I utilise a disability parking spot and other people who are significantly older than me and are also entitled to the spot tend to accost me for using it. I have been called inconsiderate, rude, and have been schooled by so many different varieties of people who, upon seeing my age, assumed that I was “stealing” a spot from them. Each time I have encountered these types of people I try to politely explain to them that “Yes, I am young, but I am entitled to utilise this spot”, and every time I come away feeling embarrassed and frustrated. However, these instances are not the only times I have encountered this stereotype; it’s almost an incomplete week if someone hasn’t abused me.

The variations in the way people approach me grows increasingly offensive and whether that is a product of my lessening tolerance is debatable. I encounter this stereotype everywhere: when using the disabled bathrooms in shops, showering at the pool, parking, walking around in public, and even at the doctor’s office. I have been asked countless times “Do you use your walking stick for aesthetic purposes?” because that seemed more plausible than the idea that I could suffer a disability. I’ve had encounters with people forty years my elder who are in the exact same boat as me, only, they think they’re more entitled to the oar.

I would never specifically point fingers at any organisation that serves to aid this stereotype but I think it is so intrinsic to the structure of our society that it is reflected in policy making and the way organisations approach young people with disabilities. For an example, under last year’s budget, recipients of the Disability Support Pension (DSP) under the age of 35 who had claimed the pension within a certain time parameter were under review to check their eligibility. Not to mention that from the beginning of 2014 there were specific changes to the DSP that involved a referral to a Centrelink doctor to confirm that you were eligible. This is opposed to the original process where your own doctor would fill out a report. This change was issued to affect under 35’s first.

These subtle changes have the power to alter public opinion; you can have individuals seeing the reviews of recipients as double checking recipients haven’t been lying. Then that perception can ricochet down the social chain until you have individuals accosting young people with a disability because they “are clearly able”. It becomes a self-referencing loop where you have a public opinion shaping policies that shape public opinion and so on.

I think I would give one bit of advice to anyone who encounters this stereotype, for I know I am not alone in this: don’t think you have to be polite to an individual who has disrespected you because you are not as old as them. If you feel like being polite about it then by all means do what comes naturally, but never feel obliged. And if you’re someone who hadn’t really thought directly about this stereotype: please think about it and respond respectfully, no one deserves to be disrespected because of something out of their control, especially their age.