“Disability doesn’t make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.” These are the words that concluded Stella Young’s Ted Talk “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much”, which has now been viewed close to 2 million times. With her trademark insight and wit, Stella explained to her audience at TEDxSydney 2014 that people with disabilities often find themselves objectified in “inspiration porn” – a consequence of a culture that presents disability as a “Bad Thing”, and the act of simply living with a disability as “exceptional”, “brave” and “inspirational”.
In the same year, outgoing Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes addressed the National Press Club: “We are viewed as either victims or heroes, when we should be viewed as agents of our own destiny.”
I work for Advocacy for Inclusion, a Canberra-based organisation that provides independent, individual, self and systemic advocacy for people with disabilities. We work within a human rights framework and advocate for the full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons (CRPD). This international treaty, which Australia ratified in 2008, exemplifies a paradigm shift in the understanding of disability: from an outdated charity/medical model to a social model of disability. The social model suggests that disability occurs when a person’s impairment interacts with barriers within a society that has not been designed to accommodate the needs of people with such impairments. Discrimination occurs on the basis of this impairment, and related support or access needs, as well as the inaccessible nature of the society itself. People with disabilities are not “objects” of charity, medical treatment and social protection, but “subjects” with rights, capable of making decisions for their own lives.
In our work, Advocacy for Inclusion constantly encounters and combats negative and limiting stereotypes and assumptions about disability – assumptions about what people with disabilities can and can’t do – whether it’s speaking for themselves, making choices or taking leadership roles in our community. In our efforts to change the way disability is talked about and stereotyped, we have this year launched #DisabilityDISRUPT.
We want to disrupt the assumptions about what disability is and isn’t, how it should be spoken about, and who should do the talking. We want to disrupt current thinking about how policy and law get made and how governments plan for disability.
We are asking everyone and anyone to join the conversation by using #disabilitydisrupt on social media – you can email, tweet, blog or post an article, photo, link, quote or opinion – whatever works for you!
Each month #DisabilityDISRUPT will focus on a different topic. In February, we’ve been starting conversations about education, with a focus on desegregation and what real inclusion looks like in classrooms and lecture halls.
Under Article 24 of the CRPD, Australia has obligations to ensure “that persons with disabilities are able to access general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination and on an equal basis with others. To this end, States Parties shall ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided to persons with disabilities.” Despite this, huge barriers continue to exist for university students with disabilities, from poor accessibility of campuses, resources or websites to discrimination and failures to accommodate individual needs in teaching and assessment. The cost of studying with a disability is often not recognised, with little assistance available for the costs incurred as a result of requiring additional resources or making necessary adjustments. It is an avoidable reality that throughout our education system, a culture of low expectations leads to limited opportunities and lower educational (and employment) outcomes for students with disabilities.
Getting an education is no picnic and can be a struggle for anyone. People with disabilities are all too often shut out, their way impeded and their voices and perspectives hidden – every time this happens, the whole community loses out.
Share the stories of the barriers you have experienced or observed, using #disabilitydisrupt. Think about ways you can challenge the current culture of exclusion and disrupt the soft bigotry of low expectations.
We need to make Stella Young’s vision a reality: “I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people, and I want to live in a world where a kid in year 11 in a Melbourne high school is not one bit surprised that his new teacher is a wheelchair user.”