Malcolm Turnbull

Comment: How society disables people with disabilities

Fewer than half of Australia's public toilets are accessible to people with disabilities. (AAP) Source: AAP

John Lennon did it. Has Malcolm Turnbull now done it? Many disadvantages faced by people with a disability are created by those around them.

For many people with a disability, life is no picnic. It can be more like a famine, in which survival depends on unwanted scraps.

The annoying thing about this scarcity – felt in work opportunity, education and all the most usual forms of inclusion – is that it doesn’t have to be that way. The bodies of people with a disability may sometimes produce “natural” disadvantages, but these are as nothing compared with disadvantages produced by the social world.

There are good people who understand that disability isn’t really a “survival of the fittest” problem, but the problem of an unfit society. This week, focusing on two incidents, many of these good people expressed frustration at the scarcity of respect disabled people face.

Neither incident, I’d argue, merited all the passion. Particularly when we consider that a third socially-produced disadvantage was able to unfold more powerfully in the lives of disabled people, without much comment. We’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s look at the two disturbing incidents that ignited concern, before illuminating the really disturbing one.

The first occurred more than half a century ago and is the gauche work of a man long dead. Footage of John Lennon did not so much “surface” on a UK TV show this week, as has been claimed, but was widely broadcast for the first time in the age of social media. Video of Lennon performing the ableist version of blackface—or “spack-face” as the practice is wryly known by some disability activists—has been distributed by YouTube and television specials for years.

James was treated as a disability and not, as he is, a man.

Let’s overlook the facts that “spack-face” was unfortunately common in that era, that John Lennon was always a prick and that yelling at a corpse is unlikely to produce a result.  Let’s even allow that some of the people screaming into the grave of open ableism were genuinely surprised that some of the things that were acceptable 50 years ago are no longer acceptable.  Let’s accept that this distress is noble.

And let’s also accept that widespread shock at the recent shabby treatment of a Brisbane man with Down syndrome is noble. It is. This week, hundreds of thousands of Australians leapt to condemn the entirely condemnable actions of a security guard who refused to admit 21-year-old James Milne, mistaken for an alleged shoplifter presumed also to have Down syndrome.

Understandably, Milne’s sister Victoria was appalled when James was treated as a disability and not, as he is, a man. Moreover, he is a man whose hair and skin colours were markedly different to those of the alleged shoplifter. This appeared a clear case of dull ableism.

Anyone who carries around visible evidence of a disability knows just how frustrating such prejudice can be. It can prevent you from shopping, finding work in order to fund any shopping, and from simply enjoying an hour of life where the world doesn’t afflict you with nonsense.

It is real and noble passion that provokes the Facebook activism of those who support Milne – and even of those who punish a man 35 years dead. But, it’s a passion so appealing and simple, it helps us overlook the biggest thing that happened this week for Australians with a disability.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme appears to have become a second tier issue.

If there’s a doorman to inclusion this week, it might be Malcolm Turnbull. It was therefore a shock that the cabinet reshuffle on Sunday did not feature a parliamentary secretary—or assistant minister as Turnbull prefers—for disability. It was a shock that the National Disability Insurance Scheme appears to have become a second tier issue.

Senator Mitch Fifield, the former parliamentary secretary and shadow minister for disabilities, may have been promoted in government, but the rollout of the NDIS, whose responsibility now falls to the overstuffed social services portfolio, is at great risk of little attention.

It was a shock with potentially immense reverberations. It was barely reported.

And, no. This parliamentary tale, which you may well have stopped reading halfway through, is not as thrilling as rude pop stars or cruel security guards. There is no clear devil here and no obvious victim. It provides scant opportunity for conspicuously noble activism.

But what conspicuous activism can sometimes provide is the opportunity for the real – often very boring – ways that we meaningfully remove social disadvantage to remain undiscussed. What feels like a victory in “changing attitudes” is often a failure to see the path to really changing lives.

Helen Razer is a writer, broadcaster and publisher of the blog Bad Hostess.


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