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On International Day of People with Disability we need “to be grateful, always be grateful”.

As December looms on the horizon each year, most people start to think about Christmas. I’m the person who thinks about International Day of People with Disability (IDPWD). What shall I write about it? Will anyone read it? 

This year I am rebelling against writing a piece of “inspiration porn” about disability. Instead, I’m choosing to write about recent experiences and the model minority. In the last month, I’ve listened to two audiobooks written by, and about people with disabilities. Able by Dylan Alcott and Hearing Maud by Jessica White. As I read them, I knew I was the “converted” person and that people who need to learn and evolve in relation to disability are possibly not listening or reading these books. Or, if they are, a lens with cognitive dissonance might make them forget the nuances that are important to their disabled friends and colleagues.

So why do I read them? It’s a way of feeling less lonely at times about being disabled. It’s about realising that people “get it”, even if sometimes it’s not the people who can help the most. I have also learnt quite a lot about other disabilities which has given me a clearer understanding of what might be needed by others to feel equal, included and part of the community.

In the last week I’ve had two experiences to add to my formative learning. 😉

An experience of telling a group of people who are working to improve the lives of people with disabilities that I couldn’t attend their end of year event, because of the choice of venue and time. That venue activates some of my sensory issues meaning it would be an unenjoyable event for me. I also had to mention that the timing was difficult because I try to avoid driving during peak hour so I don’t endure days of pain afterwards. I felt exposed, vulnerable and heard the whisper of the word “difficult” in my mind, which is often used when disabled people request adjustments.

In contrast, I also had a discussion with a bright, articulate, intelligent and disabled young person who admitted that they had to withdraw from university because, for them, uni was a “hostile environment”. This isn’t the only disabled young person I’ve met who couldn’t complete university. It doesn’t seem to matter how high their entry grade is, awards they’ve won, they can’t stay if the environment makes it difficult to do so.

When they are able to get work, they are stuck in retail associated roles because it can be very hard to progress without university qualifications. Higher education needs to step up and learn what they need in order to retain these students, provide them with a future, and improve the national productivity. 

Watching a news story about haptic vests recently, made me realise that as a society we’re very good at ensuring we provide some of the additional “gear”, because gear is obvious, and most importantly it appears from a non-disabled perspective to be making the disabled not only equitable but also equal. With my disability lens on and in cynical mode, it’s also likely that researching and developing gear makes individuals, academics and private enterprises, eligible for grants and sponsorships with organisations. This is work for “them”. It provides these individuals with a job, whilst many disabled people aren’t working. Sadly, changing culture, doesn’t work that way and it is certainly not fast.

Changing culture is slow. I often wonder why it is acceptable when so much harm, emotional and economical, is done to those who are not able to achieve their dreams, and their community. At some point I discovered the term, model minority and started considering how this is can be translated from race to disability.

“La Trobe University lecturer, Tseen Khoo, calls this “contingent acceptance”. As perceived outsiders, our sense of belonging is always conditional on us being “good migrants”, meeting demands never made of those who enjoy white privilege. Don’t complain; be industrious; don’t end up on welfare; be grateful, always be grateful. And of course, a “good migrant” implies there’s a “bad”, which is where this myth becomes a divisive wedge fraught with danger.”

I tried to rewrite the above quote through my lenses and this is where I landed.

Acceptance of disability in Australia is always contingent on people with disability accepting that we are outsiders. We are only accepted on a contingent basis, even if we can prove that we are more than equal. 

Any devices we use to aid our mobility single us out and so do visible points of difference such as skin conditions, or perhaps a neurodivergence, such as Tourette Syndrome, where your tendency towards echolalia, verbal or motor tics can give you away as being different. Contingent acceptance relies on disabled people to be quiet, and not demand much in terms of mobility or environmental accessibility. We cannot complain about inaccessible environments (think Senator Jordon Steele-John), we need to be industrious even in environments that may cause us physical and emotional pain. We are punished in a multitude of ways for being different and “difficult” and for not fitting into the social or workplace culture. Many end up on the disability pension or Jobseeker. The “bad” people with disability are those imaginary beings who lurk waiting to rort a system that pays below the poverty line or who are assertive about their own or others’ requirements.

There is a constant expectation of being grateful when someone makes an effort to meet our requirements even though most of our requirements do not take or cost much. We only get what we need if it benefits everyone else. Minorities in Australia cannot ask for anything. We need to be grateful. Always be grateful.

December 2023

Dr Scott Rickard (she/her) is a disabled staff member with invisible disabilities (neurodivergent +) and is the Education Transformation Lead at the School of Computing.

Hearing Maud via ABC Audiobooks
Able: Gold Medals, Grand Slams and Smashing Glass Ceilings by Dylan Alcott via ABC Audiobooks