Being an ally, not just on International Day of People with Disability…but, every day.

December 3rd is a United Nations day that promotes inclusion and “celebrates” people with disability.

I was asked to MC a function today at work to mark it. I need to state at the outset that I am a nurse by background, so l want to acknowledge that health systems have not always been places where people have received the kinds of support that they have wanted. The second thing I want to acknowledge is that I am going to use both people first and identity first language in this blog to acknowledge the different kinds of language that are used by people with lived experience and those with institutional backgrounds.

We began with some accessibility details and then an Acknowledgement of country by RMIT Honours Student Chrissy Beling who pointed out that First Nation’s People are more likely to experience disability and are less likely to have access to adequate support or culturally safe and appropriate healthcare. I then made some introductory comments:

“The bushfires and COVID19 have led to a rallying cry of “we are in this together”. However, the pandemic has revealed the limitations of what it means to be facing something ‘together’ for those who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. As the New Zealand disability rights commissioner Paula Tesoriero pointed out, lockdown gave many non-disabled people a small inkling of the experiences of isolation and restriction that disabled people face on the daily. However, people with disabilities also experienced additional barriers, emergency measures disrupted vital support networks; exacerbated gaps in services and policy approaches for disabled people; not getting personal protective equipment (PPE), problems accessing supermarkets, delays in being provided with official public health information in accessible formats. People with neuro-disabilities and learning disabilities faced judgement for not knowing the new social “norms” of queues, masks and physical distancing. Even digital remedies were inadequate creating challenges for those disabled people who could not access online information. Some disabled children had to learn at home, without tactile and hard copy resources. Sometimes respite care was not available. On the other hand, the pandemic opened up other ways of working, we relied on technology to get our work done and many of us worked from home. These flexible employment arrangements highlighted the previous ableism of “not yet”.

So then how do we ensure access is not a noun but a verb? How do we view access as a collective responsibility? In a time of world crisis, of climate change and COVID, when we recognise that our old ways of working are not working and we need to radically change how we live. I’m inspired by Sins Invalid who ask us how we can create radically resilient, sustainable communities where no one is left behind? How in a time of zoom (or Teams) do we notice and attend to each other. How can we “breathe a deeper layer of care” into our relationships and collective experiences” as we move forward in love for each other? By gathering together to celebrate this day, I am hoping that we can help to ensure accessibility for the estimated one in six RMIT staff members and 4.3 million Australians living with disability.”

Chief Operating Officer and Executive Champion for Accessibility, Dionne Higgins followed, talking about RMIT achievements including: being the Top Organisation for accessibility and inclusion with the Australian Network on Disability; first University to achieve the Disability Confident Recruiter accreditation; Equitable Learning Services provided individual consultations to 3000 students (up from 1740 in 2019) and delivered over 2600 learning plans for students to access adjustments; the Student Counselling Service provided nearly 8,000 counselling consultations; 3,500 students and staff engaged with communications and activities to support mental wellbeing.

Then it was time to hear the fabulous keynote speaker Carly Findlay, an award-winning writer, speaker and appearance activist. Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence Awards named Carly one of Australia’s most influential women in 2014.  Carly received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for her work as a disability advocate and activist. Carly’s speech was about some of the key ways to be an ally. My take-home messages were:

  1. Take care with language. Discourses of deficit, inspiration and pathology aren’t helpful. Don’t use euphemisms.
  2. Don’t be “disability blind” – “see us and see the barriers we face”.
  3. Step up without over-stepping- don’t speak for someone disabled.
  4. Stop centering only the experience of white people with disability.
  5. Educate yourself: Follow the fabulous disability activists on social media, sign up for google alerts.
  6. Write complaint letters.
  7. Use social media to lobby.
  8. Call out ableist language and don’t play devil’s advocate.
  9. Make events accessible.
  10. Make communications accessible-use image descriptions.
  11. Ensure there is disability representation on panels.
  12. Pay people for their time.
  13. Sit with discomfort if you have non-disabled privilege.

I closed with the words of Aurora Levins Morales, Patricia Berne and Leroy Moore who say ‘All bodies are unique and essential. All bodies are whole. All bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We are powerful, not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them. We move together with no body left behind. This is Disability Justice.’