Don’t be a galah when it comes to disability
If you’ve ever felt awkward, uncomfortable or worried that you’ve been rude when it comes to people with disability, this quick and easy guide is here to help you!
By Tristram Peters
Unsurprisingly, I did my fair share of hospital appointments growing up. I had rod surgery to fix some overzealous scoliosis, I checked in for a nasty bout of pneumonia, and I had a litany of sleep studies (where, ironically, one never sleeps). I’m blessed that my appointments are now few and far between, because the truth is my appointments were the most boring moments of my life.
To make things interesting, my specialist used to sign me up to student exams. Basically, all his prac students would do mock exams and attempt to diagnose my rare and mysterious disability for assessment. It was good practice for them and a break in the day for me.
But what struck me, even as a kid, was how the young doctors would treat me. Some would speak down to me, speak loudly as if I were deaf, or ask insanely irrelevant questions that flared from their own flawed assumptions.
Simply, if doctors are getting disability wrong, we need to reassess how disability is treated in society overall.
As a result, I’ve come up with five rules you need to know so you’re not a galah when it comes to disability.
Rule #1 Avoid staring
Forget disability awareness, I just don’t want you walking into things. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have stared at me and then gone headfirst into a pole or down a gutter. It’s a health and safety hazard, if nothing else!
The worst instance was I when was roughly seven. In my innocence, I didn’t think being in a wheelchair equated to fame. But when I was being unloaded from my wheelchair accessible van, 20 tourists rocked up and started taking photos, using their old Kodak cameras. (Click, wind, click, wind.) They’d never seen anything like it and felt compelled to document me.
The reason people stare is partly understandable. (Spoiler: it’s not my ruggedly good looks.) It’s in seeing something out of the ordinary, something that doesn’t mesh with their ‘everyday’ view of the world. So they stare, gawk, and sometimes take photos.
The solution is to get more people with disability in mainstream media, to normalise what is, in fact, incredibly normal. Disability is common. For whatever reason, the media doesn’t portray this reality. But just because we’re not there yet, it doesn’t mean you should start a staring contest; it’d be the same if I started staring at you.
Don’t stare, don’t film me, and learn a little. Which leads me to my second point.
Rule #2 Allow kids to ask questions
I was driving in my powerchair down the main street of Caloundra, only a couple years back, when a small child hollered from across the road, ‘Mum, it’s a giant baby in a pram!’ Truthfully, I laughed; childish curiosity is amazing! But what happened next infuriated me… the kid’s mum admonished them.
In that small act, the mum entrenched in that kid’s mind that I was somehow different. If the mum stopped instead to explain what a giant baby (me) was doing in a pram (powerchair), she would’ve normalised me and stopped the kid staring at me later in life as an adult.
Even better, the mum should have let the kid ask me questions. One of my happiest moments in life is going to schools and conducting Q&As with kids, whose questions are always good natured and genuinely insightful. When they leave, they cease seeing me as different.
I’m happy to answer a kid’s question. Hell, I’m happy to answer your questions too! Just don’t launch into a deeply personal question—start by having a conversation with me, like you would with anyone else.
Rule #3 Skip that inspirational talk
The last time I went to a gig, I got the usual do-gooder. I was chilling at the back of a stage, dancing (or my epic attempt at it), when a fellow gig-goer sidled over and began praising me for ‘getting out and about’. He then went the worst next step and told me I was inspirational.
Hold the phone, but inspirational? Okay, I understand he was trying to be nice, but the sentiment does more harm than good. Did old mate think I’d just stay at home for the rest of my life because of my disability? Sorry, but I wanna see the world!
The point is, I’m not inspirational for doing everyday things. Just because I have a disability, it doesn’t mean I don’t have the same drives and motivations like everyone else. Sure, sometimes we have to problem solve to get over innocuous hurdles, but I’m not inspirational.
Soldiers are inspirational.
Doctors are inspirational.
Teachers are inspirational.
People with disabilities can do inspirational things, but we’re not inspirational purely because we have a disability – especially not for simply heading to a gig. Truth be told, I just really liked the band hey.
Rule #4 Kick back those assumptions
I grew up with a top-notch group of friends who always went above and beyond for me. I even dated! But the thing that annoyed me most is when I was out with any of these people, strangers would always just assume they were my support worker.
I’ve had people assume I don’t work, people assume I can’t talk, and even doctors speak over the top of me. (Not cool, doc.) Each one of these people carried an assumption with them when dealing with me, without taking any time to get to know me and what I’m capable of.
Just as importantly, remember that not all disabilities are visible. Someone using a disabled toilet might not necessarily need a powerchair or a child ‘freaking out’ in a supermarket might actually have sensory overload due to autism. There might be more to a situation than you’re aware.
So, whomever you’re talking to or whichever situation you’re in, kick back those assumptions. Educate yourself about disabilities. It’s the most empowering thing that you can do.
Rule #5 Remember that everyone’s different
You’re going to hate me, but I’m now going to throw a spanner in the works. Brace yourself, buckle up your ears. Are you ready? Sure? Okay, here we go: everyone with a disability is different.
These rules are good starting points, but many people with disability might disagree with some of my points – I have a mate that hates to be asked about their disability. We don’t have super-secret disability meetings where we discuss world domination. The truth is we’re all different.
So as painful as it might be to read, you have to use common sense in every situation and remember that everyone is different. But if you don’t stare, if you allow kids to ask questions and normalise disability, if you don’t call us inspiring for doing everyday things, and if you kick back those assumptions, you’re off to a good start!
Tristram is the Content Manager at Clickability, an Australian disability service directory and Information, Linkages and Capacity Building grant recipient, that allows NDIS participants to rate and review their disability supports. Visit their website clickability.com.au.