In my last essay, I wrote about the ways the government is actively immiserating disabled Australians in the still on-going Covid-19 crisis. Since it was published, the situation has deteriorated further, with disabled people being de-prioritised for access to vaccines, and the government refusing to admit they even have a problem. But the open ableism of our conservatives (or their ultimately ableist philosophy) is actually the least of our concerns. What’s potentially more dangerous for disabled people is the limited conception that our so-called allies have of what we need, and how much change is even possible.
Almost twice as many disabled Australians live in poverty when compared with Australians who aren’t recognised as having disabilities. The real figure may actually be higher, considering the cost of accessing our only semi-universal healthcare system, the health problems created by living in poverty, and the intentionally insufficient rate of payment for our most common income support program, the Jobseeker allowance. As well as facing food and housing shortages, Jobseeker recipients have to deal with the added stress of punitive and pointless ‘mutual obligation’ programs, openly designed to test the worth of unemployed recipients, aiming to reduce their ‘burden’ on Australia’s economy in a country that draws a stark divide between the deserving and undeserving poor.
When you’re already struggling to deal with all of that, especially if you’re living outside of a major city, how could anybody find the money and the energy required to self-advocate for long enough to get a diagnosis for a hitherto unrecognised and lifelong disability or chronic illness, or overcome the social shame of disability that causes most of us to mask our symptoms, even to ourselves, while also dealing with the shame of unemployment, the habitual suspicion that the comfortable impose upon the poor?
It’s clear that what we need to change to deal with the exclusion of disabled people in Australia is not just how we think of mental health, disability, and chronic illness, but also how we look at work, and manage our economy. However, for many ‘allies’ of disabled people, even tolerance seems difficult to expect. Not when the language of ‘reasonable accommodations’, or convenient adjustments (usually decided on by non-disabled people) to the ‘normal’ working practices of contempary capitalism, is routinely used to dismiss inconvenient or uncomfortable accessibility requirements from applicants with proven disabilities, damning us to constant stress and hypervigilance, and ultimately lowering our life expectancy and quality of life.
But why should disabled people be forced to accept being planned for as an afterthought in a society designed for able-bodied neurotypical Australians, while the opposite is not just possible, but would dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone? Why does the onus fall upon disabled people to prove, to the satisfaction of our ableist society, the accommodations that we need are ‘reasonable’, and why does it not fall upon the businesses and governments with vastly greater resources to prove that they’re not?
Even highly-paid disabled people face higher costs and higher stress than their non-disabled co-workers. Why aren’t they allowed to work less time, and earn more money for it to cover these additional expenses? Why do welfare laws require us to expend our hard-earned and ultimately necessary savings once we leave a work environment whose micro-aggressions and unreasonable workloads finally break us? Healthcare isn’t free, and disability-friendly housing usually has to be designed specifically for that effect.
I was outraged at the recent ad for a diversity and inclusion officer at The Guardian Australia requiring an inflexible seven-day, full-time, on-site work week, which many people with a disability cannot safely do. Despite claiming to ‘respect all differences … people from different social classes and people with disabilities,’ the publication apparently refused to actually prioritise these applicants, ignoring the bias against the education, experience, and intelligence of unemployed disabled workers, and eventually hiring their deputy cultural editor for the role instead.
It isn’t reasonable for disabled people to accept this. We shouldn’t have to be apologetic or polite to be included, and we shouldn’t have to fight with individuals and institutions which are hostile to us to receive the things that we already know we need. While the cost of vital health and welfare services like the DSP and NDIS is always used to justify our social, cultural, and economic exclusion, nobody ever talks about the benefits disabled people could confer if we were generously, even gratefully supported. The burden of disabled people is assumed, before you even give us space to speak. We are seen as less than non-disabled people for conditions you refuse to understand, struggling to win whatever meagre prizes that we manage to acquire underneath the crippling weight of multiple, entirely optional stressors and oppressions, on top of managing your jealousy, your guilt, your misdirected hate.
We need to learn to put disabled people first, before anybody else. There should be nowhere that you can’t access from a wheelchair. Flexible and remote working hours should be the rule, not an exception, while support for the unwaged needs to be generous and non-conditional. Healthcare, surgery, therapy, and mobility assistance should be free and universally available, without qualifiers, without shame. We should not assume that mental illnesses are less serious than any other kind of disability or chronic health condition. We should not assume that anybody with a mental illness is automatically less worthy of our trust or our attention when they talk about their needs or their experiences. We must see disabled people as the experts on their world.
We should never assume that anyone is lying when they say they have a disability. We must also not assume that anyone is lazy when we notice that they’re struggling. We should not let people who don’t have a disability—or who don’t have the same accessibility requirements as the person they’re assessing—decide upon the level of support that anybody with a disability can reasonably access. All we’ve ever had to do is listen to disabled people. That’s a simple change that anyone can make to help. We should surprise disabled people with our interest, be flexible, and compromise with them to make the better world they need to flourish, not merely survive. We need to redesign our whole society for disability-inclusion, from the bottom up, prioritising all the voices that we’re currently ignoring, even when it’s inconvenient, or makes the world seemingly more difficult for everybody else.
Charity is merely guilt-washing for abled people who are stakeholders in keeping everything the same. With world-wide rates of incapacitation due to rise significantly in the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s becoming absolutely vital we embrace the cause of wide-spread, hitherto unprecedented systematic change.
Image: Gauthier V, Où est Charlie?