By Christina Ryan – CEO, Disability Leadership Institute
There are very few disabled people in public life anywhere. Most of what is out there is confined to disability specific spaces like running Disabled People’s Organisations, being a high-profile activist, or being a Paralympian.
This absence of disability in the public domain means that the few individuals who are out there are literally putting themselves on the line being trailblazers, so that disabled people have the same opportunities as the rest of the community. It’s a high stakes business and requires huge levels of resilience.
Disabled people in the public domain risk being judged, are subjected to scepticism and doubt about their disability, queried about whether their disability is real or not, and are treated like they have no right to be doing what they are doing.
Australia is currently in the grip of a federal election. Once again there are very few candidates with disability, who openly identify as disabled, and who can wonder why when candidates are treated as fakers and rorters?
The situation is even worse for women candidates. Not only are they undermined because of their disability, but also because of their gender. The intersection of disability and gender creates a space where violence is a daily experience for many, and it appears political life is no exception.
The recent attempts to undermine Dickson candidate Ali France by using her disability to imply she is dishonest, or even that she isn’t really properly disabled, are a classic example of the bullying tactics used against disabled women.
Another classic tactic is to suggest that disabled women can’t hack it, that we are snowflakes who won’t be able to stay the distance, or who will crumble at the first tough decision we have to make. This is gaslighting. It implies that disabled women are feeble human beings who aren’t in public life because we’re not up for it.
Similar tactics were used against me the last time I engaged in politics: I stumbled across a group of campaign workers sharing rumours about how I wasn’t up for the job and wouldn’t be able to hack the pace. The candidate they were working for is still a member of parliament. Fortunately, my electorate was redistributed, and I haven’t had to call this person my local member for a number of years. I had forgotten this incident until last week and like to think the intervening decade has shown just how “not up for it” I’ve been.
Women with disabilities are at high risk when entering public life. It is not a matter of if, but when, bullying will be experienced. It is highly likely that a disabled woman will have her disability questioned, her integrity undermined, and her intelligence ridiculed.
She won’t just be attacked because she is a woman. She will be questioned because of her disability. Not only will everyone think they have a right to her personal disability details, they will then think they have a right to comment on how she lives with disability.
Worse still, it’s also necessary to have acquired your disability through “worthy” circumstances. A great deal of the rhetoric about Ali France last week implied that she shouldn’t be attacked because she had acquired her disability as a result of defending her child. What about if she’d been a foolish young person who had sustained a spinal cord injury because she didn’t look before jumping into a river? Would that make it okay to attack her?
The public domain is one of the most hostile work environments disabled people, particularly disabled women, can enter. Small wonder so few of us risk doing it.
Is this how to achieve diversity in our parliament?
Christina Ryan was the first woman who uses a wheelchair to run for any Australian parliament – running for the ACT Assembly in 2001.
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