John Alexander’s pride was hurt when his doctor offered him a disability parking sticker when he had a bad back injury. His emotional reaction in the doctor’s office was a perfectly normal one in our society.
But the Liberal MP’s “jokey anecdote” at the expense of disabled parking sticker users was a quintessential example of casual ableism — discrimination in favour of able-bodied people — and though unintended, is deeply offensive.
The subtext runs along the lines of: “Once I was so incapable that I was offered a disability parking sticker, now look at me, I’m successful!”
The poorly chosen anecdote, part of Mr Alexander’s acceptance speech after winning the Bennelong by-election, comes just weeks after the swearing in of Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, a wheelchair user, to Federal Parliament, which drew some media attention.
Why, you might wonder, has it taken until 2017 for Parliament House to need to be hurriedly fitted out to be wheelchair accessible?
The ageing and/or chronically ill people I worked with as a community nurse were routinely taken aback when I suggested a parking sticker or any other kind of aid or a service to help them be more independent and participate more in community life.
I’d often be met with a blank look and silence, or perhaps something like, “No, I don’t want that”. I understood how they felt.
Accepting a physical aid requires some acceptance of the loss of a specific ability. It is usually at least a knock to a person’s sense of pride. It’s often a deep blow to one’s sense of identity, self-esteem and value in society.
It’s natural that loss of physical ability very often comes a with grief and a difficult internal adaptation to a new identity. Some people work through it, and it’s bloody hard. Some just decline the aid.
Feelings of shame and embarrassment, however, are often just as painful — shame and embarrassment associated with using aids that are visible to others in public. Our society has a long history of associating disability with being of less value, and stigma persists.
“I still have some pride!” Mr Alexander joked. My own introduction to the parking sticker was reluctant and a came with a distinct tinge of dented pride, but without it I couldn’t walk far enough from the car to buy groceries and carry them back again.
Becoming ‘wheely-walker girl’
The real challenge to my identity, self-esteem and my pride was the walking aid.
During a particularly difficult physio session, at age 42, I finally conceded I needed a walking aid. Half an hour later, I was with mum at a tiny little wheelchair shop in Footscray test-driving different wheelers and walking sticks.
I had a proper bawling melt-down, openly crying, unable to stop, with poor mum and the lovely salesman consoling me.
I wasn’t crying from physical pain — it was taking the huge “backward” step of accepting walking aids. Becoming wheely-walker girl.
I have been able to reconcile myself to the use of visible aids to a large extent, but it has taken time, encouragement, support and some firm self-talk, and I’m not done with it yet.
It is still taking some painful stretching of my comfort zone to come to a tolerable degree of acceptance looking unwell and disabled, both in body and in the trappings that go with it.
Experience as both a nurse and a patient with chronic illness has taught me that many people with disability, chronic or age-related illness would rather stay home than go to the physical, logistical and mental effort of going out in the community.
Pile on issues of self-esteem and shame, and why would you be surprised by a high rate of anxiety, depression and social isolation among them? And so then it is the community who misses out on the presence of these people and the gifts and abilities they can share.
The disabled parking sticker could be considered the most literally symbolic advertisement of loss of function — the blue, stylised wheelchair being the internationally recognised symbol for a person with a disability.
This symbol has been the subject of some discussion in recent times as to whether it best represents disability.
‘You’re kidding yourself’
“Jokes” like John Alexander’s exemplify the casual ableism that alienates people to the point where some prefer to simply limit their engagement with the community, encouraging a vicious cycle.
Reluctance to use aids because of a sense of public and/or internal shame prohibits people from participating, perpetuating the lack of accessible public infrastructure, perpetuating a sense of lack of inclusion and stigma, and further reluctance to be seen using the “accessories” of disability.
I’ve met hundreds of people in this self-perpetuating cycle.
I want to give the last word to Kurt Fearnley, high-profile Australian wheelchair Olympic athlete, general high achiever, and a role model to me, who tweeted in response to Mr Alexander’s quip:
“I’m not one to get offended, and I’m not offended. Cause I choose not to be offended by the ignorant. But I spend my life convincing disabled kids that they are awesome. And then you hear that. You’re kidding yourself if you think that language is ok.”