Changing The Way We View Disability

A personal note from Senior Helpers Master Franchisor, Leonie Williams

Accepting Disabilities and Differences

In December we recognise persons who live with a disability. For those of us who have lived a life without a recognised disability, it’s hard to fully appreciate the life of another who has additional challenges. Looking at how resilient many Australians are, a physical or cognitive disability is not always a disability to the person who has a diagnosed condition. Society gives us labels so that we can accommodate what is different from others. Sometimes it’s appearance, other times it’s language, but in this context, we’re describing what society considers a difference in ability. Too often it is the label applied by society that limits the person, not their own disability.

Let me explain. My daughter does not look like me (her birth mother). Over 25 years ago at a parent-teacher conference, a gently-spoken teacher advised me that children like my daughter do not do well with maths and academic studies. Well, that was a red rag waving at mother bull! I asked the teacher to explain how she considered my daughter to be lacking in ability as a result of her appearance. An educated teaching professional had racially profiled my daughter (incorrectly as it happens) and suggested that due to her appearance, I should not expect her to be academically able.

The moral to this story is that appearances should not be used to judge the ability of another, whether that is the result of racial bias or a bias associated with a disability. Had I accepted the words of the teacher, I would have damned my daughter to chronic academic mediocrity. She is gifted in English, reads prolifically, has 2 university degrees and manages a thriving Senior Helpers business with over 70 employees.

So, let’s go back to the topic of this blog, honouring persons with a disability. Let’s face it, a disability can be compared to a belly button. We all have one! My disability may be ageing and the decreasing ability to do all the things I could do in my youth. But I do not see this as a disability. It is adapting to change and modifying my activities accordingly. For the child born with spina bifida or with microcephaly, they grow and develop to explore the scope of their abilities. With the right environment and support, they develop skills and abilities to live, and most thrive in a world that may be limiting to others, but not always to them.

Inclusion is the Bones to Heathy Self-Esteem

Growing up different from others can be hard. Our peers often reflect the attitudes of those around us like directly influential adults. Marginalisation or acceptance can start at a very young age and the schoolyard can be tough. A difference can be associated with inclusion and a community of growth where all participants grow and develop emotionally and socially, or it can be the start of a lifetime of exclusion, low self-esteem and an inability to develop without feelings of daily opposition. Like all people in our society, the daily and unrelentless challenge of experiencing a lack of support and acceptance can lead to feelings of resentment – disability or no disability. It can be a very small thing, but it can have a profound impact.

Years ago, I was a coach at Little Athletics. There were some very naturally talented athletes in our group, but also others who just wanted to be part of the fun and have an opportunity to participate. At 11 years of age, running 1500 meters is a long, tough distance. The talented kids did their best and it was easy to predict who would be in the first group to cross the finish line. What was even better to watch was the group who had finished, exhausted and spent, pick themselves up again to run an additional lap to accompany the least able athlete in their last lap, not alone, but with their support. There were a few tears shed among the onlookers that day. However, it was the sentiment shared by that child’s parent weeks later that showed that that one action had such a powerful effect on the self-esteem of a child. They were not alone. They might never get the blue ribbons or win Olympic Medals, but they were respected by their peers for extending themselves.

Adapting to Change

We should also look around us and see the capacity and will of those adults, young and older, who, due to genetics, life circumstance or just plain luck of the draw (or lack of it), acquire a disability. The medical statistics tell us of the daily development of disabling diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. These are not diseases that incapacitate only older persons. Younger onset is not uncommon. Every person who acquires a chronic deteriorating disease knows that there is a pattern to their life ahead that is characterised by loss of ability and function. How they accommodate this and adapt to the changes requires strength of character and maturity, but most significantly, the support of those who will be on the journey with them – family and friends. The journey through a disability such as these is not generally in the family instruction manual from birth. Supporting, encouraging, assisting another whose abilities are changing is not easy – but most spouses, partners and parents tell me that it’s not so hard when you love that person. For those of us here at Senior Helpers, we can see the toll of caring – even when love and commitment are the motivators.

Recognising the Contribution that Persons with Disabilities Make to Society

Every 4 years we embrace the Olympics, an opportunity for the most talented athletes from across the globe to compete in events where culture and language aren’t a barrier to the joy of participating in sport in a team or as an individual. But we also have the Paralympics, an opportunity for those with a physical, neurological and/or cognitive disability to compete equally with peers. The Paralympics is not an alternate Olympics. It is a global event that is underpinned by inclusion. From cultures and nations where having a disability was traditionally considered shameful, to increasing numbers of athletes who are meeting and competing together where there is no judgment or limitations, only the goal to strive for more. Societies continually evolve and the growth in participation at the Paralympics is a global indicator of support, and the growing acknowledgement of the contributions persons with disabilities make globally.

In a similar vein, the Invictus Games were created to restore the faith and acceptance of service men and women disabled physically and emotionally as a result of war, conflict and service to their respective countries. While we may consider these veterans and those still serving with a disability, we often do not see the additional burden they carry, along with their visible and invisible challenges. Their visible disabilities are easily identified to others, but the invisible disabilities relate to the emotional and psychological damage of their experiences. Not to mention the added challenge of integrating back into society and community post military. Organisations and opportunities made through the Invictus Games are wonderful, but as a society, we know that more is needed.

While I have discussed a number of aspects related to disabilities and the individuals who live with certain conditions, what is critically important in this discussion is that we all create acceptance, not just by accepting what society positions as the norm – but by accepting every human being, no matter how different their body or mind may be. We are all doing our best, every day of our lives, but we must collectively do better to create a more inclusive Australia. Let’s not add disability discrimination, or any form of discrimination, to another’s life through bias or lack of humanity and understanding.

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