On this International Day of People with Disability, I could state the facts such as: one billion people globally have a disability; that 223.4 million people are blind or vision impaired; that over one fifth of people living in developing countries have a disability; or that women with a disability are two to three times more likely to be physically or sexually abused than women without a disability.
But instead, I want to celebrate disability as a natural element of human diversity, and to do so I want to talk about my experiences with disability.
My manager, Brandon Ah Tong, is blind. I will admit that when Brandon started with us at Vision 2020 Australia, I was conscious of his blindness and I did ask him the standard questions of how he went blind, when he went blind, how that made him feel, and how it impacted his life. It was the first time I’d had close daily contact with someone with a disability, and now that almost a year has passed, I sometimes wish I hadn’t asked those questions up front.
I am not trying to say that the topic of disability should be taboo, or that questions between friends or colleagues cannot be asked, but we should be aware that it can highlight the disability or the difference in
the short term, and limit your view of the person standing in front of you. Like Stevie Wills says in the CBM Australia video, Make Your Attitude Count, people assume she is always thinking about her disability and that she wants to talk about it. But in fact, this is often not the case.
After thinking about disability over the last few years, and talking about disability-related issues with Brandon, as a person without disability I wanted to make a connection between disability and my life experiences. I thought about what people living with a disability most often face–barriers, attitudes and myths–and tried to think of a time when I had felt something similar.
I lived in Indonesia for a couple of years, but no matter how long I lived there, every time I walked down a new street, met someone new, or ate at a different eatery, I would go through the same routine of questions: where do you come from, do you speak Bahasa, how long have you lived in Indonesia, what is your religion. The same kinds of questions that people with a disability face–questions of intrigue that can highlight difference.
I should have realised this similarity sooner. People’s intrigue, no matter how good the intention, can be really isolating. So I came up with an analogy for people that aren’t so often exposed to disability: that meeting someone with a disability is like meeting someone who has an accent. We too often ask someone with accent where they come from, how long they’ve been here, and even when we find out it’s been longer than we’ve been alive, we continue to hear the accent and isolate them as different, from somewhere else. That is, until we really get to know them.
Since working at Vision 2020 Australia and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve realised that disability is a natural part of life, just like migration. With 15 per cent of the world’s population living with a disability we should all be learning to see people as the person, not the disability. It’s the same as an accent, or being a foreigner in a small town.
On this International Day of People with Disability don’t see what sets you and someone living with a disability apart. Instead, see the person, what they can do, and what you can learn.