Discriminatory barriers to participation by people with disabilities, language, legal, architectural, cultural and low expectations

20 July 1977 – Historic speech to a Forum of SA ACROD (South Australian branch of the Australian Council on Rehabilitation of Disabled) Regency Park Centre for Crippled Children, Regency Park, South Australia

Richard lays out discriminatory barriers for disabled people

Coming out about disability

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, “Good Evening”. I am honoured to speak at this Forum, from which I hope a new wind will blow. I have been asked to speak on a huge subject, freedom from discrimination. It happens to be a special occasion for me, as it is only recently that I have ‘come out’ and ceased playing the ostrich regarding my own handicap. I have come to realise that the way society treats the handicapped is in fact a microcosm of what is happening to all of us.

Disability language

It is important to realise that all people who are handicapped are not in wheelchairs. In fact, the majority are not physically handicapped at all. The first issue is a question of language, ‘What are we going to call him?’ Remember that handicap crosses all barriers of age, sex, race, religion and education. The experience in overseas legislation shows that discrimination will follow if definitions are not comprehensive.

I would suggest that definitions along the lines of the American Medical Association’s be accepted by legislators:

  • Handicap is the lay term for the medical word “impairment”.
  • Impairment is a measurable quantity.
  • Disability, on the other hand is much more difficult to assess.

An impairment or handicap is not necessarily a disability. Our society needs to create environments which do not alienate any of its members, nor unnecessarily disable the handicapped.

Handicapped people in New York City came out with pioneering work on their rights as human beings. The proceedings, reported by Edith Lynton, found that layers of discrimination were on three levels, beginning with the most gross, legislative, through to the more physical, barriers, and ending with the largest and most subtle layer, that of attitudes.

Discrimination – legal barriers

Legislation should be the easiest barrier to change. In Australia to my knowledge, there is no overt discriminatory legislation. However, there are a number of areas where legislation should perhaps discriminate for handicapped people. Two quick examples are the building codes and parking. What may be considered fair and just for ordinary people may be discriminatory for the handicapped. It is good for the healthy to walk half a mile from a parking place, but it is a different matter to ask the same of someone who is handicapped.

Society has built-in these unnecessary barriers which isolate all its members, not only the handicapped, and one is forced to question whether indeed, it is not intentional.

Discrimination – architectural barriers

Architectural barriers are the most expensive area of discrimination to correct. My own life has been affected by this structural inequality. For years I have suffered discomfort and inconvenience from lack of facilities for me to participate equally in society. I was prevented from gaining my degree, and therefore, meal-ticket by both Adelaide and Flinders University.

The humble post box has prevented me from independently posting my job applications and public phone design from ringing up for an interview. If I had overcome these hurdles, I would still have to face the problem made by transport planners. Is it any wonder we find so few handicapped people employed or fully participating in life?

Difficulties do exist if one wants to challenge any existing legislation. The old Supreme Court building still expects everyone to step up to Justice with no entries on the level. If one wanted to become a legislator, then do you all know that grey, grand, granite, Greek building on North Terrace? I once stood for Parliament, and my only sadness at not being elected was to see how the problem of giving me ‘free and easy access’ to my seat would have been solved.

Even entertainment is often denied or becomes so difficult and embarrassing that it is easier to stay at home. In a local theatre a handicapped person, after negotiating all the exterior barriers, is not permitted to stay seated in a wheelchair. An elderly fireman and a theatre manager insist on lifting one into a seat. In case of fire, the rule seems to be women, children, and fit people first.

Discrimination – attitudinal barriers

The largest and most difficult layer of discrimination involves the indifference towards and misconceptions of handicapped people. Actions are chained to people’s attitudes, and these tend to be self-perpetrating. We need to see that change occurs, either by education or exposure and that all people become more independent in their thinking.

The symbol of success in our society is a ladder. It is with great pride that a managing director says, “I started at the bottom and worked my way up”. The problem is HOW DO YOU GET A WHEELCHAIR UP A LADDER? The base or first step has been analysed by different people in different times. To Hegel, the base was ‘the idea’, to Marx it was ‘the economic’, but neither of these seems to exactly fit the dialectic of ‘the handicapped’.

Medical culture of power and discrimination

For me the medical environment seems inseparable, at least at the first step. Those of you who have been in the hospital know this situation too well; the game of hierarchy which is measured by the length of coat and entourage. Imagine your self-image after a long exposure to this sort of discriminatory situation where your rights and feelings have no place on the totem pole of power. And power these people have – they make your decisions, often experiment on you, teach from you, set limits to your behaviour, and schedule your freedom and rights to tailor fit their system and convenience.

This medical environment colours one’s entry into the real world. I well remember my own re-entry in 1959. I had been a cussed patient, made few friends in the hierarchy during my two years of hospitalisation, which I had bucked and fought my way through. Luckily, the professionals of the day thought I was too hopeless to rehabilitate.

Low expectations about handicapped people

I was amazed to find on discharge that this attitude, although less intense, was much the same in society. Few people believed that I could or should try to achieve what I considered minimal ambitions as a young person with my whole life ahead of me. Others still wanted to decide, to protect, and treat me as an object of charity.

Today, there are undoubtedly improvements. The people of the City Council kindly made available a prime parking position in the Central Market Car Park. Unfortunately, they didn’t fully understand the problem, because the only access was via a narrow steep ramp with a dangerous drop-off. With consultation, this would probably never have happened. We handicapped people need to look after our own interests, and to make sure the discriminatory attitudes cease.

Dependency and lack of control

At the beginning of my speech, I said that handicapped people reflect what’s happening to all of us. Handicapped people know these concerns well because these are daily experiences for us,
and perhaps through our awareness of the consequences of dependency help you not to fall into the same expensive traps.

  • Have any of you been concerned at how you seem to need an expert to do almost anything?
  • Have you been concerned at how expensive it is to get those little anything’s done?
  • Have you been concerned at the way we are giving up our own independence and resourcefulness to others who claim by their qualifications to be the only ones capable of doing what’s best?
  • Have you been concerned at the way organisations keep secret files and records on your private details?

Charities – who gets the benefit?

We are all used to the high incomes of doctors, but recently a charitable organisation has started another chain by granting a paramedical worker a salary of $20,000. At the same time this charity cannot find the money to provide correct footwear for the people who I would think the public gave the money for.

The boot needs to be put on the correct foot – are handicapped people here to further the professional and monetary ambitions of the so-called helping professions? From where I sit, it seems so.

Then let’s be honest and more discriminating and change the picture in charitable advertising. If you think this is a minor problem, remember that over 75% of the entire health budget goes in salaries. I am not quite at the position where I would advocate handing over the Health and Welfare Budget direct to the consumers, but I’m not too far off.

Principle of self-determination

We need help in some areas, but it is time that handicapped people were included on the fun level where decisions regarding our futures are made. This should be a simple normal matter of course, and not mere tokenism. It could even be that if this fair and just principal of self-determination is carried right through society, we may delay the day when human beings leave it all to the insects.