Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Man Stood Up Out of His Wheelchair After a Roger Federer Miracle Shot

Caption - the author, five years ago. Text description - A woman half sitting on a car bonnet with a forearm crutch in her hands.

You don’t see that every day, the article says.

The headline is compelling. ‘A man has sensationally jumped out of his wheelchair after Roger Federer hit an unbelievable shot in his three sets to one loss against Novak Djokavic at the Australian Open semi finals’.

A miracle, they say.

‘The ~miracle~ occurred after Federer managed to get onto the end of a particularly slight touch from Djokovic’, the article reads, and is followed by a flurry of Twitter posts mocking or denouncing the man in the wheelchair, who had the audacity to stand up in his excitement.

Well, it’s miracle time at my house – along with the homes of millions of other wheelchair users who do not have a spinal cord injury.

Let’s explain wheelchairs. They are mobility devices, used to assist people who cannot walk, who cannot walk far, cannot walk without pain, cannot walk for long distances because they have breathing problems, fatigue issues, brittle bones. They’re metal shapes with wheels which confer mobility, not diagnostic status, onto the user.

I have limb girdle muscular dystrophy, and I can stand. I do so to throw my wheelchair into the back of my car, and I can walk without much assistance inside my home. I hold onto furniture, I sometimes fall over, and I cannot navigate steps. My ability to walk is decreasing, and my gait is peculiar – I look a little like a Thunderbird. It is like I have ball bearings in my hips. Getting up from the floor is harder than standing from a sitting position.

This is not unusual for many wheelchair users. Folks with cerebral palsy often use a wheelchair for the same reason and many of them can also stand and walk. Different people have different levels of impairment – my disability is degenerative. And there is no blanket rule that says, ‘Wheelchair users cannot stand’.

Don’t get me wrong. We have enormous fun with your shitty, ableist, stereotyping misconceptions. I have lost count of the number of times a well meaning and prayerful person has ‘laid hands’ on me to pray for my ‘recovery’ – it is always hilarious when you stand up at the end. And I thank the stars that my feet still work when I need to get up or down a curb or step, and curse those same stars when I stand up with shopping on the back of my chair, which painfully smashes the footplate into my non-paralysed feet as it tips over.

But this gets old very quickly. Like many other wheelchair users, I am reluctant to stand in supermarkets for just this reason – people make assumptions about my impairment, decide ‘how disabled’ I am. If you can walk, they ask, why do you need a wheelchair? It does not matter how far you can walk, or how much difficulty it takes you, or whether you are likely to dislocate a leg or shoulder – you are ‘not disabled’.

This image, shared by George Takei last year, is another example of where stereotyping leads to public mockery, stigmatising and hate speech against people with disability.

Image description - A disabled woman stands up out of her wheelchair to reach the top shelf of the liquor aisle. The image is taken from a screenshot of a Facebook page. The meme reads, 'There has been a miracle'.

That stereotyping reinforces misconceptions and stigmas around disabled people. It’s not far from the language of ‘burden’, tossed out on the front page of a newspaper to tell Australians why we were not worthy of receiving disability care and support, or a disability support pension. It is why disabled people are dying in the United Kingdom, why we constantly have to ‘prove’ how disabled we are. It is why we painted as leaners and scroungers and rorters, people who are too busy sitting down being lazy to get a job or people who live off benefits, even when we are unable to find employment because of that same stigmatisation.

I’m walking away from this conversation – not very steadily, but walking nonetheless.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The March

Image description: A woman with red hair and a green shirt is being pushed in a wheelchair. A sign on the back of the wheelchair says, 'Black lives matter. Disabled lives matter.'

“Will you come and march with us on January 26?”

I think about it. The young man who is asking me is a young indigenous man named Clinton, and we are sitting at the outskirts of a homelessness community at Matagarup, a place that means ‘leg-deep’. It is home to a dozen homeless families, a few hard core activists protesting the closure of black communities, a few people who are travelling from interstate or who have moved to the city after their communities have been closed.

‘Why would we march?’, I ask. I am a disability rights activist, but I sometimes visit the island. The people there are always warm and polite and helpful. Sometimes I take food. Always, I learn something.

‘For change,’ Clinton says. ‘For the Australia we want to be. Do you want anything to change in Australia? I do.’

And we talk about the Australia we are living in – an Australia which celebrates the anniversary of white Australia occupying this land and commencing the mass genocide of his people, an Australia where half of my people, disabled folk, are living near or below the poverty line. An Australia where people who cannot marry who they want, where racism and bigotry and ableism is rife. An Australia whose history has informed our present, where disabled people are still living in institutions and black men, women and children cannot get jobs or housing and are still living in poverty.

And so I agree to march.

My day starts in uniform, in my own rural community. We raise and salute the flag, the children and I. There are awards presented to deserving recipients, hardworking members of my community. There is a citizenship ceremony, where the new Australians are given a potted native plant wrapped in a green and gold ribbon. The Councillors cook us breakfast and we volunteers talk to each other, the fire brigade members, Scouts, Mens Shed members.

Of three hundred or so people, there are five Aboriginal people. They stand slightly aside from the crowd.

I take off my uniform in the car and put on a green tee shirt. It is a teeshirt from FRIDA, the Feminist Response In Disability Activism collective, and was sent to me by a disabled sister in the US. There’s corflute for a sign for my wheelchair, carefully marked with the words, ‘Black Lives Matter, Disabled Lives Matter’. As I am writing it, I think of the Aboriginal Australians with disability who I will march for – my friend Marlon Noble, who was incarcerated for a decade without charge, Rosie Ann Fulton, others who have been deemed to be held indefinitely without charge under the Mentally Impaired Accused Act in this state. I think of other Australians, 22 year old Ms Dhu, whose inquest continues this year, who died from the injuries that the police disregarded when she was in their care, of Mr Ward, who was literally cooked to death in an unairconditioned police cell on a country trip. Kate Bugmy, Lala Mardigan – the names go on. They are the people I will march for, I decide.

It is a hot day. My wheelchair is fitted with an off road wheel, but it bogs down in the sand on the island.

‘Do you want a hand, or shall I just watch you struggle?’ A man strides over to me and I gratefully accept his help. If it was on the street, I would have said no. This is a community where people help one another.

He pushes me into the shade of a tarp, erected between a forked stick and a tent. There’s a chair beside me and an upturned piece of bark. It is filled with feathers, sprayed black and yellow and red, a half coke can filled with crushed charcoal, balls of wool and braided lengths, ready for decoration.

‘How do these work?’ I ask Herbert, who is sitting near me. ‘Where do you wear them?’

‘You’ll see, in a minute. We will be all dressed up.’ Herbert is an Aboriginal man who is one of the camp leaders. He directs the young men and boys and shows them how to paint their bodies and tuck the red material into their shorts, and I am greatly amused watching Clinton working out how to tuck his mobile phone into his traditional garb.

‘In case the media ring,’ he explains. And rubs charcoal across his chest, ties gumleaves to his arms.

There are more of us gathering, a two hundred strong crowd, but it is all very casual. The young boys are dressed by their brothers and fathers and uncles, and a few of them go off to play football, showing off impressive footy skills that my home team would die for. The young men talk about the heat of the bitumen and whether they should wear thongs.

‘No black man wore thongs,’ declares Herbert, and I tell him that no black man traditionally had to walk on bitumen. He grins. ‘We will walk barefoot,’ he says, and the young men put their footwear away.

The sun is shining and there is a breeze coming off the river. Someone is playing a radio, and others are laughing and talking in family groups. There is a small girl on my knee, and another small girl is telling me, earnestly, that all princesses live in castles.

‘Fuck off, you black cunts!’ They scream it from a car that was passing on the Causeway, and everybody freezes. It is a car full of white revellers, travelling to celebrate Australia Day. The community stop and look in that direction, then return to what they are doing. The little girl cocks her head and opens her blue eyes a little wider.

‘Does that happen often?’ I ask. Yes, I am told. Day and night. People scream abuse out their car windows, sometimes come to the camp to cause violence. The men at the camp protect the women and children, I am told.

A few minutes later, it happens again.

Herbert gathers us around. He is painted in white clay, and is today a ghost man, invisible in his own country. ‘When you hear the first bang of the first firework,’ he tells us, ‘That is the bang of the first gun that was fired by Captain Cook at black men when they arrived in our country. Our ancestors died for us.’ The children listen, the young men look sombre. He speaks of land and birthright and racism and colonialisation. He speaks of the reality for his people, right now.

My daughter joins me and my friend. We are not the only white people marching – the march is mostly made up of Aboriginal men, women and children, but there are folks from every conceivable background holding signs, wearing teeshirts. Many of them are pushing prams. The children are wearing shoes, carrying water bottles, tucked into strollers. We set off down the street, stopping the traffic, the police escort just in front of us. This is a peaceful protest. There is no anger and I have not heard a single person swear. It is a community march, a family rally, a statement of a position, a message that this community of people is not invisible.

The ground is hot. There is a three legged dog in front of us with an Aboriginal flag tied to his collar. Clinton leads the chant via his microphone – ‘Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land!’ Some people are chatting quietly, the young men are dancing at the front of the crowd and carrying a thick silver chain. We walk through the city and Aboriginal people in cars give us the thumbs up, white people look at us darkly. We have disrupted their day of celebration. We keep walking, deep into the heart of the city.

My daughter is sweating, pushing me up a hill that I cannot navigate without her help. And suddenly there is a scream – somebody has thrown a coconut from fifteen stories up, down into the crowd. It narrowly misses a baby in a pram, and it is the mother who has screamed. Seconds later, missiles pelt down into the crowd – a large stone, the type you get from a pot plant, water bottles filled with water. They explode and we are splashed. Nobody is hit, nobody is hurt, but the force of the missiles would almost certainly have meant that a person could have been killed. People are covering their children, their babies. We huddle together in the street. There is nowhere to go, and then the rally turn their faces up to the missile throwers, defiantly.

Caption: The building at 237 Adelaide Tce where the occupants of apartments 15 and 16 - and 9 and 10 threw projectiles at the marching men, women and children below. Image description: A tall building with balconies. The photograph is taken from the ground, looking up at the building.

‘Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land,’ they chant. They stand together and chant up at their attackers, unflinchingly, for long minutes before Clinton moves them on. ‘It’s what they want, let’s keep going,’ he says, and the crowd follows his lead. The television cameras are rolling, and they faithfully record every move.

It is a long walk to the Survival Concert, and heads turn as we proceed through the stalls at the park, disrupt the radio station’s live broadcast. A sea of blue and white tee shirts and here is a sea of chanting people dressed in red and black and yellow, headed up by mostly naked men wearing feathers and paint. The Aboriginal flag flies above us and I notice some people joining us from the other crowd, walking with us.

Image description: A group of people marching down the street, taken from above. The group is led by Aboriginal people carrying Aboriginal flags.
Finally, we arrive at the Survival Concert. Herbert gives a rousing speech – he is not an Elder, he tells them, but an Aboriginal man who wants change for his people. The young men dance, hopping like kangaroos, and the sound of the didgeridoo is everywhere. We cannot stay for the concert, so start walking back.

I have blisters on my hands. I laugh and show the young man walking beside me, whose feet are blistered from walking on hot asphalt. He laughs and shows me his hands, blistered from climbing trees, he says. Wheelchair hands, he says.

On the way home, it is a sombre drive. I wonder how possible it is to 'get over' the trauma of your family history, the genocide of your people, particularly when others are reinforcing that hate and discrimination and racism every day. If you are unable to get a job or a house because of your skin colour. If your community has been closed down, if your parents were stolen from their families because white Australia didn't think they were 'good enough'. Particularly if you are now homeless, or disadvantaged, or having things thrown at you. Particularly if you are living in a tent.

My daughter finds the footage on Facebook, courtesy of Channel 9 News Perth. The comments are appalling.
From Luke - Let them have there little march if it makes them feel better. We shouls be giving out free metho they look thirsty from all the hard work they dont do

From Richard - I don't see them complaining about the Benefits and Royalties they get while hard working tax payers are suffering eh so wrong

From Lance - Should still have them as slaves today!!

From Frances - Can Australia legalise killing for one day please so we can do some culling

Not just a few comments. Hundreds of comments, telling Aboriginal people that they should be killed, grateful that they are living in this country, removed to somewhere away from white people.

Such hate, from white, anonymous faces. In other countries, they were concealed behind white hoods, but here they are screamed from passing cars, hurled from apartment balconies, typed from behind the anonymity of a keyboard.

I read those comments and I try to reconcile them with what I know about their targets, the respectful, warm people I spent time with yesterday, with little Olivia sitting beside me and telling me about her blanket with the stars on it and how all princesses live in castles.

I am not ashamed to be Australian. But today, I am ashamed to be white.

Image description: Aboriginal men leading the march. They are painted and wearing traditional garb.

Photographs by Jeff Tan Photography and Gerry Georgatos

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Buck Stops With Us

Let's put it into tiny little words, simple little concepts.

Do you remember the time your mother said to you, 'I feel so much grief and anger that I had you instead of the child I really wanted'?

No, neither do I.

You can't talk about love and grief in the same mouthful and expect your child to buy it. What, you'd never say it to their face? Do you not think that they see it in your eyes every time you look sad on their birthday, every time you look resigned that they didn't achieve on the same level as their peers?

End this bullshit myth that disability is tragedy and that disabled children are lesser, unworthy. I'm tired of it. I want to see we parents pulling the Welcome To Holland posters off our fridges, tearing the awareness bracelets off our wrists, stopping the channeling of hate and disappointment through our own internalised ableism.

It is the only way we can change the world for our children. The buck stops with us.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Damien Little and Geoff Hunt were not 'good blokes'. But who are the perpetrators we are NOT talking about?

He’s not a good bloke. He’s a murderer.

Two days after Damien Little drove his car off a Port Lincoln wharf with his two children, we’re calling for some balance. You’re not a victim if you take out your two small children with you – you’re a criminal. The same goes for Geoff Hunt, who gunned down his entire family in Lockhart last year before killing himself.

A ‘good bloke’ would not have shot his eight year old daughter in the face as she sat up against the bedhead.

These are unquestionable truths. A murderer, by definition, is a person who commits murder. By annihilating your entire family, you become a criminal and a perpetrator of familicide and filicide.

The upholstery in Damien Little’s family car will still be damp, and we’re dissecting the details of the murder with enormous gusto. He was mentally ill, his mother speculates. This is part of a wider discussion about violent men, say the feminists. Google indicates that there are 25,700 results for the search on ‘Damien Little’ and ‘Koda’ (the Little's eldest son).

Why, then, is there not equal coverage – and a cry for balance, a call for justice - given to the murders of children with disability at the hands of their parents? Who are we NOT talking about?

Consider this.

In 2011, a South Australian woman named Angela Puhle starved her 27 year old daughter, Kyla, to death. Kyla had cerebral palsy. The judge said that her 57 year old school principal mother had ‘suffered immensely’ – because she had lost her daughter, husband and job – and that she was a ‘devoted and loving mother’. The judge found her guilty, but refused to impose a custodial sentence or a fine. In South Australia, the punishment for ill treatment of an animal carries a maximum penalty of $50,000 or four years in prison.

Today, five years later, I search for Angela Puhle and Kyla’s names. They return 206 results.

In 2013, an inquest into the 2011 death of nine year old Isabella Leiper was suspended after the Coroner found that she was killed by a ‘known person’. Police have charged her father, David, of killing Isabella, who had cerebral palsy and who had died from a number of internal injuries that were the result of a blunt force to the stomach. During the inquest, the Coroner heard that Isabella’s father had previously assaulted a baby from another marriage, who suffered bleeding from the brain.

David and Isabella’s names, searched together, return 490 results.

And late last year, a story broke that a mother and her partner were accused of killing their autistic eleven year old son by binding him to a garden chair, dousing him with cold water and leaving him in a garden shed, where he died from exposure. The boy was routinely tortured and confined to the shed, his mother said, who the Crown alleges is jointly responsible for his death. The boy died in 2011, but not a single news outlet covered the story at the time. It was only in November of last year that a limited discussion broke out in the disability sector after half a dozen – literally – news outlets picked up the article. Parents argued vehemently that the torture and killing of this child should be attributed to lack of support, and the words torture and murder were conspicuously absent from the news coverage.

Killing a disabled person is different from killing a non-disabled person, clearly. Just ask Peter Eitzen, drugged and stabbed by his mother Beverly in 2009. Or Daniela Dawes, who held her ten year old son’s nose and mouth shut until he stopped breathing. She walked out of the court into a paid media interview, and was placed on a five year behaviour bond.

News reports about disability filicide typically talk about how parents were ‘pushed to the breaking point’ or ‘under too much stress’, portraying disabled children as burdens and positioning disability as the problem. Victim blaming is not just directed at disabled children, either – in last year’s Coroner’s inquest, the Coroner spoke about the accident that caused Kim Hunt’s disability and cited her personality changes as contributory to the annihilation of the family. Kim was described as ‘hounding Geoff endlessly’, ‘complaining about feeling unsupported’, ‘suffering wild mood swings’, being ‘highly strung’ and ‘having trouble with angry outbursts’. Pages of the Coroner’s report are devoted to the state of mind of Kim, who was shot just above her right eye with a 12 gauge shotgun, rather than Geoff, who was described as being ‘well liked, charismatic, an excellent sportsman and farmer’ and being ‘sociable and hardworking’.

There are victims, and there are murderers. If you murder your family, you are, by definition, a murderer. And as a disabled victim, you are just as murdered, just as dead - and just as newsworthy.

The outpouring of grief for the two little boys who died in a submerged car two days ago is appropriate, as is the community’s need to dissect what happened in order to prevent it ever happening again. But there will be no viral news coverage, no community discussion, no flowers at the wharf for Kyla, for Peter, for Jason, for Isabella. No jail time for the perpetrators, who are quietly excused from court amongst those unspoken words; mercy killing, euthanasia. No teddy bears and balloons laid beside a garden shed in Central West New South Wales.

In ten years, it will be almost as though they never existed at all.

Friday, January 1, 2016

It's Time to Have a Conversation

Trigger warning - abuse, hate speech, offensive language

Freedom of speech advocates say that society will regulate itself, and that hate speech against disabled people has no impact upon those people. They should turn the other cheek.

I do not think this is true.

'People kill abortion providers not simply because they believe abortion is immoral, but because widespread hate speech against abortion providers creates an atmosphere of perceived acceptance and impunity for their actions.'

It is easier to kill a mong, or a retard, or a cripple, or an 'other' than it is to kill a human. It is easy to define a disabled person by their impairment and the 'burden' they place upon others or impose able bodied constructs around the 'nature of our suffering' - it is not so easy to regard that disabled person as a valued member of society. It is easy to devalue us, and the easiest way to do that is through being a purveyor of hate.

If there was not a causal link between that devaluing and the hate speech that impacts upon the dignity and lives of disabled people, then other marginalised (so called 'vulnerable') populations would be equally targeted as victims of abuse. Elder abuse crimes are not uncommon, for example, but they are statistically less common than disability hate crimes. It is still socially unacceptable to starve your parent with dementia or Alzheimers to death, but if you are a middle class white person who starves your disabled son or daughter to death, you will most likely be acquitted by a jury of your peers.

Because 'I can count to potato'.
Because repeated hate speech to a wide audience does have an effect.
Because hate speech is destructive to society and most of all to the minority groups it targets.

There are a plethora of entitled white men in suits who will tell you to turn the other cheek, but there is firm evidence about what enduring hatred can do to an individual. It can lead to depression, loss of self esteem, be socially isolating, limit your life chances, endanger your health and safety.

We live in a country where it is acceptable to sterilise a twelve year old disabled girl without her consent on the premise that she is statistically likely, one day, to be a rape victim. This, and other atrocities, would not be permissible if the child were not disabled.

It is time to have a national conversation about hate speech and disability vilification, because societal attitudes have an impact upon both hate crimes and our reactions to them.