An Open Letter to .. Everyone

Dear All

I’m sorry if I come across as a miserable bastard, I probably am. I am just struggling with how people talk about disability. I know most people are just trying to be decent folk. They are just trying to show how much they care and value other human beings. I know that when they rejoice at the achievements of a person with a disability, they really mean it. When Andy Murray told Dylan Alcott that they didn’t even care about his wheelchair, I know that he meant it as utmost praise. I know that when people say that they are inspired by Alcott, they really are. It’s just that often the language being used makes me cringe. I’ll try to explain.

I found myself talking to the TV screen this morning. I was watching the ABC news. I was not particularly coherent. My conversation with the TV screen went something like this:

No”

“No, no”

No. no, no, no ….”

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!…”

You see, there was a story about a blind boy attending a mainstream school. The boy himself was great. He spoke about how he was looking forward to school but hoping that he didn’t fall down stairs and walk into poles. He had completed orientation training at the school just so he would not do that. That’s his reality. Those are what one might call “Blind life skills.” I liked him straight away.

In reality the school were great too. Except they kept saying that the lad was a student just like everyone else. He is just the same. No different to all the other students. It is about there that I began my incoherent babble at the TV consisting of that one word, “NO!”.

You see the lad is not just like everyone else. He is blind, and that’s a good thing. It’s good because diversity is a powerful thing. Like with Andy Murray telling Alcott that the public didn’t care about his wheelchair, I find this counter productive. I would have loved for the school to come out and say something like this:

” … he is blind. That’s great. We love diversity at our school. We encourage people to recognise and accept diversity whether a person is Blind, deaf, black or LGBTQIA. All are accepted here and difference is a good thing. All are treated equally and equitably.”

It really is just a subtle shift in language. It’s language that recognises, accepts and encourages difference and diversity. It recognises that diversity is a good thing. It recognises that saying that a person is blind, gay or whatever is just part of that process. I might be overthinking this, but when someone says ” … he is just the same as everyone else.”, this tends to dismiss and deny the diversity.

You will note that I have also used the word ‘equitable‘. This is important because I have found that people have a strange interpretation of the word equal. None of us are equal really. We all face challenges of some kind. We are not all equal that we are academic geniuses. We are not all equal that we can run up stairs. We are not all equal that we can go into a class room with people and interact automatically. Equitable means that we recognise this and adjust our environment and behaviour to make that environment inclusive. This process of equitability starts with recognising diversity.

To be fair, the school showed that they understood this. They explained how they had changed their environment to make it more inclusive. They had placed braille signs on doors. They had redesigned the environment to make it safer. I imagine there were further adjustments that needed to be made to the learning environment to ensure our blind student could participate to the maximum. All of this happened because the school recognised the diverse needs of the student. This is great to see.

Now, I may be nit-picking, but I strongly believe we need a subtle shift in how we speak about diversity. We need to move away from thinking we are all the same. That we are no different to others. We need this shift to say, ” Yes, the person is necessarily different, we recognise this and we have changed our environment and behaviour to ensure that the person is included.” This recognises that society and the environment is the problem, and that is where the focus needs to be.

It is my firm belief that when we are comfortable talking about diversity in this way our society will be truly on its way to being fully inclusive. We have quite some way to go yet!

I’m Deaf Gary, thanks for listening!!

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