Written by Tim Harte – PDA’s Treasurer/VIC Director
Australia commemorates International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD) on Saturday, December 3rd. IDPwD, established by the United Nations in 1992 and observed in Australia since 1996, serves several key objectives: fostering a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by People with Disabilities (PwD), rallying support for upholding the rights, dignity, and overall welfare of PwD, and advocating for the full integration and inclusion of PwD in all facets of society. 2018 Australian Bureau of Statistics data found that 17.7% of the Australian population, 4.4 million Australians, were PwD.
IDPwD events in Australia were organised by various government bodies, workplaces, schools, and universities nationwide. These events all shared a common theme: educating the public by giving PwD a platform to share their personal stories. Through these narratives, these events aim to break down preconceived notions of difference and instead emphasise the commonalities and shared experiences that connect us all. This approach humanises PwD in the eyes of those without disabilities, fostering greater understanding and empathy for the daily challenges faced by people with disabilities. In essence, these events help the non-disabled population “step into the shoes” of PwD, gaining a deeper comprehension of their lives and experiences.
What is disability? In Australian society, we acknowledge that disabilities can be both visible and invisible forms, encompassing physical, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, and neurological disabilities. In this context, the concept of disability oversimplifies a complex reality, based on how an individual’s physical or mental condition deviates from what is considered ‘the norm’. This perspective is often referred to as the Medical Model of Disability and is relevant when seeking treatment or therapy from healthcare professionals. However, it falls short in recognising that true barriers to the full and equal participation of PwD in society stem from environmental and attitudinal factors within our community and society.
The Social Model of Disability (SMD), originating in the UK in the 1970s, marked a groundbreaking paradigm shift in disability theory. At the core of the SMD lies the distinction between an individual’s inherent conditions or attributes and the broader societal context. According to the SMD, “impairment” pertains to the medical or biological deviations from what is considered the norm. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair may have a physical impairment resulting from a spinal injury. On the other hand, “disability” is defined as the interplay between an individual’s impairments and the obstacles presented by the physical environment and the prevailing attitudes in the social environment. Disability emerges when, for instance, a person using a wheelchair faces architectural barriers in the physical environment. The SMD played a pivotal role in helping PwD recognise that many challenges they encounter are not rooted in their disabilities but are the consequences of disabling elements within society.
The Biopsychosocial Model of Disability (BMD), which emerged in the late 1970s, was designed to offer a comprehensive understanding of how medical conditions and the disabling effects on individuals are not solely a result of biological factors, but rather a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. Amid various disability models, the BMD stands out as a relatively straightforward and all-encompassing framework. It takes into account the experiences of PwD, the societal obstacles they confront (both environmental and attitudinal), and the psychological impact of individuals’ internal relationship with disability, along with the challenges of overcoming social barriers. In essence, the “Bio” component of the BMD deals with the physiological aspects, such as the effects of impairment, like pain; the “Psycho” aspect addresses psychological aspects, including internalised oppression; and the “Social” aspect encompasses factors within the social environment, including elements like architectural barriers, such as stairs.
Internalised oppression represents a psychological and emotional dimension of disablism, arising from the way PwD perceive themselves. Given that society often ingrains a negative perception of disability, PwD may internalise these negative views, leading them to self-oppress when they perceive their disabilities as a negative aspect of who they are. This phenomenon is more likely to affect those who acquire disabilities later in life because they are confronted with pre-existing negative portrayals, preconceived notions, and stereotypes about disability that they held prior to acquiring disability.
When contemplating the inclusion of PwD, it’s crucial to assess our current progress toward creating a more equitable world. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was ratified in 2008, marking a significant milestone as disability considerations were notably absent from previous international human rights agreements. In comparison, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was established in 1979, and more than four decades later, gender equity remains an ongoing challenge. Now, 14 years since the UNCRPD’s implementation, numerous advancements are still pending, waiting to be put into practice to enhance the lives, circumstances, and the overall inclusion of PwD, while also enriching the knowledge base within disability studies.
Most community members will have limited control or influence over the physical environment in their workplaces or places of study. We are not all architects or builders who can fix inaccessible steps. However, it’s important not to be disheartened by this limitation. As mentioned earlier, it’s the social dynamics that People with Disabilities (PwD) encounter, such as prevailing attitudes and misconceptions, that shape the extent of their exclusion or inclusion in society. Becoming more disability-aware and fostering understanding doesn’t require a comprehensive knowledge of every medical condition or disability type. Instead, it’s about cultivating an awareness of the physical and social environment, which enables you to identify and acknowledge the barriers that exist.
My top tips that individuals can implement for enhancing the inclusion of PwD: 1) Acknowledge that PwD are first and foremost individuals with emotions, aspirations, and life experiences. They are not objects of pity or charity, but rather individuals navigating real-life challenges and triumphs on a daily basis. 2) Recognise that PwD are the foremost authorities on their own lives. If you have questions, approach them with respect and inquire politely. Every person’s experience of disability is unique, and it’s essential not to make assumptions or speak on behalf of others. 3) Appreciate the value of the lived experiences of PwD. The diverse perspectives, values, and life experiences they bring to the table are constructive contributions to teams and the decision-making process.
IDPwD serves as a poignant reminder that the entire society reaps the rewards of embracing diversity. Consider the research and development (R&D) investments made in assistive technology, particularly predictive typing software for People with Disabilities, back in the early 1990s. These initial efforts paved the way for predictive text features on the brick phones of the 1990s through the 2010s. Subsequently, this technology evolved into voice-typing and voice-activated digital platforms, such as Siri and Alexa, which have now become ubiquitous. Today’s R&D efforts, centered around addressing challenges faced by People with Disabilities, will similarly contribute to the development of future consumer products, accessible to the wider public in around three decades. This underscores that progress in making the world more inclusive doesn’t solely benefit PwD; it’s a boon for society at large.
Tim Harte GAICD is the Victorian State Director for Physical Disability Australia, Chair of the Surf Coast Shire Council disability advisory committee, and a Chemistry Honours student at Deakin Universities Institute for Frontier Materials.