When Pakistani refugee Shahraz Kayani doused himself in petrol and set himself alight in front of Parliament House in April 2001, Australia was suddenly awakened to the harsh reality of the discriminatory nature of the population policy. A policy which accepted “normal,” able-bodies refugees, but rejected those with disabilities.
Father to a daughter suffering from cerebral palsy, Mr Kayani had been waiting five years for his wife and daughter to join him in Australia, only to have his application rejected on the grounds that his daughter did not meet the health criteria that must be met by all visa applicants. Australian Attorney General at the time, the Hon. Daryl Robert Williams, claimed that Australia is a place where people with disabilities can migrate, and that Australia enjoys their contribution. However, he defended the government’s decision to reject Mr Kayani’s application, adding that the health criteria put in place was to protect the public health of our nation, to contain health expenditure, and to ensure citizens of Australia had access to scarce medical resources. By simply assuming that people with disabilities will put strain on our medical system not only belittles people with disabilities, but it creates the assumption that people living with disabilities cannot contribute to society. But through my experience with the Multicultural Disability Advocacy Association (MDAA) and the Northcott Society, I have seen so many people, children and adults alike, become extremely successful. I have had the pleasure of participating in an inspirational panel discussion lead by the assistant director of MDAA, Ms Ace Boncato, who has a disability. I have witnessed first-hand the many talents of children with disabilities. Some of the children I have worked with show maturity, creativity, courage and intelligence beyond their peers. Some of the biggest names throughout history – Stephen Hawking, Ralph Braun, Stevie Wonder, Helen Keller – all lived with disabilities. So why, when they have so much to offer, are people with disabilities still being judged purely based on what they can’t do? This form of discrimination parallels other forms of discrimination – sexism, racism, ageism, heterosexism, classism…If these forms of discrimination aren’t accepted in society, why should it be okay to discriminate based on what society perceives an individual can or can’t do?
So how do to remove the stigma associated with people with disabilities and break the cycle of discrimination? – It starts with us. Rather than looking at what they can’t do, we should focus on what they CAN do. Focusing on an individual’s disability doesn’t limit them. It limits US. Rather than giving them little value in our society, we should focus on their talents, skills, and the different perspectives that they can offer us.
And while it’s impossible to deny that discrimination will always exist, it’s promising to see that society is becoming more supportive and accepting of people living with disabilities. And with advocacy associations such as MDAA, campaigns like “Don’t DIS my ABILITY,” and government initiatives such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme supporting and promoting the inclusion and rights of people with disabilities, people with disabilities can have a voice and celebrate their achievements.
Disability in itself is a culture, and with multiculturalism and diversity becoming increasingly valued in today’s society, I hope that one day, society will be able appreciate the contribution of people with disabilities and the value they have in society, because at the end of the day, a disability is sometimes a blessing in disguise.