Whether it was a pat or a scritch or a brain-suck or whatever the fuck it was, it’s not cool. People do this to me. i’m 41 years of fucking age. i’m bald. There’s nothing to scritch or run your fingers through, and unless i have given you permission to do so, don’t ever do this to me. Perhaps to a non-disabled person it is “simply a pat on the head”, but if you have any idea the amount of ongoing, incessant infantilizing that many disabled people face daily, you might re-think that dismissal.
Misguided gestures of a condescending kindness
Stella Young Ramp Up 11 Jul 2013
“We are a society that treats people with disabilities with condescension and pity, not dignity and respect. How often do you see someone pat a non-disabled person on the head, asks Stella Young.
From time to time, people pat me on the head. It happens on public transport, in the supermarket, in bars. It’s a common enough occurrence that it very rarely takes me completely by surprise.
I often joke to shocked friends who witness these incidents that it’s because I have the kind of luscious hair you see in shampoo ads. Or because I’m just so f***ing adorable.
In reality, it’s because I’m a disabled person.
I’m not proud of this, but whenever it happens, I can never quite manage to say anything at the time. The demonstrative reminder that the person before me doesn’t respect me as an adult human the same way they do my non-disabled peers routinely takes my breath away. Anger is rarely immediate. Humiliation hits me first.
My instinctive reaction is to get the hell out of there. When patronised, I’m unfortunately more flight than fight. Perhaps it’s because I actually feel quite wounded.
Later, once the discomfiture has subsided and the anger kicks in, I run all the things I could have said over and over in my mind. You’d think after 31 years, 29 of them as a wheelchair user, I’d be better equipped to deliver a verbal smackdown to these patronising bananas, but I’m not.
What stops me is the thought that although they might be condescending and misguided, they’re not unkind.
Accustomed as I am to the gesture, it wasn’t altogether surprising for me to see footage of a wheelchair user being patted on the head in a story on VIDEO: ABC 7:30 on Tuesday night. What did surprise me was that the person doing the patting was our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and the footage was taken on the day the National Disability Insurance Scheme launched a little over a week ago.
You can see for yourself at around the 2:20 mark.
As it was pointed out to me on Twitter several times today, this woman doesn’t appear to be upset by the gesture. I never do either. As I said, humiliation is generally my heart’s first port of call.
I don’t presume to know how this woman felt about being patted on the head. Like many of us on that day, she appeared very happy about the long-awaited launch of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. She may well have thought little of it. More likely, and sadly, she’s probably quite accustomed to it.
I’m absolutely certain the Prime Minister had good intentions. He had just posed for a photograph with his woman, and was smiling broadly as his did so. Based on his words that day, he was very proud to be leading a government that launched DisabilityCare Australia.
And Kevin Rudd, like the rest of us, is a product of our society and our culture.
We are a society that treats people with disabilities with condescension and pity, not dignity and respect. You don’t need to look much further than the new title of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, DisabilityCare, to see that.
We are also a society fiercely protective of our right to be condescending and pitying towards disabled people, because society views disability as being necessarily and routinely pitiable.
I tweeted that I found the Prime Minister’s actions upsetting, and while many agreed with me, others could see no reason for concern.
There was some debate about whether the action constituted a pat on the head at all. Was it really just a hair ruffle? A scratch? Many saw it as a purely affectionate gesture. Affectionate though it may have been, would our PM pat/ruffle/scratch the head of a non-disabled adult woman? I doubt it.
We often hear that people mean well; that so many just don’t how to interact with people with disabilities. They’re unsure of the ‘right’ reaction, so they default to condescension that makes them feel better in the face of their discomfort. In patting a disabled person on the head, they can congratulate themselves on their own empathy and tolerance.
In truth, this is about more than a pat on head. It’s about the paternalism and condescension Australians with disabilities face every day. Perhaps even more than lack of access and support, it is these attitudes that are holding us back.
Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes has been known to say that people with disabilities in Australia “carry the soft burden of low expectation”.
He’s right. We are dismissed. We are not listened to. We are treated like children.
There’s been a lot of discussion in disability circles this week among those of us who attended DisabilityCare launches last Monday. At many of the events, the speakers list was overwhelmingly populated by politicians, parents and carers of people with disabilities. Among those of us whose rights were finally being recognised, very few of us were given a voice on that historic day.
Still, we celebrated. We know what an important reform this is. Advocates and politicians alike have fought long and hard. We all deserve a pat on the back.
But no-one deserves a pat on the head.”