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Recognising discrimination

In this video, different people with disabilities share their personal stories of discrimination.
ANTONI: Despite all the support from my family and also from my friends and we also have now the laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities, I’m still facing discrimination.
VIVIENNE: In the aged care facility, I was told proof of my ‘dementia’ was I had completely forgotten how to walk. Apparently further proof of my ‘dementia’ was I could never remember walking in my life. I was definitely not permitted to view any medication administered to me. And on hot days, I was clad in winter clothing as “old people feel the cold”. Being allowed to use a computer was out of the question because I didn’t have the intelligence and I might electrocute myself. Luckily, no-one interfered with me reading books.
JORDANNA: I remember a little while ago I had a job interview with an organisation who said they were disability-friendly. And they said to the HR department, “Look, I want to give this deaf person a job.” And so they investigated it and they realised the costs of an interpreter and they didn’t want to fund an interpreter and that’s why I didn’t get the job. And that shocked me, you know? They say they’re a disability-friendly company, but they won’t give a deaf person a job? When I didn’t get that job, I didn’t bother fighting for it.
To be honest, you know, growing up, I’ve always fought for everything I wanted and achieved what I need to achieve, but it can be very tiring.
ANTONI: I tried to apply for a job at the university because this was my dream to be a lecturer. I thought that the job interviewers would ask me about my expertise or what I can contribute to the university, but the questions that I never thought about before was like… It was the dean himself who asked me, “If you work here, how will you go to the toilet? “Because we don’t have an accessible toilet here.” How could he ask me such a question?
DUNCAN: People will often look at the disability and they will basically close down their mind in terms of any lateral thinking about ways people can actually do things and just go, “Oh, nah, that person can’t do that. “Oh, done. Right. Next.” So, at the age of 18, my vision degenerated from a condition called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. It started happening partway through a job. I was working as a medical orderly. I disclosed what was happening to me fairly early on. The response from the hospital which I was working for was, “Oh, yeah, we can try and find alternative arrangements for you.”
But when it came down to the crunch, they didn’t really care in terms of trying to find the extra arrangements because they just…the disability was just too hard for them. I was fired directly due to my disability. And there are quite a few cases of that happening. You know, because there’s laws doesn’t necessarily mean the discrimination doesn’t happen.

Before we look in more detail at Human Rights and in particular at the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we will explore discrimination as one of the reasons that a human rights framework is useful.

Last week we talked about the importance of human diversity and of valuing all human beings as equal members of society. Because we are all so diverse, humans tend to group ourselves and others in lots of different ways. We are all part of many different groups. Sometimes people claim identification with a particular group of people (as in the case of Jordanna and the Deaf community); and other times, we are put into groups by others as a result of having a certain trait or characteristic. In the Thinking through Disability course, we talk about this as a difference between “badging” ourselves and “labelling” others. The various groups to which we belong are a reflection of social and cultural values and change over time and across the course of our lives.

While belonging to different groups and participating in different communities are important for living a good life, being in a group can sometimes cause problems if that group is not valued by everyone in society. Discrimination refers to a person or group of people being treated differently as a result of belonging to a particular group or having a certain characteristic.

People sometimes make a distinction between “direct” and “indirect” discrimination. Direct disability discrimination refers to unfair treatment on the basis of someone’s disability — such as an employer refusing to hire a qualified applicant because they use a wheelchair. On the other hand, indirect disability discrimination is when a rule, policy or social convention — such as a law requiring voters to appear in person at a polling place — indirectly disadvantages disabled people.

In the above video our guest presenters talk about times when they have been discriminated against as a result of their disability or impairment, and when their rights as human beings have been ignored. We provide a link to an audio description version of this video in the See Also section below.

As our guest presenters point out, even when there are laws to protect people from discrimination, discrimination still occurs.

Vivienne tells the incredible story of the discrimination she experienced when she was in an aged care facility. As someone with a life-long disability, Vivienne has always found ways to do things her way. When someone told her she couldn’t knit, she went further by buying herself a sewing machine to make her own clothes. Her experiences of discrimination in the aged care facility centred on others failing to recognise her as capable of making choices regarding her own life.

The other presenters describe similar experiences of discrimination, particularly in the workplace. For a good summary of the different types of discrimination that can happen in the workplace, and of the differences between direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation, see this helpful video from ACAS.

Finally, it’s important to note that what our guest presenters are mostly describing is institutionalised discrimination, or discrimination that comes from systemic societal practices and beliefs, rather than from a conscious decision to discriminate.

Talking points

  • Did anything surprise you about the stories from the lives of the guest presenters? If so, what?
  • When we talk about discrimination, we often talk about different types of discrimination. While in some ways we could talk about all of the above stories being instances of disability discrimination, in some cases they are more complicated than that. What other kinds of discrimination are going on? Is this important?
  • Have you witnessed or experienced discrimination in your own local context? What kind of discrimination was it?
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