14 July 2014

Facing my own prejudice about disability.

I follow a wonderful blog called This Little Miggy - she writes of her little girl who has a disability, and celebrates other children who have disabilities.

It struck me when I read this post where Miggy comes to terms with her own prejudices.

Miggy writes:

"I met a woman a few months ago who also has a limb difference. Just one arm affected. As we stood there talking, about limb differences--about her and my daughter--I realized I was a little uncomfortable.... with her difference. While I no longer feel this way about her difference--in fact I think she's a wonderful person and I look forward to each and every time I see her--that slight discomfort was there. Even if just for a few minutes."

I admired Miggy for being so public about it. It does take courage to openly write about your own prejudices when the purpose of your blog is to break down prejudices.

And I remembered that I filed away a piece I'd written about my own prejudices. Initially I submitted it to a website but it was not published. I got some feedback and rewrote it, unsure of where next I'd submit it. My fear was that I'd get a barrage of criticism, and I thought it'd be easier to deal with if I got paid for the article than if I put it up on my own blog for free. But then I read Miggy's post and Reddit happened. I can deal with critics. Toughen up princess, I told myself. Let them see your vulnerability. And so here's my own prejudice.

As a disability advocate and activist, I believe that I should be always championing diversity. I do my best to value diversity in all its forms. When I realised I may be indeed harbouring some prejudice, I resolved to change my beliefs. I wondered, does having a disability mean we should not harbour any prejudice to any marginalised groups?

I cringe when my able bodied friends and acquaintances make a homophobic, racist or disablist comment. I often speak up to say that's not right. And in the rare instance that I have heard a disabled friend or acquaintance make such a comment, I have been disappointed. Because I think they want acceptance and inclusion yet may not give members of our diverse community the same respect.

I wonder whether there is an expectation that our circumstance of having a disability should make us more compassionate and less prejudice, or whether some disabled people are, excuse the cliche, just like everyone else - racist, homophobic and disablist if a situation presents? In an ideal world, I believe having a disability should shape a person's values and attitudes in a positive way. But in the real world, I think we are just like everyone, prone to some sort of prejudice.

Six years ago I was harassed by a group of five short statured people. They were gathered, talking among themselves. They saw me walk past them and started pointing, shouting out how sunburnt I looked. I ignored it like I often do, continuing to walk on. Then they swore at me and made comments that I am ugly and that because I look like the way I do, I should be dead.

I couldn't believe that people who may also experience similar prejudice to me, because of their looks, could make such comments about mine. So I said something along the lines of "I thought you might think twice about making those comments, given your own appearance". They continued to harass me.

I was shaken, and couldn't quite believe the double standard that seemed to exist. I am aware that short statured people are often ridiculed because of their appearance, so how could they possibly do the same to me?

When I got home, I wrote about the experience on Facebook. Though I was factual about the situation, I was also emotional, and from memory, I may have written some derogatory things about their height. I'm not proud of this now, but at the time I was angry and shocked.

This was my first experience of prejudice and harassment from within the disability community. And turning it around, it was the first time I felt prejudiced toward a particular group of people with a disability, because of this one experience. I developed a fear of short statured people. I wasn't fearful of their disability, like some people are of mine. I was fearful of their attitude and behaviour. And perhaps because they had a disability, it was easy for me to place a negative label on short statured people.

The incident stayed with me for some time. When I saw short statured people in the area of that incident, I would lock my car, worried the group of short statured people would see me and strike again. I would often avoid walking past short statured people in the supermarket, just in case it was one of the people who harassed me.

Since that incident, I have done a lot of work within the disability community, writing, speaking and presenting on community TV. I often worry I don't know enough about disability to be an advocate, but every day I learn new things about disability, and always try to be accepting, aware and promoting of our diverse community. I have made many friends and professional contacts in the disability community too. So it's because of this advocacy role that I began to feel incredibly guilty of the fear I had toward short statured people because of this single experience.

It's cliched but I knew that I really needed to see the person, not the disability. Specifically, I needed to put this silly prejudice that all short statured people may harass me out of my mind. The harassment could come from any group of people. I needed to to take some of the advice that I'd been giving everyone else - to get to know the person before I judged what they look like, and not to make assumptions about their attitude and intelligence.

And so I did. I met a few short statured people at an event two years ago. They were so friendly, and we didn't ever mention our appearance. I've since become friends with Leisa, a wonderful short-statured woman who blogs at Life at My Level. We met at the Love Your Sister launch - Sam Johnson's send off, and our friendship blossomed. We recently spoke at an event together. She will be telling her own story here later this week.

I forgot my prejudices and realised that the behaviour of some people with a particular disability shouldn't shape the way I feel about the whole community. While I had a right to feel upset and offended, I should never have been that narrow minded.



  1. What a brave and beautiful post. I believe that everyone experiences prejudice - no matter their circumstances. And the key is personal awareness and reflection on that. Which you have in bundles and lots of people don't. Lots of people are the first to say they don't have any prejudices. Then, they usually say 'BUT', followed by some horrible statement they trumpet as a "fact", when they wouldn't know a good fact, if it bit them on the bum. They remove themselves from their feelings with excuses to validate their privilege (perceived or otherwise) over another.
    Whenever there is difference, people (perhaps naturally) experience fear. That fear can manifest in many different ways. Unfortunately, it often comes with hate, though sometimes I think it comes with pity, which may be just as bad. I don't think people are 'bad people' for experiencing the fear. I think they are bad people if they can't reflect on that feeling mindfully and find ways to overcome it.
    Your advocacy work is so powerful and will be causing people to reflect on their own prejudices. That is a real gift to society. Thank you.

  2. The most racist person I have ever met was a black South African woman. I'm completely aware that she had probably experienced huge amounts of racism in her life and that her attitudes were probably a reflection of and a reaction to those experiences but the vitriol about caucasian people and how they were a lesser mutation of the original genes (seriously, she would go on about genetics like that for ages) was among some of the most hateful words I've ever heard.

    I believe we all have our prejudices built on experiences and the environment in which we live. Most of those are fine, nothing that causes anger, marginalises anyone, or actually affects anyone. The key I think is to have enough self awareness that when one of your prejudices arises, you can see past it to find the real person on the other side.

  3. I am always surprised when people with disabilities judge one another. I appreciate your point that having a disability doesn't automatically make a person more compassionate. Always good to reflect on our choices and experiences.

    1. Maybe it's our (collectively) own insecurities that cause these prejudices, and also a disability hierarchy.

  4. I read your blog a lot Carly and I really enjoy it even though I don't usually comment. This was an incredibly brave and thought-provoking post. I loved it. I have been burned by the autism community even though I am the mother of two on the spectrum. The discrimination from within is even more hurtful because it's easier to make allowances for those who are perhaps ignorant or uneducated but we expect more from those who also suffer from the glances, judgments and harassment we experience. My son also suffers from a mental health disorder and his behaviors often attract judgement from fellow autistics because they do not wish to be aligned with him due to their own embarrassment. Having said that - there are some wonderful people in the autism community and I am not tarring them all with the same brush as I know that this was only a select few who acted this way.

    1. Thank you so much @instafionagram - really appreciate your comment and openness. I am sorry you've been excluded that way. I do think there's an element of disability hierarchy and competition in disability communities and this might be a reason? I've been told I'm too optimistic and also I'm not a mother so how could I understand?, and that I suffer by members of the Ichthyosis community. Great food for thought, thank you :)

  5. Carly you write so well, and I was nodding along reading this. I wrote a long reply but then lost it, so will not rewrite it in case I lose it again!

  6. Can I recommend Malcolm Gladwell? He writes on some seriously awesome stuff, but the topic this reminded me of was covered in his book "Blink".
    We are hard wired to recognise friend from enemy. It makes us leap to conclusions. He, as a man of black and white heritage, did the test for racist associations and was shocked to find how he associated black with negative.
    Our primitive brains teach us to avoid danger. So a situation where you feel threatened, and the only thing all the antagonists had in common was one trait, is very likely to lead you to automatically connect that trait with danger.
    The thing is, we are not primitive creatures. We are highly evolved, and we can use logic to overcome this. We can remind ourselves that sure, a group of people who were (black, white, tall, short, young, etc) made me feel threatened. But does that hold as a universal truth?
    There is far too much media that uses this reflex to engender fear and loathing. And the more uncommon your perceived "grouping" is, the more likely it will become a universal truth unless it is examined and brought out for questioning.
    Good work Carly. Really good work.
    If we don't admit the survival reflexes we all have, we can't talk about how to be a more evolved being, and to refuse to succumb to stereotypes.
    That said, the reflex has a purpose.
    If you were to find yourself in a lonely place with five angry, irrational, threatening and more powerful than you people, it is helpful to have that reflex to warn you to put your usual niceties aside.
    Or, they could just be really pissed off because the toilet is locked, and you are about to become number six in that group.

  7. We are all just growing up and learning, that's all we can ever do. x

  8. Many years ago I read I book which struck a huge chord within me. The book was called Colour Blind. The story was about a young black girl growing up in a white community, the daily struggle and prejudice she faced simply trying to fit in. She confided to a priest how unhappy she was, how she had been told that she would never go to heaven because only white people were worthy. The priest explained to her that anyone with a good heart would be welcome in heaven and that god didn't see in colour because he was colour blind. Now I'm not at all religious but the premise of this story stayed with me. I'm not going to pretend that I can't actually see the differences in people because obviously I can but, (and I probably won't explain this very well) - I see them as the colour on the surface, the true colour of a person is underneath.

    I think people often react badly through fear and/or lack of understanding - knowing that doesn't take away the pain if you are the one under attack and it doesn't make it acceptable. My sister who has MS has been laughed at in the street for wearing an eye patch during an episode and has been accused of being drunk when she has lost her balance and fallen over. It breaks me heart to see her struggle but I'm so proud of her because she never lets anything beat her. There are plenty of tears in private, sometimes I really wish those who point and stare could see them.

  9. Carly you are forging a path for those that don't have the strength of heart that you do to stand up for themselves.

  10. Well done on a brave and beautiful post. Great reminder on being mindful of how we treat others, both in what we say and do, but also in our ignorance. We never really know a person until you walk a mile in their shoes.

  11. Carly, this was so great. One, I'm happy (and humbled) that my post served as some sort of inspiration. I truly think we are all prejudice in one way or another (or many ways!). And while it's wonderful that we recognize prejudice as a problem and want to correct it, I think one of the down-sides is that it's become such a horrible stigma to admit to having any prejudices that we refuse to admit (even to ourselves) that we have any. And when we don't think we actually have any prejudices, then we can't change them. And isn't it crazy to realize none of us are "prejudice proof?" Yes even you with a visible disability and me the mother of a daughter with disabilities. Anyway, this was a great post and hopefully it will inspire others to look inward as well.

  12. You are such an honest writer. Growing up in a small country town, I was sometimes appalled & confused by people's thoughts about minority groups of people who aren't white, straight and abled bodied. If you stand up to them, you get abused too. Keep up the fight & awareness Carly.


  13. I need to remember to read this post tomorrow morning when I'm more awake. I have bipolar disorder and am very open about it. I, too, blog about it and am very optimistic. It's interesting to hear about prejudice in the disability community. Prejudice is a reflection upon ourselves, not the other person. I used to be a part of many bipolar support groups, but actually left bc it wasn't healthy for me. Thanks for your openness. ❤️ btw, you're absolutely beautiful.

  14. s a short statured person myself I can tell you there are absolute twats in every group of people. I am sorry you had to go through something so horrible as I completely understand being ostracised by a group of people and not ever wanting to cross their paths again. If I could have bogans surgically removed from the world I certainly would. Perhaps none of us are completely without a prejudice, I know from time to time I have my own. At least though we open the conversation...

  15. great blog Carly. Knowing and having worked with many different disabled groups I have seen prejudice on occasions between people with different impairments and one of the most homophic attitudes Ive come across was from a severely disabled lady.

    Like you it shocks me also that those who are likely to have faced prejudice and hostility themselves could inflict it on someone else.

  16. You're an amazing lady Carly! xx I love reading your posts, they give me the courage to deal with my condition and the guts to respond to stares and comments. It depends on my mood as to how I deal with situations, but I'm now finding ways to respond to idiots that make them feel stupid, and I can hold my head up - until I get home and break down. Not always, but sometimes!


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