Defining matters

I’m neutral on bumper stickers, I don’t hate them as the picture suggests. You can buy them from auto shops, or customise them from places such as

I get the “baby on board” stickers – as a parent I’m strongly into protecting my child. I understand the “I shoot and I vote” sticker as a political statement- one with which I strongly disagree. And I am puzzled by the “Republicans for Voldemort” sticker found on a US bumper sticker site.

But I don’t get the idea of describing your family, and what is important to each of them, in a set of pictographs on the back of your car.

Variety is the spice of life But for me they are like wearing budgie smugglers in public, keeping a snake as a pet, or eating raw fish- you go ahead and do that, but include me out.

Normally these stickers would not impinge much on my life. As someone who does not see, they are just like the blizzard of advertising billboards which fill blank spaces everywhere- I go through my life blissfully unaware of them.

However my wife Maureen, bless her, has a wonderful nack of inserting the visual information I miss into our conversations. I really value this, because otherwise there is knowledge and awareness of society, pop culture, and our surroundings generally that I would just not have. Although a little less of the botanical explanations would be great please Darling.

My erudite wife doesn’t do it in a “here’s an announcement about something which would not have been a part of your life if I had not told you” kind of way. She just weaves it into the conversation, in the same way I might weave in something read in a newspaper. It’s just a natural part of the interaction and sharing which is one of the continuing strengths of our relationship.

Several weeks ago, Maureen commented on the family pictograph stickers on the car in front. “That’s a typical family,” she said. “The dad plays golf, the mum cooks, the son plays the guitar, oh, and the daughter uses a wheelchair.” She continued the conversation by remarking on the innate sexism in the story that was told- the dad is notable for what he clearly enjoys (playing golf) and the mum for one of her contributions to the family (working in the kitchen).

However, my mind went in an entirely different direction, and I was overwhelmed with sadness. My sadness related to the daughter.

Everyone else in the family was marked for what they enjoyed, or what they did. The daughter was marked for her disability.

One take on this might be that its good that the disability was out there and on display- not hidden away as it has been for many years. But that’s not my take.

My take is incredible sadness that the daughter herself, and-or the family who are probably her greatest supports, define her by her disability. The most important thing about her, the thing that they choose to put on public display on the bumper of their car, is not her violin playing, her love of One Direction or Justin Beeber, it is her disability.

What makes me even more sad is that this is a reflection of our society. As the 20% of us in Australia who have a disability – or perhaps the less than 20% who have a visible disability – go through our lives, this is usually the way we are defined. Not as Stella the witty and thought-provoking journalist, but as Stella who uses a wheelchair. Not as Ron the professor of law, who is expert in industrial relations and chaired a UN committee, but as Ron who is blind. Not as Tim that really funny guy who was part of the Doug Anthony All Stars, but as Tim who has MS.

These three, and many others, are doing a damn good job of breaking down that stereotype. But its still true that the biggest barrier Australians with disabilities face is the attitude barrier.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not proposing that we go back to the bad old days – still current for some – of hiding disability by locking people away in bedrooms or institutions. Disability is part of us, and needs to be included within our diverse Australian community. But it should not define us.

I continue to strive for a time when – if we pull up behind that car again, and if my wonderful wife shares her view of that part of the world with me – the daughter, too, will be living the dream rather than defined by a small part of the reality.

Should disability define us? Is society right to refer to our disability first? Tell me your thoughts.

Graeme Innes is Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and is occasionally known to rant about issues brought up in casual conversations. His utter lack of knowledge and interest on matters botanical is an occasionally appearing cloud in the otherwise sunny skies of his marriage to Maureen.

A bumper sticker that says I hate bumper stickers

2 thoughts on “Defining matters

  1. Hi Graeme,
    I ask myself, did the daughter choose the sticker? Still, it is not good that many of us with disability are defined by it by others because of what they see and perhaps how that makes them feel.
    I have come across alot of comments on twitter etc. that show many people would prefer we disappear from view, but my experience so far is that many more are willing to offer help when they realise I may need some or when I ask. I’ve only experienced different treatment because of my disability in an obvious way twice so far. I am hoping my usual experience extends to all of us and society accepts us for the contribution we make.

  2. Definitely believe that which you said. Your favorite reason appeared to be on the
    net the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed while people think about
    worries that they just do not know about. You managed
    to hit the nail upon the top and also defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people can take a signal.
    Will probably be back to get more. Thanks

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