People with disability are frequently experiencing abuse and harassment in public and online with few avenues to seriously address the matter, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect & Exploitation of People with Disability has heard this week.
The 28th public hearing focused on Violence against and abuse of people with disability in public places, including on the internet.
Key witness statements for this round of hearings included well known figures such as Paralympic gold medallist, Tracy Barrell OAM (The Medal of the Order of Australia), and disability advocate and author, Carly Findlay OAM.
There was a particular focus on people with visible disabilities who are subject to harassment, negative stereotypes and anti-social behaviours from others.
Harassment is common and dehumanising
The Commissioner was told that people with disability face recurring harassment in public and online, with pre-existing assumptions and negative stereotypes common in the public space.
Dr Debra Keenahan, a psychologist, academic and artist, was born with achondroplasia – a genetic condition that slows bone growth, leading to short stature. Her academic studies have been focused on the dehumanising aspects of harassment for people with disability and the notion that not everyone is viewed as “moral equals”.
Dr Keenahan explains her height, in itself, was not the disability, but that attitudes of people without disability are what often disables a person. She says she has frequently been spoken to as though she was a child and derogatory terms, such as “midget”, are common.
“More often than not it happens from a car rushing by you,” Dr Keenahan says.
“They yell at you or it is from a distance from a crowd. It’s always yelled.
“You brace – is it coming again? Are they coming at me? Do I keep walking? What do I do? That goes through one’s mind very quickly.”
Dr Keenahan also spoke of microaggressions, such as shoving, chuckling or dirty looks. These small behaviours allow her to gauge whether a new environment is “more welcoming than others”.
Another witness, Fiona Strahan, also born with achondroplasia, detailed to the Royal Commission similar experiences where groups of young men would yell abuse or follow her around waiting for a reaction to their comments, which were often sexualised.
“Sexuality is in us regardless of our bodies. It’s an organic thing, but it’s like – as a short-statured person, there’s like this weird kind of [attitude],” Ms Strahan explained.
“Is she a child, is she an adult? Is she a toy? Is she a freak?
“It’s still an issue today. I think having grey hair, the sexualised stuff kind of lessens but the harassment remains.”
The Commission heard that frequent comments like this lead to people with disability avoiding specific locations or avoiding people who look like they are going to have a negative interaction with.
Both Ms Strahan and Dr Keenahan spoke of being filmed without consent, while Dr Keenahan says she avoids skateparks and schools because “you basically become a moving target”.
For Carly Findlay, born with ichthyosis – a condition that causes thick, dry and scaly skin – she says she rarely thinks about her own appearance when walking through the street, but is reminded by others who make comments, good or bad.
“Most days when I leave the house there’s a comment, stare or question on my appearance,” Ms Findlay says.
“I’m interrupted by someone asking what ‘happened to you’, ‘she’s so sunburnt’, or a laugh, a gasp or sniggers. It can be very disruptive.”
Online abuse hides behind anonymity
Amongst the public witnesses at the Royal Commission hearing, Ms Findlay’s online presence is arguably the largest.
With over 100,000 followers across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, the author and disability advocate has a distinct online presence, which can be attributed to the connections and reach the internet has provided.
However, her experiences with online abuse reflect the power that anonymity can have over people with disability.
Ms Findlay shared her experience with a Reddit post that had garnered “hundreds of comments about my face” including some that “described me as a lobster and said that I should be killed with fire”.
She responded by sharing her story on other platforms, speaking on how it changed the conversation and led to widespread discussions on the news and social media.
“It made national news, international news, which was bizarre because the importance of our own voices, of us actually disabled people telling our story and intervening, to say this isn’t okay is really important,” Ms Findlay says.
“For visibly disabled people, or people with visible differences, people don’t think we can be confident with how we look. It’s a surprise that we are.
“But being visible online is really important for visibly disabled people especially. It shows that we are confident and we are present. It shows younger people what is possible and that it’s okay to be visible and not apologetic about our appearance.”
Ms Findlay says the online abuse is common despite those positive conversations and even safeguards like limiting who can comment and blocking accounts can only do so much.
She explained one instance where incredibly offensive Youtube comments were made.
“I ended up taking the comments to the police and they asked if I knew who made them. I don’t,” Ms Findlay says.
“And I don’t feel like the law has caught up with the fact that online is real life and we often don’t know who our trolls are.
“They said it would be difficult to investigate because they don’t know who made the comments.
“I was advised to report the comments to Youtube or the Australian Federal Police, who then directed me back to the Victoria Police and back to Youtube and I was just going around in circles.”
Other forms of online abuse mentioned include meme culture. Peta Stamell, a woman of short stature, highlighted exampled of young people with disability who would participate in online trends or challenges and their videos would be “hijacked” and overlaid with the Oompa Loompa song from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.
She says she “could just imagine what my 20-year-old self would have felt like if that was [my video]”.
Complaints are often ignored
Tracy Barrell, two-time paralympic gold medallist, was born without legs and just one fully developed arm. For the best part of her life she moved around on a skateboard and adopted a wheelchair more recently.
Ms Barrell told the Royal Commission of her daily experiences with abuse, including examples of being denied access to shops that did not physically cater for wheelchair uses.
Many shop owners or security staff also claimed they were worried she would be a hazard for others while on a skateboard and often refused entry as a result.
She was even removed from one store by security – and escorted out of the entire shopping centre – after the owner “went ballistic” because she didn’t want Ms Barrell in there.
Complaints about abuse or discrimination were typically ignored and went “nowhere”, according to Ms Barrell.
“I have approached many shopping centre managements and I tell them the specific store, and I tell them what I consider as a human rights breach of blocking access for people [with disability] to be in there because they are deliberately doing it to stop people like myself,” Ms Barrell says.
“And they just don’t do anything and everyone hides behind the thing of ‘they don’t want shopping trolleys in there [inside a small store]’.
“And I know that’s a lie, because people still take their shopping trolleys in there… and so it just goes nowhere. They don’t write it up.”
She also says opportunities for disability education have been ignored as school children can be the “worst offenders for yelling out disgusting stuff” but her offered services as a public speaker to school principals were not acted on.
Public transport, including taxis, has proven to be a literal vehicle for discrimination for many people with disability as well.
Ms Findlay told the Royal Commission that some taxi drivers have refused to take her due to her appearance, being told in one instance that she would “ruin his seats”.
“I made a complaint to the taxi company, to the taxi commission in Victoria and to the Human Rights Commission. When I put my complaint in, I said we need to increase driver education around what disability looks like,” Ms Findlay explains.
“I was told ‘we’re going to wait until another incident happens’.
“Taxi abuse still happens, it happened to me with a disabled friend on Saturday night in Melbourne – not directly to me, but to my friend – and I keep thinking what more do we have to do?”
She says she has logged countless complaints, spoken about it on social media and been involved with education, but that “nothing changes” in terms of the abuse people with disability receive.
The Royal Commission will sit again from 24 – 28 October in Melbourne for public hearing 29: The experience of violence against, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
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