Facing My Own Prejudice about Disability

Writer, speaker and activist Carly Findlay explores disability prejudice in this piece examining disability prejudice from within the disability community

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.

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Carly Findlay is an award winning writer, speaker and appearance activist, challenging people's perceptions of what it's like to look different. She lives in Australia and blogs at carlyfindlay.blogspot.com. Her Twitter and Instagram is @carlyfindlay and Facebook is Facebook.com/tune.into.radio.carly

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