Why are there such concerns about negativity in Australian politics? A political advertisement broadcast last week is a clear example of why many people are so worried about the tone and style of public politics. The advertisement shows a newly appointed Minister stuttering at a media conference. It sends a very clear message that stuttering or stumbling over words equals incompetence or lack of knowledge. The Liberal party’s shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey confirmed as much in his subsequent comments.
I felt deeply uncomfortable about the advertisement. The minister, to my knowledge, does not have speech impairment. It is not acceptable to ridicule and demean someone for exhibiting signs of speech impairment. Adults, and particularly politicians, need to lead by example. This is a poor start.
It is particularly concerning that the advertisement was released in the week of the official commencement of DisabilityCare Australia, the long awaited national disability insurance scheme. It is hailed by many as the most significant social reform Australia has undertaken since Medicare.
DisabilityCare Australia recognises the rights of people with disability. Today, many people with disability are denied the same life opportunities as citizens without disability. The provision of adequate support and services for people with disability is pivotal to the implementation of equal rights and opportunities for people with disability.
The impact that DisabilityCare will have will be greatly diminished unless it is complemented by reform in community attitudes about disability. We need to stop equating disability with negativity. This advertisement demonstrates that we have a long way to go.
In December last year my 14-year-old son, who has speech impairment, delivered a message from the former Prime Minister at a community celebration for International Day for People with Disabilities to about 700 attendees. In March, my son sat in a live studio audience and asked a question on ABC’s Q and A program of the Minister and Shadow Minister of Education, ironically about how to address the bullying of children with disability in schools. On both occasions he was anxious that he would stutter.
He was given reassurance by all involved that he should persevere and that it actually didn’t matter if he had speech impairment. Both times he stuttered and still meaningfully contributed and illustrated that speech impairment was not a barrier to valuable participation in public speaking events. I note that the ministers responded that bullying was wrong. My son teared-up when he watched this new advertisement and stated “I’m surprised it doesn’t have ‘retard’ written on bottom of the screen as well.”
For him and many other children, advertisements like this are an extension to what they have to contend with regularly. Sadly, bullying, discrimination and harassment are typical experiences of children with disability in Australia. Held Back: The experience of students with disabilities in Victorian Schools, found that students with disability were three times more likely to be bullied than the general school population and that two-thirds experienced bullying or harassment. Other research also highlights the significance and consequence of bullying on children with disability, including high rates of physical and mental health problems and, in extreme cases, self-harm or suicide.
This victimisation of people with disability also happens at a community level. Over the last two years I have been aware of a number of incidents of public vilification of people with disability. These have included segments of prime time radio programs with well-known media personalities using language which is offensive and degrading towards people with disability or the telling of jokes which ridicule and demean people with disability. This year a huge banner was displayed at an A-league soccer match which read: “Keep the tards in check”. These incidents of vilification, however, don’t evoke public condemnation or even attention. These incidents reflect deeply entrenched negative attitudes about people with disability.
Let’s start transforming community attitudes by recognising that this advertisement doesn’t demonstrate ministerial incompetence. It demonstrates insensitivity, ignorance and prejudice about people with speech impairment, including many children with disability. We all have a right to expect and to demand much better from our country’s leaders.
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