Disability is society’s collective failure to adapt

Twice in the last few weeks, I’ve heard words around disability that have made my heart sing. Perfect clarity and brutal honesty around a topic that often has too many platitudes and a lot of complicated jargon.

Firstly, I heard Kurt Fearnley speak at the CoreNet conference. His words “I don’t have a disability because I have a wheelchair. I have a disability because people keep putting stairs in front of me”. And in that sentence, one of Australia’s greatest ever athletes jarred 350 people, and everyone that every one of us has spoken to since, into understanding disability very differently.

Kurt is not just ‘mobile’, he’s a phenomenal wheelchair racer. More mobile than I, or most people I know, can ever dream of being. Give him a ramp and he’s good to go anywhere, at speed.

Secondly, I woke this morning, to the overnight speech of Senator Jordan Steele-John:

“We must recognise that Disability is not caused as a result of various medical impairments, but is in fact created by society’s collective failure to adapt to, embrace and celebrate our varying levels of ability.”


We must rethink ‘disability’

It was sad to hear that Senator Steele-John made that inspiring speech to a near-empty chamber in Parliament, but let’s not digress to politics. This topic is far more important.

Both quotes challenge every one of us to rethink ‘disability’ – it is fundamentally about being open to differences in all of us.

Now, I must confess, listening to Kurt speak was extraordinary. It is, one of the most jarringly honesty and simply inspiring speeches, I’ve ever had the pleasure to listen to. I so wish everyone could have that 45 minutes of listening to his story but let me try to share just a little with you.

Ramps and Policies

Kurt spoke about going to get off a plane with his four-year-old son. He asked if his 7kg wheelchair could be passed to him so he could wheel off the plane. A simple enough request. Instead, he was met with an airline staff member explaining the ‘no wheels on the ramp because it’s dangerous’ policy. As Kurt said “ramps are sort of my thing” but the policy stuck and he was asked to crawl off the ramp.

I’m quite sure the policy wasn’t written for Kurt Fearnley – He could navigate wheels on any ramp anywhere. Couldn’t the human being charged with the decision have made one that was …well…a little more human, and perhaps a little smarter.

Kokoda Trail

Woven into the stories of his extraordinary sporting career, Kurt spoke of crawling the Kokoda Trail, (as if Olympic gold medals weren’t enough). On the track, he learned of the treatment of people with disability, like his own, in New Guinean villages he was moving through. In one village, he found a young boy, naked in the mud, under a hut. To Kurt’s dismay, the boy was afraid of the wheels on Kurt’s chair, so Kurt climbed off and crawled under the hut to meet the boy on his terms.

What if we were all that brave, that vulnerable, to meet someone their way, without hesitation.

Commonwealth Games

Finally, Kurt spoke about his role in bringing the Commonwealth Games to the Gold Coast, and ensuring that athletes with disability, competed in the main games, with the varying events woven together.

It took seven longs years to change the old ways and bring the “inclusive Games” to life. No wonder, Steve Moneghetti asked Kurt to carry the Australian flag into the closing ceremony, as “the very best representation of Australia and Australian Athletes”.

What if we wove all competitions together, just as we live, as opposed to separating them out. We’re inspired by amazing athletes whatever their extraordinary abilities.

Senator Steele-John’s Speech

Not like me to talk about politics, but this brings me to the speech by Senator Steele-John. The press has noted that he is our first Senator with a disability. That may or may not be true, but he is already one of the greatest and most outspoken ambassadors for disability and he only joined the Senate in late 2017.

Senator Steele-John spoke of the institutionalisation of young people with disability, and the impact of violence against them in those institutions. As I watched the speech, I couldn’t help but think of another Kurt Fearnley story. It was about first primary school headmaster who bought cement and ‘ramped’ the school so Kurt could join.

What if we all bought cement, or leaned in a little harder, to paraphrase Steele-John, into adapting to, embracing and celebrating different abilities.

James Hancock from our mwah. team, spoke about the future at the Tech Summit in Sydney, this week. He said,

“The future cannot be predicted, but that doesn’t mean we should sit, wait and respond to what happens”.

He’s right, and it’s no truer than when we talk about disability.

We shouldn’t wait for the future, or an inspiring speech, or an amazing athlete, to challenge us. Instead, we should all decide that it is in our hands to invent a better, more inclusive future, and a better more inclusive today.

A little less ‘policies that don’t apply’, a little less arrogance about where we’re up to, a little more accessibility for everyone, a little more meeting people where they need to be met, and a little more personal commitment to adapt to, embrace and celebrate all levels of ability.