'They Don’t See You’: Living With A Disability In Australia

The power of community attitudes can slow or push forward change for disabled Australians.

Ben Paior-Smith has three main goals in life: to be happy, included and to make music.

On Saturdays after work in Adelaide’s CBD, he is learning how to be a DJ.

“There’s a couple of hours in between work and starting the course where Ben will wander around town,” his mother Sam told ten daily.

“... to go to Apple to check out the latest headphones!” he added.  

Ben Paior-Smith loves music, sport and walking his two dogs. Image: Supplied

Eighteen-year-old Ben has down syndrome and says he has become used to catching the bus by himself into work.

Lynne Foreman’s journey into town is met with different challenges.

“I’m in a powered wheelchair. There’s a bus stop on one side of the road which is on a lean -- which makes me feel like my chair will pull over,” the mother-of-three from Geelong said.

“I know it’s tricky. So I go on the left hand side.”

On The Street

Over the years, Foreman has learnt to make adjustments.

“When you have a disability, you get to know the places you have to go. You know you can’t get into a specific shop in town -- so you avoid it. You know exactly which toilets you can get into, so you don’t try any different ones.”

But that hasn’t stopped the day-to-day discrimination she faces in the street. Last year, Foreman was at a bus stop, on her way to university, when she was told by a bus driver there was no room for her onboard.

“A few people on the bus heard the driver and said, ‘no, we’ll move,’ -- which they did, so I got on,” she said.

“They said, ‘no one should speak to you like that.’ I turned to the driver and said, ‘just because I’m in a wheelchair? I’m actually going to school.' He just thought I couldn’t do anything.”

“They only see your disability, they don’t see you.”

This still happens. But these days, Foreman fights back.

“Now if I come across anything like that, I will ring the bus company, so you have that bit of a comeback,” she said.

Mother Lynne Foreman says she has learnt to make adjustments. Image: Supplied
In The Schoolyard

Eighteen-year-old Ben is in Year 12 at a mainstream high school in Adelaide and has had a “dreary” year without his best friend Hamish.

“There aren’t many students with the same level of intellectual disability -- apart from Hamish who finished last year,” his mother Sam said.

“This year has been hard,” Ben said.

“People never realise when they do it, but they exclude me all the time at school.

“They’re going to events and parties all the time, and I hate it. I want to be invited.”

Ben’s mother said vital social interaction stopped when her son reached high school.

“His friends from primary school are more involved in his life and drop in to this day. They have only known Ben as Ben, and they include him. But the kids who know him from Year 7 onwards don’t,” she said.

This continued on to the sporting field when Ben competed in athletics for his school in a paralympic division.

“For the 100m sprint, all the paralympians had to wear a bright yellow vest. The other kids wore normal sports uniforms. The people running it didn’t seem to think this was exclusionary,” Sam said.

“It was horrible. You just want to represent your school in a singlet like everybody else.”

Like many, Sam is a strong advocate for including children with disability in the general education system.

“If children with disability weren’t in special needs classes but in regular classes, there’d be more opportunity to interact,” she said.

“You’re planting a much richer society when you’re doing that.”

Changing Attitudes

Now in her 60s, Lynne Foreman said she has noticed a “very slight” change in attitudes towards those with disability.

“Once people get to know you, in a workplace for example, there is no hesitation. It’s just those who don’t understand,” she said.

When reviewing the federal government’s proposal for the National Disability Insurance Scheme -- which came under fire at a recent panel on ABC’s Q&A -- PWC said a cultural shift across all part of societys remained the country’s biggest challenge.

“Active participation of those with a disability in society general can only occur with a change in attitude,” it said, in a report.

“This is something that can’t be legislated; people need to see the reason why change is important.”

Former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graham Innes believes the power of community attitudes can slow or push forward change.

“I learnt from my own experience that changing attitudes changes lives,” he said during the Q&A panel. 

So how can we change attitudes?

“By realising there is a lot more in common than there isn’t,” Ben’s mother Sam said.

“That’s what it boils down to.”