Image (from left to right): Mia, my sister and I when Mamamia Outloud came to Brisbane!
Last Wednesday, Australian journalist Mia Freedman made me squeal with glee and nearly choke on my gobful of tuna.
She gave Outloud podcast listeners the perfect example of exactly why disability needs greater visual representation.
Except she didn’t even mention disability.
Rather, Mia was discussing the on field kiss between two female NRL players that was shared on social media.
Obviously the story is unrelated (you can read about it here) but in discussing the story with her co-hosts, Mia said something crucial…
“My kids just didn’t care. It just wasn’t a big deal for that generation. Whereas for us, no lesbian had visibility. No gay person had visibility as I was growing up.”
*Fist pump, Mia*
OMG Yes! I’ve been telling people this for years except my version always sounds very different. Firstly, I don’t have kids and secondly, I swapped the words gay people and lesbians for people with all types of disabilities.
Now I know it’s not that simple (as a swap) in real life but even though the groups are different, the core principle is the same.
We need visibility to create a change in social attitudes.
As a woman with both visible and invisible disabilities, I can’t help but notice a difference in the way younger generations interact with me compared to the way older generations interact with me in my wheelchair and when I openly discuss my invisible disabilities.
I don’t want to paint everyone with the same brush and there are definite exceptions to this but generally speaking, my differences just aren’t as big a deal to younger generations.
Speaking with friends in the disability community, this had also been their experience.
I would suggest that a reason for these differences can be summed up in one word.
When I first acquired my disabilities, there was no Instagram. Facebook wasn’t nearly as big as it is now and Influencers were unheard of, let alone Influencers with disabilities.
Positive, truthful visual representations of disability were far less than they are today and organisations like Starting With Julius didn’t exist.
Although these days, social media feeds are filled with a diversity of disabled people embracing their differences and discussing them openly.
I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that visibility creates awareness (it’s marketing 101) but very slowly this increased visual representation of disability is filtering down into other mediums as well.
Just recently my sister sent me a photo of a wheelchair in a kids cartoon and I also saw a post on Facebook about disability in a children’s picture book.
All of these little cues matter to impressionable young minds. Because if a child has seen non-sensationalised form of disability several times before they leave the house, they’re less likely to be shocked or confused when they see me or another disabled person just going about our usual day out in public.
Disability just won’t be “a big deal to them” in the school yard.
Disability just won’t be “a big deal to them” in the workplace.
Disability just won’t be “a big deal to them” anywhere.
That’s what continued and consistent visual representation does (as opposed to a token image or appearance to appear diverse and inclusive). Inclusive children become inclusive adults and that happens with repeated and truthful visual representation.
Mia’s original statement may not have been about disability but it’s principles about visibility are still highly relevant.
Obviously, visual representations of disability won’t instantly solve larger issues such as unemployment, housing and healthcare that are faced by the disability sector. But that’s not the point of this piece.
Considering that approximately 20% of the population identify as having a disability, it’s not as if we’re short on individuals to create visibility for disability (and I’m not talking about myself by the way).
In all honesty, I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable putting myself out there because I grew up without social media and documenting my life with selfies simply wasn’t a thing.
At the same time, I recognise that making disability visible changes community attitudes.
I spent years working in advertising agencies making national and international brands visible (and have had similar projects more recently). Over the years I’ve witnessed highly skilled professionals come together and develop branding framework, marketing strategy and creative execution to create visibility for all sorts of products and services.
There’s absolutely no reason we can’t do the same for something far more important, like disability.