Defined by Disability

I used to work with a woman who was a nose picker. She was great.

And then there was the guy I once married. A pornographer and a masturbator. Really nice guy.

My kid, he likes to steal and tear headbands off babies in shops. Sometimes he hurts himself. Will you accept his enrolment now?

I have never heard anyone make these statements about the people they know. But that is probably because I am not talking about people with disability.

Here’s a meme that is currently floating around. It’s developed with the ‘permission of the parents’ to tell the world that T (who I have de identified) must remain locked up in an institution, and why the institution must not close.

T, the meme says, displays ‘high risk behaviours’. She takes things from shops, grabs babies’ headbands and takes things from shops.

There are, of course, no babies in the institution.

T does things, like others do things. But since when did we describe people by what they do?

Why, we started doing that when we found out that they had a disability.

That institution, one of many. They’re full of absconders, elopers, smearers, biters, fighters, bedwetters, runners. The language of difference tells us that we must not, in any circumstances, let these people out. They are dangerous – they must be locked up for their own good. They are different, and may never be trained to be less different. They are the ‘other’.

There are no babies in the institution, and it is unlikely that T will learn that babies are fragile, small creatures who must be loved and protected. Most people learn this by being around babies, watching them, spending time with them and loving them. T will probably never learn to see the baby, not the headband. She doesn’t have the opportunity to learn those things, because she has been ‘put away’ in a snug, safe place, without danger or fear, without choice and control or spontaneous walks in a park or visits to a corner store. A place without your own pet, a place where you wake at the same time and sleep and eat when you are told. A place without babies.

Last week I presented a workshop to a group of service providers. It was a successful workshop and we received great feedback. And then a colleague told me that another colleague who attended the workshop had asked him if I could ‘do a standing transfer’.

I thought about T, then, and why her personal traits are so relevant to the rest of the world. Would it be acceptable to ask my colleague if the workshop presenter was circumcised? Did he know whether he stood or squatted to wipe? Why is it important that the world knows that T might have ‘self-injurious behaviours’?

To define her difference. To justify our decision to lock her away from the world forever. We are defined by our disabilities rather than our abilities – marked forever by our ‘behaviours’.

There goes T, the thief, the perpetrator of terrible acts against babies and headbands. T, who cannot be let out, cannot be let in, cannot be with. T, who is 'other'.

I look at this photograph of T and I understand that there are people who wish her to be locked away ‘for her own good’. I know that these people mean well, that they want their family member to be safe and looked after and secure. I know that the institution, with its ‘one stop shop’ of medical services that will attend or be visited daily, seems like the most desirable environment for T, who has never been allowed to experience anything else. Let alone choose her own doctor.

And then I wonder why, with all these fantastic services and supports that are available to T…nobody cared enough about her to save her teeth.


  1. Cries fort T. . Sam-I-am . .

  2. Yes Sam I was thinking the same thing about her teeth as I read. Or actually I thought why the hell didn't they put her false teeth in. They may have even deliberately left them out so she looked more pitiful. But you know what I then thought, terrible as it is and shows how we are all conditioned to think about the fucking deficits, I thought "maybe she won't wear false teeth" FFS. I othered her in a split second. Groan.

    Maybe she has none. Why? Maybe one of the "lovely" staff lost them like they lost my clothes when I lived in an institution.

    And T is not "safe" in this Stockton place. The name reminds me of "stock yard" where they marshall and control the animals on their way to slaughter.


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