Sunday, March 1, 2015

I'm Not Here For Your Entertainment

‘How would you do that?’ I asked the job candidate. She’d applied for a job in the disability sector, and I was interviewing – one of the questions related to the ‘how’ of making systemic change in the sector.

‘I would find people and get them to tell their stories,’ she said earnestly, and I made a mental note – she was the third in as many interviews who had spoken about the importance of using people’s stories to create systemic change.

She’s not the only one. Bolstered by the success of Twenty Years: Twenty Stories, former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes has long been a proponent of the use of the stories of people with disability to transform the system. We all know it works – telling a personal story adds that extra, authentic, undeniably effective element. The BSWAT decision, the result of a concerted wage justice campaign, would not have been made if Messrs Nojin and Prior had not been prepared to tell their stories about being paid $1.85 an hour. Disability Justice Centres in WA would not have been built if men and women like Marlon Noble, imprisoned unfairly and without charge under the Mentally Impaired Accused Act, had not been profiled in the newspapers. People react to tragedy and unfairness, and it is often the only ammunition left in our arsenal – the NDIS was launched after a massive campaign by people with disability and their families, shouting about only being able to afford two showers a week or not being able to afford a wheelchair.

But is anyone asking the question; ‘is this just another form of inspiration porn?’

In feminist culture, there’s a current discussion going on about tokenising rape survivors. It argues that we live in a rape culture, which makes survivors feel ashamed about their trauma. For this reason, many anti rape campaigns encourage survivors not only to say that they were sexually violated, but also to give accounts of their experience of sexual violence.

But, they argue, the strong focus on story-telling has an unfortunate side-effect. Often, survivors are reduced to their stories. In other words, survivors’ stories are treated as ‘inspiration porn’. And that is an argument that is transplanted across sectors – is it possible to keep re-telling our stories of discrimination and abuse and violence without being reduced to eternal victimhood?

I see many parallels. Rape is a denial of someone’s personhood – a victim’s body is used for the gain of another. Discrimination and other abuses, including ableism, deny the rights of a person with a disability to be a person with the same rights as any other citizen. We’re constantly perpetuating the ‘perfect victim’ narrative – it is a simple thing to tell a story about someone who is unable to be ‘victim-blamed’, because it conforms to the perfect victim scenario. If you’re raped whilst drunk, the public sympathy is lesser – if you blew your compensation payout after breaking your neck, your stories about only being able to afford two showers a week are unheard. If you glanced through the submissions to the WA no fault insurance scheme, you’d probably be astonished at the vitriol hurled against cyclists – unlike motorists, they are somehow at fault for acquiring catastrophic injuries simply because they had the unmitigated gall to be on a road in the first place. Can anyone say Jill Meagher in a dark alley, hallelujah?

The feminists argue that we look for a certain thing in rape narratives – we want to be inspired. We want to hear how the individual overcame their circumstances, not how society needs to change in order to eradicate those circumstances.

We want to hear that everyone can overcome suffering. We don’t want to take responsibility for a creating a culture that perpetuates that suffering.

Last year, I told a group of startled bureaucrats that I had to leave my job because they refused to put in an accessible toilet. I had become accustomed to telling that story – not just to my employer, but to my lawyer, to a whole cast of men and women in suits and people on the ends of telephones and email addresses. I think of the men and women I know who constantly tell their stories to create systemic change – stories about toilets, yes, but also other forms of unfairness and discrimination and abuse and brutality. It takes an enormous amount of courage to disclose those personal details and your private hell to a group of strangers, who will invariably tut tut and tell you that it is dreadful, that terrible thing that happened.

There’s evidence that we’re reduced to our stories, we people with disability. Last year, a man at a workshop asked a colleague ‘if I could do a standing transfer’. I was horrified – but is this not an unintended consequence of being reduced to a story, or a cohort? Is the perception that our individual personhood is 'less' now the collateral damage of a mechanism calculated to create change?

I’m not here to inspire you, said disability advocate and journalist Stella Young. Neither are the rest of us. And there’s a difference between choosing to tell your story in order to heal - making damned sure your experience will never happen to anyone else – and doing it for someone else’s gain, sacrificing your dignity and privacy and personhood in the process.

Food for thought.

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