A 26-year-old South Australian, Justine Clark made international headlines last month as Australia’s first contestant in a wheelchair to enter the Miss World contest. Justine expressed the wish that her involvement would show people that “no matter your race, size or disability − whatever makes you different − you are beautiful.”
No argument there from me. My organisation is on the front lines, helping people with disabilities get access to the services and opportunities they need to live their best life, and I don’t know a single person who would disagree with the sentiment.
What gives me cause for pause is not Justine’s success or her desire to put a spotlight on disability, but that the participation of a wheelchair-user in a beauty pageant should be a remarkable occurrence. The very thing that makes Justine’s story inspirational also demonstrates that people living with disabilities are still marginalised, and in many ways invisible within our society − so much so that when a person manages to transcend the impairment and participate among the able-bodied, we see this as an exception rather than a social norm.
The NDIS was born from a collective desire to address this situation by empowering people with disabilities and their families with choices. These choices are intended to remove impediments preventing people with disabilities from the lives they want to live, escape their isolation, and join in on whatever it is that gives their lives meaning. In reality, we all want this, and ability should not be a factor in the opportunity to live your best life.
It’s very early days for the NDIS and as debates around its funding continue, I and my colleagues can see cracks in the varnish of hope among the tens of thousands of Australians who trust us and others like us for support every day.
I’m conflicted whenever I hear a story like Justine’s told by people and media who find it remarkable that someone with a disability can actually do things. Empowerment shouldn’t be condescending. Yes, it’s a truly wonderful thing that someone with a disability can compete in a pageant, for example − but as long as we see such a thing as irregular, every one of these otherwise ordinary Australians longing for the ability and means to live the lives they want will continue to feel like lonely pioneers in the face of more challenges than they should be reasonably expected to face.
In that sense, perhaps the thing that makes Justine’s story truly remarkable is not that she’s overcoming her disabilities to compete, but that she’s doing so in the face of stigmas that can be just as debilitating as a physical impairment.
This point of view will jar, with some. I very regularly face attempts to temper such opinions from people armed with a dose of “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and similar platitudes. But the fact is, our society is getting harder, not easier to navigate, engage with and participate in by those who don’t have the privilege of being able-bodied or -minded.
I have high hopes for the NDIS, and every confidence that clear heads will prevail on its rollout and administration. I am also confident that its arrival represents a turning point for people living with disabilities and their families, that they can show that Justine’s remarkable story is not otherwise abnormal, and get access to the same choices as the rest of us. We should applaud Justine, while hoping she won’t be on her own for long.
About the Author
Danielle Ballantine is CEO of Northside, an independent, not-for-profit organisation connecting locals to services and helps individuals access affordable, local help based on their particular circumstances and life choices. For more information visit yournorthside.org.au