Presumptive discrimination

Larry is a member of Loud and Clear and recently shared his story with the Disability Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

Now, he wants to share his story with you.

My name is Larry. I acquired some disability from a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in 2009. 

An introduction to my background will provide reason for my qualification to describe  what I believe is an often-ignored form of insidious and default discrimination which I  have chosen to describe as: Presumptive Discrimination. 

My background: This year in 2020, I am 70 years old. I left school after Year 10 and began my working life as a tradesman. I became skilled in my trade and was successful in my business. 

When I was in my forties, I decided to have a change. I then went to University and obtained a degree I did well enough with my studies that  I was hired by the university to be a sessional tutor in my field of study. 

I have also done a variety of things during my lifetime that required knowledge and skills, as well as an acute ability to think and understand in order to be successful and to make informed and wise decisions. 

While at university I was a member of the University Council that governed the university and worked with the University Chancellor at that time, Tony Fitzgerald. Such councils govern every aspect of a university. Some examples include approval of courses, financial oversight, campus building works, interacting with the government and applying relevant legislation to the university. 

Black and white photo of the back of a woman pushing a person in a wheelchair.

I also play an unusual musical instrument and created, performed and entertained in 72 shows at World Expo 88. I was also chosen to perform at  Government House for the Queensland Premier and his Cabinet during a Brisbane “Colonial Festival”. 

The above examples of some of my previous activities demonstrate that I had at least  a ‘normal’ level of knowledge, intelligence and ability along with good communication  skills. 

In 2009, I acquired a TBI when a vehicle drove into me. I am told that I spent 3 months in hospital followed by a lot of time in rehabilitation. I am not aware of the time I spent in hospital. My traumatic brain injury left me with limitations to my vision and deprived me of short term memory.

Examples of the effects of my short term memory loss include, but are not limited to: When being introduced to a group of 3 people, I am not able to remember the first person’s name, a few seconds later, while I am being introduced to the third person. 

I am given to understand that I often ask someone a question and then repeat the question minutes and/or hours later because I cannot remember their reply. 

I do not remember the day of the week. Therefore, when I am asked if I can do  something on Tuesday, I often cannot reply until I figure out when Tuesday is, or summon up the courage to ask them when Tuesday might be… and by so doing risk  them saying, “What! Don’t you even know what day it is?”.

The following allegory is illustrative. It is drawn from an experience in a foreign country and clearly illustrates the concept of a default presumptions: 

While riding a train in France, a country in which I could not speak the language, I went  to the café carriage and indicated I wanted a coffee. The French barista said something in French, to which I replied, in French, “I don’t speak”. She then, very loudly repeated the same phrase to which I could not reply. The barista then said the same phrase again, but much louder. So, I said “Yes” but ended up with a tiny cup with only 2 tablespoonsful of coffee in it! 

It seemed like she thought I had a hearing problem. The point of the allegorical story is that I could HEAR perfectly well. I heard well enough that I could even have repeated the word-sounds that I heard her say without ever knowing what those words were. But I feel the barista acted like she PRESUMED I had hearing problems and then took the action she PRESUMED was appropriate….  

Therefore, she increased her volume. The result? I did not get any more than a taste  of the coffee I wanted. 

There are some basic things in post-injury life which I am unable to do normally. This  has caused others to engage in castigation and/or discriminatory actions based purely on their presumptions

Examples of Presumptive Discrimination towards my disability: 

I used to go to a weekly hobby club for several years, but could not recognise or remember any of the other members. I know from past knowledge and experience that “Hey you” is NOT an appropriate  way to address someone you have apparently “known” for a year. 

But inevitably I would get ‘caught out’ in situations that resulted in presumptive discrimination. For example, the person to whom I spoke would say “You know me! What’s wrong with you, we worked together for 2 hours on “X project” last week!” Or: 

When I apparently have asked the same question several times, I may be told off with,  “You are always asking me that!”

I am still very capable of thinking and reasoning. Because I cannot remember a  particular fact does not mean that I never need to use that specific fact. I simply do not have it available in my memory when I need it. For example, what day and date is it today and in which month? 

Before the injury, I had a good memory. I never forgot a name or face if I had been  introduced or had spoken to them. Now, my self-esteem is directly and regularly affected every time I am reminded of my loss in various ways similar to those I outlined above. 

My injury does not mean I am “empty”. I have a wealth of knowledge, experience and acquired abilities by which I can still contribute to society! I can understand much like I did before and communicate my thoughts, even though I have a limitation with  memory. 

I will attempt to extrapolate this to a wider community. In our world, there are people who have limitations forming and articulating words. This makes it difficult for others  to understand them. Carefully consider their problem by putting yourself in their place at this moment: 

If you have trouble pronouncing words and you happen to speak to me and I cannot understand you, what might some of my presumptive discrimination options be?

∙ I can appear to not notice you have spoken. 

∙ I can see that you are speaking to me and ignore you. 

∙ I can hear you speaking and decide your words could not possibly be relevant.

∙ I can decide not to reply because “you wouldn’t understand anyway”. 

And if I defaulted to such presumptive, highly discriminatory actions, I would be forcing you to feel like I think you are either ‘nothing’ or simply ‘not worth listening to’! And I could easily do all this without any intent whatsoever to cause harm. And I would have no knowledge that I had been discriminatory. 

The question remains: How can we reduce or eliminate default presumptive discrimination practices? 

I propose that a concept of Sensitivity Training be developed and implemented as  part of our general social responsibility… and it need not be exclusive to disability. 

We have proved our ability for change and achieved a lot with public education about  sun protection by starting at a very young age. These days, even preschoolers know they should not play outside without a hat. Adults also universally know they need sun  protection in Australia. 

I think we need a similar broad approach for sensitivity training. A simple program can be developed to introduce ‘sensitivity consciousness’ in primary schools. Sensitivity training packages can be expertly developed for orientation of new employees. Such training packages can be further developed to use at meetings in workplaces.  

Communication skills are also vital tools for sensitively interacting with others. Such  skills are often taken for granted or are simply unknown.

I think that learning communication skills at a young age is important. And while it is a  different subject to the concept of discrimination, communication skills involve more  than just talking. The consistent use of simple, proven communication practices are vital to reducing conflict and increasing understanding in any situation. 

By knowing and using some communication skills in the allegory of you and I above, I could have said, “I didn’t understand. Could you say it again please?” or “I’m not sure. Do you know someone who can help me understand?”  

By this means we may well achieve understanding without defaulting to presumptive  discrimination. I will have transmitted a message and invited ‘feedback’ which then could prove the message was received and fully understood. 

By creating and promulgating a new paradigm of sensitivity we can actively reduce discrimination and do this without spending vast sums of money.

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