Content Warning: This article discusses ableism, violence, rape and murder, which some readers may find distressing.
On Wednesday night, during the Leadership Debate, our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked by a parent of an autistic boy what the future of the NDIS looks like under a Liberal party government. Morrison said that he and his wife Jenny are “blessed” not to have disabled children. He said, “Jenny and I have been blessed, we have two children who haven’t had to go through that.” And by “go through that”, he meant disabled. He didn’t answer the question about the NDIS, just expressed his relief at not having disabled children.
This is the moment Scott Morrison told a mother of a son with autism that he and Jen were “blessed” because he doesn’t have a child with disabilities. Harmful ignorance. pic.twitter.com/L2Wzj8S96C— Matt Burke (@matttburke) April 20, 2022
The disability community (and our allies) are livid at his comment. We are hurt, we are full of rage, and we expect better from the leader of our country. We are also reassuring the disability community that we are blessings, not burdens.
Disability activist and writer El Gibbs told the ABC that the Prime Minister’s comments are “really hurtful”. She says “I’ve had strangers come up to me in the street and say they’re really grateful they’re not like me. People have talked about how they want to pray for me - that happens, it’s not rare and people have said ‘I couldn’t live like you’. It’s a really stigmatised approach to disability. We shouldn’t have to elicit pity to get supports.”
2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame, who is autistic, tweeted: “Autism blesses those of us who have it with the ability to spot fakes from a mile off” — alongside the infamous photo of her giving the Prime Minister side-eye earlier this year.
Autism blesses those of us who have it with the ability to spot fakes from a mile off pic.twitter.com/Ck41YcqAAq— Grace Tame (@TamePunk) April 20, 2022
Tame later tweeted, “We live in a world wherein the odds are stacked against disabled and abused people, governed—for the most part—by abled people who haven’t been abused. Solutions are typically designed by those with no lived experience, who are ignorant of our needs. We need equality, not pity.”
The opposite of blessed is cursed.
I am so glad that disability allies — including within politics and the media — are recognising this ableism for what it is, and speaking up and not playing devil’s advocate. As I write this, I got teary over Jimmy and Jane Barnes’ Instagram posts about their daughter Elly-May Barnes, who is disabled. Jane wrote, "This is our @ellymaybarnes, she lives with disabilities associated with cerebral palsy. @jimmybarnesofficial, myself, our families and friends are proud andThankful to have her in our lives. She is a JOY. Who's more BLESSED?"
The opposite of blessed is cursed. And the notion of being blessed is inextricably linked to religion — in which Scott Morrison is a big believer. I wince thinking about all the times that religion has made me feel less-than. When I was a baby, my parents were told by a priest that I’d be cured if they just believed in God. As a child, I was told by kids in the Christian town I lived in that I have ichthyosis because my parents are black and white and they’ve sinned. Mum pulled me out of Sunday school immediately.
When people say “as long as my baby is healthy”; or “I couldn’t do that” — referring to parenting a disabled child or partnering a disabled adult, or being disabled, they are saying that they see disability as a tragedy.
For as long as I can remember, strangers in the street have offered me prayers and religious pamphlets, shouting “Jesus loves you”. Someone once followed me out of a tram and into a shop to tell me this.
I shunned religion at a young age as I didn’t feel welcome; I didn’t feel like a blessing. I have cried reading news articles about babies with ichthyosis (the skin condition that I have) who have been shunned by their parents, or killed, because it’s believed they are a curse.
It is hard to shake internalised ableism when people believe that disabled people are unworthy; that they are lucky that they or their children aren’t disabled. When people say “as long as my baby is healthy”; or “I couldn’t do that” — referring to parenting a disabled child or partnering a disabled adult, or being disabled, they are saying that they see disability as a tragedy. They are pitiful. They are ableist.
And when the leader of the country says he’s blessed not to have disabled children, he is saying that disabled people are burdens, that our parents are unlucky. The Prime Minister should be championing the rights of all Australians. This wasn’t scripted. And what message does it give to his daughters, who might become disabled one day? I’m glad he’s not my father.
The government has consistently let disabled people down. In the last three years, we’ve seen the alleged murders of disabled people; Linda Reynolds (who called a rape survivor a “lying cow”) being moved to Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme; disabled being de-prioritised in the pandemic — including being left behind in the vaccine rollout; the NDIS is constantly referred to as a cost blowout and there have been cuts to the NDIS budget. Sheltered workshops continue to pay disabled people $2.50 an hour; disabled people have been left stranded by bushfires and floods; and we have been overlooked in the Federal Budget — just to name a few of the government’s failings. And Scott Morrison's comments at the Leadership Debate have solidified just what he thinks of us, and now his true ableist colours are showing.
I am blessed to be disabled — to be a part of a strong, supportive disability community (and to be among many non-disabled allies), to practice disability pride, and to learn from many other disabled people who have worked to dismantle systemic ableism for years. I am also blessed to work in disability arts — where many people are working to create inclusive and accessible art. I am blessed to have a supportive medical team that doesn’t want to cure me. I am blessed to have incredible family and friends.
In the last few days, disabled people have been checking in on each other, making light of Morrison’s ableism, and posting affirmations of our worth on social media. One of my friends joked that she’s starting a band called Maddie and the Blessings — offering me gig of backup dancer if I can do it on rollerskates. It’s been heartening.
Disabled people: our value is not determined by how the Prime Minister speaks about us. We matter. We deserve love, supportive and well-funded programs like NDIS, as well as opportunity and equality. We deserve to celebrate disability pride, community and storytelling — as I did with Eliza Hull on Thursday night.
The world is blessed to have us. Disabled people are a blessing. We are not blessed to have an ableist Prime Minister.