WWDACT Chair and Our Watch Ambassador, Sue Salthouse presented this powerful speech to the Our Watch Awards on September 12th, 2018. Find out more about Our Watch at ourwatch.org.au.
Please be aware that this post contains discussion of domestic and family violence.
Disability and the media
I would like to start this evening by acknowledging that we meet on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and to pay my respects to their elders past and present and to their emerging leaders. I would also like to thank Our Watch and to acknowledge how proud I am to be an Ambassador and to promote the work they are doing.
Like other tonight, I am still reeling from the news from Perth on Monday. BUT – Every time there is a domestic or family violence crime – homicide, familicide or filicide, as a breaking story in the media – I draw breath and I wait…..
How long until disability is implied as a causative factor? Twelve hours? 24? 36? Twelve hours has been the norm. As elite journalists who are in the room tonight as finalists for responsible reporting on issues of violence against women – congratulations! I know this is not your standard of reporting. This is not a timeline that applies to you.
Disability is not the cause of such crimes either as perpetrator or as victim. We need to think carefully before we make disability part of the story.
Tonight’s awards acknowledge and highlight that we are what we speak or what we write. What you journalists say in the media reinforces society’s view. Or it takes the lead and changes our view.
In the realm of violence against women, I would like to salute Jenna Prices who, ow a number of years ago started the Facebook page, Destroy The Joint, Counting Dead Women. This page puts a human face onto the violent crime deaths of women in this country. These are deaths which violate us as individuals and as society.
But there is no human face on deaths in the reality of disability. At this point I would like to give thanks to Sara Dingle, who, on ABC Background Briefing of 24 June, put our disability reality into the public arena with the statement that one person with disabilities is killed every 3 months at the hands of a carer!
These individuals are not counted and remain invisible, and the empathy lies with the martyred noble carer. With every such phrase, the concept of the burden of disability is perpetuated.
Why so many deaths and why so ignored? I am sure everyone in this room knows that women with disabilities experience higher levels of violence than their nondisabled peers or men with disabilities. We know that gender disrespect intersects with the devaluing of the disabled to create a power vacuum where women with disabilities are at greater risk of exploitation, neglect, abuse and violence. We know that the greater the number of intersecting attributes present in a person – race, sexual preference, minority religion, or poverty, the greater the ‘otherness’ and the greater the marginalization, the
less understood or accepted the person. Coupled with disability and gender bias in an individual, the greater the risk of exploitation, neglect, abuse and violence.
Why so many deaths and why so ignored? So often there is no trial because the death is assumed to be ‘of natural cause’. Of course, we excuse ourselves, we could expect an early death in someone so disabled! Or where there is a trial, the perpetrator is given a trivial sentence.
So I congratulate you every time you resist the urge to sensationalise, or portray a negative or pitiful picture of any person with disabilities. Instead every victim has individual characteristics which make up their personhood. These merit acknowledgement. And please do not rely on depicting disability as a causative factor in crime.
In fact when I think about the depiction of disability in the media there are Phrases I want abolished:
I never want to hear:
1. Women with disabilities are ‘more vulnerable’ than others.
Certainly – power imbalances are that location controlling behaviours flourish. Such controlling behaviours can exist for me just because I am in a wheelchair. I can be at greater risk of violence from a partner who would control me by simply by removing my chair. How much greater is that power imbalance for a woman with Intellectual Disability? As women with disabilities we have all been taught to be grateful for the help we receive. We moderate our behavior so that help is not withdrawn.
BUT – The more we are depicted as being helpless, the more at risk we are of grooming. Someone who has been denied ordinary relationships responds to false positive attention by someone whose own ego is bolstered by wielding power over us.
Instead, the media could focus on our resilience, the steps a woman with disabilities has taken to minimise the risk. In fact I am always impressed by the strength of women with disabilities, and especially those with ID or any cognitive impairment who have experienced such significant violence and trauma, often throughout their lives.
The media could acknowledge their strengths.
Let me never hear:
2. The victim was “severely disabled” with the unspoken inference that in reality this person is ‘better off dead’. My bet is that this individual had likes and dislikes, loved making choices, had a sense of humour and personality. I don’t want to read that this was someone with no capacity, who was incapable of feeling and beyond interactions with others.
And many, many women with disabilities will internalize this reporting, and feel a little less safe in their homes & in the community.
I never want to read:
3. The victim had the “mentality of a 3-year old”
How can you use these terms to describe an adult who loves the footy, goes dancing and is learning to cook. The eternal media infantilisation of women with cognitive impairment means they are condemned to a kindergarten existence which they neither want nor love.
And many, many women with cognitive impairment will internalize this reporting, and feel a little less valued by family & the community. Let me tell you – they want to be treated as the age they are.
For goodness sakes, don’t let me read:
4. The perpetrator is ‘afflicted by schizophrenia’ and other ‘behavioural disorders’. This deficit approach to describing one individual only serves to denigrate all those people who have episodes of serious mental illness that interrupt otherwise productive lives. And the stigma to anyone disclosing this condition increases as does their ability to accept appropriate supports increases.
Don’t despair, as will not give you 100 of these, but I continue. I don’t want to read:
5. The victim is ‘wheelchair bound’. Lordy, lordy, the only time I might wish I HAD BEEN tied into my WC is when I roll over a kerb by mistake and plummet to the ground. Otherwise I am not wheelchair bound at all and neither is any other wheelchair user. In fact this piece of metal is my passport to freedom.
I don’t want to read:
6. The victim was ‘dependent’ on her partner for supports when positive supports are mostly part of relationships, and given with love in partnerships where someone has a disability.
Wouldn’t it be great if every journalist in this room will take the lead in the movement which removes all depictions in the media that reinforce our stereotypes about disability, where victim blaming is eliminated and where we use factual language that doesn’t reinforce those stereotypes, imply weakness or further exacerbate stigma.
Of course we encounter disability stereotypes in more than the reporting of violent crime. Films like Forest Gump and Rainman depict ‘eternal innocence’ of the disabled. Other films perpetuate the evil anti-hero, with hunchback or physical disfigurement. And I also turn to Stella Young, who many of you will remember. We must certainly reject all forms of inspiration porn which make us objects of pity, where you, the non-disabled, thank your lucky starts you are not disabled like me!
I haven’t got all the solutions. You are the experts in reporting and the wordsmiths.
But in truth, I cannot resist a few Tips:
- Go to the source – women with disabilities are experts in our own lives and in the politics of the sector. We can help you with your wording.
- Go to the source – women writers with disabilities like Carly Findlay and Naomi Chainey can write up a storm.
- Report on the positive non-disability characteristics of the person.
- Avoid deficit language.
- Be more interested in the facts than in the disability aspect of the story.
- Disability is NEVER an excuse for homicide, or any other violence.
In closing I think we must take heart. The changes in the standard of reporting on violence against all women have improved so much over the past 5 years. Everyone in this room has put hard work, and ethical considerations into representing violence, and violence against. Lets us also put violence against women with disabilities and all people with disabilities into the picture. Together we can do it – we can Change the Story.