Ausnew Home Care | Abuse of people with disability in public places at the centre of this week's DRC hearing — a topic many Australians know all too well

Abuse of people with disability in public places at the centre of this week's DRC hearing — a topic many Australians know all too well

disability Disability Employment Services disability law disability stereotypes intellectual disability Living With a Disability NDIS NDIS Aged Care Approved no ‘dis’ in disability. Seeing the ability in disability umbrella of disability

Last week I was standing on the corner of a crowded intersection waiting to cross the road. 

The type of thing many of us do, day in, day out.

Nothing extraordinary here, I know. That was until I noticed a man staring, unashamedly, at my prosthetic leg.

In that moment, I wished that I could've shrunk away into the crowd around me.

He glanced up and gave an awkward smile, I frowned back, too scared and embarrassed to tell him to stop.

When the pedestrian signal went green, he continued to stare as I hurried across the road, desperate to get out of his line of vision.

To many people, it may not seem like a big deal. 

But when you are subjected to constant staring, or other forms of harassment — it really starts to wear you down.

A smiling woman with limb differenc. Ausnew Home Care, NDIS registered provider, My Aged Care
Elizabeth Wright said as a person living with disability you learn to be vigilant and modify your behaviour.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

For me, it might not happen for weeks. Then, it can happen three times in one day — with people staring or asking intrusive questions about my limb difference.

This week we'll hear from dozens of people across Australia who have encountered this type of abuse — and likely far worse — at the disability royal commission (DRC). 

The witnesses will describe incidents of harassment, verbal abuse, physical assault and threatening behaviour across a range of settings, including on the street, on public transport, and online platforms. 

Someone who has experienced abuse in public is 28-year-old Laura Pettenuzzo.

Ms Pettenuzzo lives with cerebral palsy and is an ambulatory wheelchair user, meaning she only uses her wheelchair when necessary. 

It means getting on and off public transport like a tram isn't the easiest thing for her.

Just like me, Ms Pettenuzzo goes up and down stairs one leg at a time, and frequently requires a rest. 

A woman on a Melbourne street
Laura Pettenuzzo says she avoided catching public transport after what happened. (ABC News: Patrick Stone)

During a recent, short tram ride in Melbourne, she took a moment to rest on one of the stairs as she boarded.

The driver yelled at her. 

"I tried to say I'm so sorry, I have a disability," she said.

"He just gestured with his arms as if to say, 'what are you doing? I don't care.'"

Once Ms Pettenuzzo was on the tram, she started to worry about what would happen once she got to her stop.

"If it was that difficult for me to get onto the tram, how am I going to get off? What if he yelled at me again," she said.

She hasn't used public transport since.

"The thought of getting on a tram now just makes me feel really uncomfortable."

Abuse of people of short stature 

While the hearing, starting today in Brisbane, will look at the broader experience of people with disability, the first two days will focus more on the abuse and violence against people of short stature.

Sam Millard is the national president of Short Statured People of Australia. 

Sam Millard said the abuse of short statured people put them in unsafe situations. (ABC News: Patrick Stone)

He believed the abuse against people of short stature in public places was a significant issue.

"It's just as simple as words, people taking photos and sharing them through social media, or physical acts of either aggression or what is seemed to be at the time in good jest humour," he said.

"But it puts people in significantly unsafe situations."

Mr Millard said people of short stature were often viewed through the inaccurate stereotype created in pop culture. 

"Whether it's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, whether it's Lord of the Rings, all those kinds of things, I think to some extent that influences the public perception of people with dwarfism," he said.

"Those kinds of things really have a flow on effect to the public."

Catherine McAlpine, the chief executive of Inclusion Australia, the national peak body for intellectual disability, said this general lack of respect lead to exclusion from the community.

Catherine sitting at a computer in an office and smiling.
Catherine McAlpine from Inclusion Australia said the cases of abuse accumulated and led to exclusion.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

"When you feel like you're always on display, you just feel like there's this whole lack of privacy, you know, you never get to just be another face in the crowd," she said.

"These things that happen as microaggressions and they are accumulative,."

It is these microaggressions that create a burden for many people with disability, including myself and Ms Pettenuzzo.

Ms Pettenuzzo has been subjected to "an ongoing pattern of systemic violence" in her life — and it has taken me a long time to realise I have as well.

In my experience it is not just staring -- there's the intrusive questions, inappropriate sexual comments and requests from people wanting to touch my body and prosthetic leg.

As a person with disability, you learn to be vigilant and modify your behaviour and where you go in public, just to feel safe. 

"Other times, I guess I just get exhausted and I just get sad and I just cry because it feels like things aren't going to change," Ms Pettenuzzo said.

I get exhausted too, and I feel sad and frustrated that it feels like nothing will ever change.

But, like Ms Pettenuzzo too, I realise that for change to happen, you have to keep hope.

"I'm hopeful because I know that I'm not alone and I am part of the disability community," she said. 

"I know that there are allies out there who can and will support us and push for the changes that we need."

Source: ABC

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