Abuse of people with disabilities in public places at the center of this week’s hearing in the DRC – a subject many Australians know all too well


Last week, I stood on the corner of a crowded intersection waiting to cross the road.

The kind of thing that many of us do, day in and day out.

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

At that time, I wished I could blend in with the crowd around me.

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

When the pedestrian signal turned green, he continued to stare at me as I rushed down the road, desperate to get out of his line of sight.

For many people, this may not seem like a big deal.

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

Elizabeth Wright said that as a person living with a disability, you learn to be alert and change your behavior.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

For me, that 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 will hear from dozens of people across Australia who have experienced this kind of abuse – and probably much worse – at the Royal Commission on Disability (DRC).

Witnesses will describe incidents of harassment, verbal abuse, physical assault and threatening behavior in a variety of settings, including on the street, on public transport and on online platforms.

Someone who has been abused 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.

This means that getting on and off public transport like a tram is not the easiest thing for her.

Like me, Ms. Pettenuzzo walks up and down stairs one leg at a time and often needs to rest.

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

On 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 him.

“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 do not care. “”

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

“If it was so hard for me to get on the tram, how am I going to get off? What if he still yells at me,” she said.

Since then, she no longer uses public transport.

“The idea of ​​getting on a tram now makes me really uncomfortable.”

Abuse of short people

While the hearing, which starts today in Brisbane, will focus on the broader experience of people with disabilities, the first two days will focus more on abuse and violence against people of short stature.

Sam Millard is the National Chairman of Short Statured People of Australia.

Sam Millard said the abuse of short people puts them in dangerous situations. (ABC News: Patrick Stone)

He thought abuse of short people in public places was a big problem.

“It’s as simple as words, people taking pictures and sharing them on social media, or physical acts of aggression or what seems to be good humor at the time,” he said. he declares.

“But it puts people in very dangerous situations.”

Mr Millard said short people 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 sorts of things, I think to some extent it influences the public perception of people with dwarfism,” he said. he declares.

“Things like that really have an effect on the public.”

Catherine McAlpine, chief executive of Inclusion Australia, the leading national developmental disability body, said this general lack of respect led to exclusion from the community.

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

“When you feel like you’re always exposed, you just feel like there’s this whole lack of privacy, you know, you can never be another face in the crowd,” he said. she declared.

“These things that happen as microaggressions and build up.”

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

Ms Pettenuzzo has been subjected to ‘an ongoing pattern of systemic violence’ in her life – and it took me a long time to realize I had it too.

In my experience, it’s not just about staring – it’s the intrusive questions, inappropriate sexual comments, and requests from people wanting to touch my body and my prosthetic leg.

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

“Other times I guess I burn out and get sad and cry because I feel like things aren’t going to change,” Ms Pettenuzzo said.

I’m exhausted too, and I feel sad and frustrated that I feel like nothing will ever change.

But, like Ms. Pettenuzzo too, I realize that for change to happen, we must remain hopeful.

“I’m hopeful because I know I’m not alone and part of the disability community,” she said.

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


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