Fiona Sharkie: Giving people with a disability the opportunity to shine

Imagine for a moment that everyone you interacted with on a daily basis only saw you for your shortfalls, and never for your potential. For the one billion people in the world living with a disability, including those on the autism spectrum, this is often their everyday experience.

The reality is we neglect the voices of people with disability. We often speak for them, decide what’s best for them and expect they will just fit into our world, all of which has the result of sidelining them as the ‘other’ in our society.

This inherent discrimination applies to people with both physical and non-physical disability — from unfairly judging the mother whose child on the autism spectrum is having a meltdown in a shopping centre, to letting down the person in the wheelchair who can’t access a building to get to a job interview.

The leaps our society has made to be more inclusive of people with a disability should be recognised. We have come a long way in the past decade, but there’s a considerable way to go before these people are genuinely welcomed and valued.

We need to work harder to embrace the human form in all its diversity, recognising that people are people first, and that differences should not be an excuse to exclude or place judgment.

The shift to the kind of society we’d like to see is one where a person on the autism spectrum feels empowered to ask for the adaptations to their surroundings they require — such as dimming the lights or simply asking them one question at a time. An inclusive society is one where we enable ways for communities to create inclusion for all.

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In many cases a small change can make a huge difference. Heather, a woman living with autism, asked staff at a fish and chip shop to turn the TV off before she could place her order because the competing noise from the TV made this simple task challenging for her. This simple accommodation by the staff made it possible for a person with disability to have her needs met in her community. And the owner of this business learnt more about the needs of people on the autism spectrum: that they can experience sensory overload and may need quiet spaces without bright lights, loud noise and crowds.

We all need to recognise that every individual with a disability has different needs. Before you jump to stereotype a person with a disability, talk to them. Get informed about the huge variety of disabilities, many of which you can’t always see, including the diversity of the autism spectrum.

Most importantly, simply asking a person with a disability what they need is a huge step forward. Ask respectfully and with good intentions and be supportive and willing to help.

Nicole Antonopoulos, whose five-year-old son Greg is on the autism spectrum, says people want to be supportive of her son but they don’t really know what it means and what they can do.

“In my experience there is so much more awareness and willingness from others to help,” Nicole said. “The challenge is for people to build their skills to know what to do and to understand that it’s okay to ask. They don’t have to be an expert in autism. What they can do is to be supportive and try to engage, interact and make a child’s experience on that day a good one.”

Daniel Giles is a graphic designer and photographer and is on the autism spectrum. “I wish people would stop seeing the stereotypes of autism, such as our apparent lack of empathy,” he said. “Not that any of us are perfect but I’d like to see those myths and misconceptions busted.

“We are gifted individuals. We’ve all got the potential to make the world a better place. I’d like everyone to focus less on our challenges and focus more on the gifts and talents we have to offer. I’d like to see more job opportunities for people with autism. We should be given the opportunity to shine.”

People with disability have the same dreams and aspirations as all of us. It comes back to human rights and how the wider world can step up to better support people with disability to take their rightful place in the world.

The shift towards real inclusion starts with each of us. Try speaking to someone with disability and share your experiences. People with disability are not the ‘other’, they’re part of the diverse world we live in and make a huge contribution to its richness.

Fiona Sharkie is CEO of AMAZE (formerly Autism Victoria).