In August 2017, Justin Levene, an athlete and a paraplegic, was filmed dragging himself through Luton airport after his wheelchair failed to arrive on his flight. The airport offered to push Levene in an aisle chair, but he refused and made his own way using his arms to lift and shuffle his body across the airport terminal with surprising speed. Reporters were flummoxed. The BBC called the images ‘shocking’. Britain’s Evening Standard worked a little sarcasm into their headline:
Paraplegic athlete Justin Levene ‘forced’ to drag himself through Luton Airport after wheelchair was left behind on flight
Comments from readers flooded in. Most were not sympathetic. A selection of adjectives from the Daily Mail captures the gist: “Stubborn”, “Entitled?”, “…short temper…”, “…irrational…”
Samantha Connor has an entirely different view. “As a bastard activist, if it had been me I would have just stayed on the plane until my chair arrived. But I understand the frustration. If you use a wheelchair this stuff happens again and again and finally you’ve had enough,” she explains.
Instances of airports and airlines not catering to the needs of wheelchair users are not uncommon, just ask any wheelchair traveller you know. In November this year, an Australian paraplegic was forced to urinate in a bottle because there was no on-board wheelchair. In the wake of the Justin Leven story, BBC journalist Frank Gardner shared his own incidents of being stranded by airport services. But for Connor, it’s not a story about wheelchairs, or their users, or travel for people with mobility issues, it’s the daily experience of disability and all of its myriad humiliations.
“It’s like someone lightly slapping you in the face every time you go to the supermarket. That’s what ableism feels like. Journalists don’t get it and it is such a hard thing to explain, but the cumulative oppression and cumulative impact of ableism is like that.” One day you just want to slap back.
Ableism – prejudice against people with disabilities both in practice and the assumptions societies make – is a fact of life that few would dispute. For many, it takes shape as widespread economic and social oppression. For some, as Connor can testify it can, and does, have lethal consequences.
Connor is one of the founders of the Australian chapter of the Disability Clothesline, a Facebook community that uncovers the darkest side of disability discrimination – violence, abuse, neglect and murder.
Writing on Ramp Up in 2014 she, and co-author Craig Wallace note that reporting on the homicides of people with disability, especially intellectual disability is “frequently sugar-coated and euphemised.” The weekend before their article was published, news had broken that parents of a disabled man had taken their own lives. Thirteen years earlier they had killed their own son in 2001 after becoming fearful about an upcoming operation that was likely to reduce his quality of life. After pleading guilty to manslaughter they were sentenced to five-year good behaviour bonds. Connor and Wallace wrote that the reaction to the suicides and previous crime by the media, the courts and even some within the disability community amounted to moral relativism.
As they put it, “The unlawful killing of one human being at the hands of another is universally acknowledged as the worst possible crime of which we are capable. To imagine culpability as somehow eased by the victim’s disability is untenable.”
An adjacent argument, and one that she is also actively combatting is the growing support in Australia for legalising euthanasia. She worries that euthanasia threatens the lives of people with disability. Connor says her own attitudes to euthanasia are informed by her life with a disability, and she can see the argument. In her own family, many women have the BRCA2 gene which raises the likelihood of developing breast and other types of cancer.
“Four women in my family have all had breast/ovarian cancer – my mother and her three sisters, and all but one have died from it,” she explains. “If it wasn’t a disabled woman I would be pro-euthanasia.” But not anymore. In 2016 she joined a small group of women protesting the proposed Death with Dignity euthanasia bill in South Australia. The bill, which was ultimately defeated by one vote, was based on the right to end intolerable suffering. In her blog Connor wrote that four of the women gathered there, including her, would have been eligible to die under the legislation.
“We’re here to debate the worth of our lives and argue that we must be assisted to live before we’re assisted to die,” she wrote (italics added). She has a point. According to the OECD, 83 percent of Australian working age people had a job in 2010. For those with disability the figure is 53 percent. 45 percent of people with disability are living either near or below the poverty line. The OECD average is 22 percent. Here, the disabled are nearly three times as likely as the general population to be poor. Add to that, the costs of medical care and maintenance and its little wonder that, for many, achieving a high quality of life is hard.
Then there is the outright discrimination. Over the last decade between 35 and 40 percent of complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission have been about disability issues. That’s nearly as much as complaints based on race or gender combined. Go back further and in 2004, 58 percent of complaints were based on discrimination on the grounds of disability.
Connor worries about the ability of the disabled to be heard on issues like euthanasia. “There’s a real kind of erasure of voices around important issues. We should be the people whose voices are the strongest.” In the loss of Ramp Up, and the particular character of Stella Young, that voice has been diminished she feels.
“After she died, we had an enormous hole left in the sector. Stella had this ability to write, not just from her own experience, but also to understand and give voice to other people in the crip community.”
Ramp Up closed on the 30th of June 2014. In this series of articles, Warwick Forster traces the history of Ramp Up through the voices of those who wrote for it. Next: The Advocate