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On Being the Target of Awareness Campaigns, Why TEDx Must Go Further

Last week’s #StellasChallenge certainly made a splash.

I’m told that attendees of TEDx Sydney pledged $1m in support of social inclusion of people with disability. That in itself is a great thing.

However, I got nervous when I saw that TEDx supporters were ‘challenged’ to:

Talk to someone with a disability, their families or carers, your kids, their teachers, your employees, your boss. 

This doesn’t sound like Stella Young’s fantastic talk at TEDx Sydney last year, where she tackled “inspiration porn”. Please watch it.

In her talk, she argued that people with disability were often objectified by others, their disability exceptionalised. This often happens in awareness campaigns, when people are encouraged to talk to people with disability, because they have a disability.

Much commentary has ensued around who was consulted around this campaign, and what Stella would have wanted. TEDx has re-iterated its commitment to work with people with disability to design a campaign led by people with disability.

I'm not going to go into the campaign in detail; I think that the redesign of the campaign is positive, and it’s important to be open to those outside the disability community with an interest in issues affecting us.

But I'm going to tell you what it’s like to be the unwitting ‘target’ of an awareness campaign.

It’s tiring. When I'm on the bus, absorbed in my thoughts (or phone) and someone asks me a question in a voice slightly slower and more high-pitched than average, I think “Oh, that’s right, I have a disability", and my body suddenly feels stiff. I understand the person is well-intentioned, so I answer them with a smile, and look forward to getting them out of my head.

Occasionally, a stranger approaches me in a completely usual pitch and tone, seeming chatty to all around them. Though I’m too shy to do it myself, it can lift my mood. No awareness campaign, just a friendly person.

Throughout my life, people have been ‘rewarded’ for including or helping me. This started in primary school when kids got certificates for this. I do appreciate the teacher’s intention, but they somehow gave them to the popular kids, not my quieter friends.

Fast forward about 20 years. I’ve just finished a graduate program and am applying for an internal promotion. My friend and I get written referee reports from the same person, sneakily compare them, and are surprised to discover he’s scored higher on the non-work ‘values’ criteria. We laugh at the possibility of his ‘bonus marks’ for inclusion. As Stella knew, laughter can take the pain away. Almost (We both got promoted).

I think inclusion works best when structures and systems steer people - naturally and gently - towards it. I’m so lucky I have fighter parents who made sure I was ‘there’ and friends who understand the rewards of my friendship is intrinsic – my care, loyalty and bad jokes. They’ve earned my trust, and the right to ask me about whatever they like.

Awareness is a crucial first step to inclusion. But as Crip Army states:

“An awareness campaign will not allow us entry into the job market, or make the built environment accessible, or stop abuse, or discrimination. An awareness campaign will not find us accessible housing, or a way out of poverty, or opportunity to make our own decisions about how we live our own lives.”

If the – largely privileged - clientele of TEDx want a real challenge, they could be aware of how they can assist in overcoming the systemic disadvantages faced by people with disability. Can they employ a person with disability (or 7)?

And they can donate to re-fund RampUp, where Stella powerfully facilitated people with disability speaking for themselves.

By Ya'el Frisch

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Last updated: 24 Sep 2019