Ableism and unconscious bias in the care system

Recently ableism in the care system has made the headlines in Australia thanks to a Royal Commission. A Queensland woman told of the ableism she witnessed when her son was in the hospital. You can read more about it here: Reading this article got me thinking about similar things that have been said to me as a person with a disability by those who charged with looking after my health, things that made me feel bad about myself, rather than angry that people could say such things, because, at the time, I didn’t know where they came from, ableism.

Don’t worry, you don’t weight bear, you’ll just have a second hip.

This was something that a doctor flippantly said to me, as he stood with one foot on my hospital bed, as I asked for a second opinion about the treatment of my broken leg. His was the second opinion. Here are just some of the other things that have been said to me. To go through these is mentally exhausting because I have not only remember the words, I relive the feelings that went through my body and my head when I ever so vividly recall them.

1. “Oh wow, I wouldn’t have thought so, looking like that”. — A nurse response after being asked if I drive and work

2. “You’re expecting a lot” — An in-home nurse response when I tell her I cannot go three days without a shower.

3. “What’s a CT scan going to do? Tell us it’s broken? Then what are we going to do? Take her back into the operating theatre and fix it?” — A surgeon talking to his registrar in front of me at the end of my hospital bed after a major brain operation.

4. “Oh! When you said you worked for the APS, I didn’t really think you meant that you *worked* there.” — a nurse after my payslips were faxed through to the hospital.

5. “You’re going to be in bed for the rest of your life.” After asking how long I’d be in bed for after an injury the doctor being surprised that I wasn’t used to hearing that kind of talk” (He was wrong on both counts).

There are some I won’t mention in this list because they have been said to me time and time again, with the majority coming from some people working in the disability sector. Just like the article linked above, and many articles like it, people with disabilities are still considered to be bodies and not people, and while it’s not all doctors, not all nurses, and not all people who work in the disability sector, it is still a problem that exists and needs to be addressed. Instead of disability awareness training, which still positions people with disabilities as the other, we need to focus on disability inclusion and focus on people with disabilities as part of society, not as an extension of society. It is also clear that the top-down approach of training is not effective because things like unconscious bias and ableism are still slipping through the cracks and having a negative impact on an already difficult situation. Imagine what telling a 24-year-old woman who is working full time that she will be in bed for the rest of her life does to her mental health and in turn her physical health.

We need to work from both the bottom and the top to meet in the middle to ensure every aspect of any service to people with disabilities (specific or not), is tailored to take into account the needs of the individuals. Yes, we may have the fact that we have a disability in common, but the commonality ends there. We need to shift the way society thinks of people with disabilities to ensure we are getting what is needed as individuals and being treated as human beings.



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Ainslee Hooper

Ainslee Hooper


Applied Anthropologist specialising in disability inclusion.