A panel of academics, activists and advocates debated the tension between claiming commonality and celebrating difference in the experiences of people with disability at a special event hosted by the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC).

Susan Dodds, Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW, opened the debate by arguing that focusing on disability as difference is creative because it does not set ‘able bodies’ as the norm. “A focus on difference can spark creative curiosity for those who lack lived experience”, said Dodds.

The argument for celebrating the difference in disability was strongly echoed by Jax Jacki Brown, a disability and LGBTI rights activist, writer and disability sexuality educator. “Proclaiming universal commonalities, saying that we are all the same, whitewashes or ‘able-washes’ the realities of disabled existence and invalidates my disability identity”, said Brown. “Living in an ‘ableist’ world, one must be creative; this is how disability as difference and creativity are intertwined”.

On the opposing side of the argument, Rosemary Kayess, who codirects the disability and human rights project at the Australian Human Rights Centre and is also a Senior Research Fellow at SPRC, described the various ways in which recognition of commonality in disability has led to creative responses to ensure everyone belongs and can participate. “We are all members of the human family with an equal desire to belong and participate regardless of our inherent differences”, explained Kayess.

Dinesh Wadiwel, Senior Lecturer in socio-legal studies and human rights at the University of Sydney, described the recognition of commonality as something which provides security, and therefore a safe place for creativity to emerge. “Difference and diversity is often treated as an ‘asset’. By valuing people with disability simply because they’re diverse in turn treats them as assets; they should be valued regardless of what they create”, said Wadiwel.

With the thoughtful and interesting discussion continuing with the audience, moderator Alastair McEwin, Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner, concluded the event by sharing his own personal insights and also those of others from the community. “People with disability around the country have been telling me lots of things about their priorities for the Australian Human Rights Commission with some of that about difference and some about commonality, so this debate comes at a really appropriate time”.

Listen to the UNSW Social Policy Debate