Australian disability activist Jason Clymo discusses the link between fashion and human rights with an expert in the field



“People with disability must be included in everything we do, in all walks of life, in all parts of society.”

Wednesday December 3 2020 was International Day of People With Disability. The day is a time of celebration, and for people with disability to raise awareness of the issues they still face in many aspects of society.

At Fashion Journal, we believe it’s important to give people with disability the opportunity to control their own narratives. With this in mind, we asked model and disability activist Jason Clymo to interview Professor Penelope Weller, a human rights law expert whose research focuses on capacity and disability law, among other areas.

Together, they discussed the issues around the representation of people with disability and unpacked the connection between the fashion industry and human rights.

Jason Clymo: Thank you so much for joining me today. To begin, could you please introduce yourself, and tell us a bit about what you do and your career to date?

Penelope Weller: Sure. I am a professor of law at the Graduate School of Business and Law at RMIT University. I teach a whole range of subjects, including administrative law and health law. I also conduct research, and my research areas are predominantly in health law, mental health law, and capacity and disability law.

JC: Fantastic. I’m feeling very lucky to be able to talk to someone who is so heavily involved in disability human rights. So, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability is exposing a lot of the disturbing forms of ableism that exist in our society. In your professional opinion, why is it that people with disability are subjected to this kind of abuse and discrimination?

PW: I think it’s really important to point out ableism, which is the idea that people with disability are abnormal. Even the language people use tends to stem from the medical model, where people with disabilities are seen as somehow having a deficit. What that means is that you end up not recognising people with disability as human beings who are entitled to participate in society in the same way as others.

JC: Very true. I think that’s very important to talk about too. So now we’re going to head straight into some questions about fashion. I obviously do a bit of work around fashion and representation. But I wanted you to help me explain the link between representation and human rights. Why do you think it’s important for people with disability to be represented in the fashion industry?

PW: Building on from what we were talking about before, about people being excluded or ignored, the most important human rights framework is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. One of its main messages is that people with disability must be included in everything we do, in all walks of life, in all parts of society. However, what we still see so often is that people with disabilities are not visible or not represented. It’s easy to think that they don’t exist if they’re not visible.

Fashion plays a whole range of roles in society, but one of them is to give visual triggers about what people look like and what and who people are. So it would be fabulous if the fashion industry included people with disability so that they could see themselves as part of the world. And perhaps more importantly, everybody else could see people with disability as a normal and natural part of the world.

JC: Yeah, absolutely. We are a natural and permanent part of society’s range of diversity.

PW: Yes. So more of that would be great. And I might say that the fashion industry does have a history of being quite innovative around diversity, so it would be great if this happened more.

JC: I couldn’t agree more. Do you draw any links between disability representation and the way people with disability are treated in the ‘real world’?

PW: Absolutely! It’s part of all the things that reinforce ‘invisibility’, meaning that the treatment of people with disability in different contexts is often invisible. And we know that, often when things are invisible, it’s when something not quite right is happening. So being visible is really important. Being present, being participants, and being part of the decision-making is very important.

JC: And do you think that ties back into what we spoke about before, where, without this representation and without showing that we are a natural part of our diverse community, that some people see people with disability as subhuman? In a subconscious way, I mean. And that’s what I believe leads to things like people with disability being abused in institutions.

PW: Absolutely. There are loads of assumptions made about people with disability, like what they can or can’t do and what they’re able to contribute. Sometimes it’s from a lack of familiarity, and certainly, it’s not all that long ago that people with disability were contained in institutions. We are now in that fortunate situation where they are more present in the community, but they are often still in not particularly open places. Smaller perhaps, but still institutions, and so we have a long way to go.

JC: We definitely do, although it’s also exciting to see the progress that is being made. So we just celebrated International Day of People With Disability. Why do you think this day is important?

PW: Well, the United Nations set the day quite a long time ago – in the early ’90s. And it was an important part of the United Nations 10 year action plan around disability, so it was a focal point for a range of human rights activities. I think it’s fabulous to have these specific days where people get an opportunity to highlight particular issues that are important to them. These days, we also use it as an opportunity to talk about the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and try to further the debate around human rights challenges that are still present around disability and inclusion.

JC: I love this day. It’s always incredible to see so much representation and people with disability controlling their narratives. However, do you find it frustrating that we do have this special day and week that leads up to it, but then, throughout the rest of the year, there’s nowhere near as much inclusion, hiring of people with disability or media around it?

PW: Ah, yeah, the danger is that this day becomes the only time disability is the focus. But I think at the moment we have the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, which is generating quite a lot of media interest and improving the understanding our communities have about the issues faced by people with disability.

At the same time, we have the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which is also relevant to the needs of people with disability. And in Victoria, we have the Royal Commission into Victoria’s mental health system, which is also relevant to people with disability. So, certainly at the moment, there is quite a deal of attention to a range of issues. Unfortunately, the Royal Commissions have all been convened following some quite terrible incidents.

JC: Yes, it’s unfortunate that the majority of the stories told about disability in the media involve tragedy. What are the main things you wish people would take away from reading this interview?

PW: I’d love people to develop an interest in actually thinking about people with disability. So when you go to the fashion show, or when you go to the cinema, or when you go wherever you go, you think, ‘Okay are there any people with disability here?’ and just be aware.

JC: Yes, I love that. A lot of people have no idea that people with disability make up almost 20 per cent of the population. So if you do go to a fashion show and there arent any people with disability, perhaps ask yourself “Why not?”. Or better yet, ask the people who are running the event. Okay, is there anything else you’d like to add?

PW: Hmm… Well, I do want to say that the fashion industry does have a good track record for addressing issues around diversity. So I want to applaud the effort to do that. I guess the other thing I might say is that sometimes we think that fashion or the commercial sector aren’t really part of human rights. But the United Nations have actually published guiding principles on business and human rights. These principles set out a framework for companies and businesses to help protect and respect human rights in all of their work. So this is an important part of all industries now, to think about the human rights dimensions of their work.

JC: Absolutely. And I think that’s the perfect way to end this interview because you’ve wrapped it all up for us and connected the dots between fashion, business and human rights. Thank you so much again for your time.

PW: You’re very welcome. Thank you for having me, and I hope Fashion Journal‘s readers have learnt something about inclusion and the rights of people with disability.

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