A religious group at a Sydney university has come under fire after asking students to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question – “are disabled people a burden on society?”
The question was one of two posed by the Sydney University Catholic Society as part of Life Week, which aims to engage students “about the important life issues in our society”.
The two questions – “is it worth enduring suffering?” and “are disabled people a burden on society?” – were printed on sandwich boards alongside a stick and two buckets marked “yes” or “no”.
The group said it had encountered some students who “took offence” and had decided to remove the sign following complaints.
“We understand that this is a sensitive topic as many members of our community are living with a disability, including members, friends and relatives of the Sydney University Catholic Society,” the group wrote on Facebook following the event.
“Many of us would be aware of prominent intellectuals who would assert that disabled people are a burden.
“As Catholics, we believe in the fundamental dignity of every human life and the invaluable contribution of every member of society, including those living with a disability.”
The question was also criticised by dozens of students online who labelled the exercise “disgraceful”.
“You should be absolutely ashamed,” one person wrote, “what kind of deranged student society posits the notion that disabled people are somehow a burden?”
“Show some compassion and think for a moment about how your words might affect people with disabilities,” another commented.
“Did you consider that perhaps someone that’s disabled and going through a rough time might not want to see themselves being described as a burden,” a third person asked.
And another: “Why would you think it’s ok to provide such an easy, public platform for people to dehumanise disabled people?”
The Catholic Society later formally apologised for the question in a statement posted online.
“The intention of this particular question was to invite students to think critically about current and proposed laws and practices which are often justified on the basis of avoiding illness or disabilities, and so demonstrate an ableist attitude towards human life,” it said.
“We had hoped this question would prompt students to consider and critique the broad support these laws and practices receive in government, academia, the medical profession and the community more broadly, and regret that this did not occur.”
The University of Sydney Disability Collective said the stunt was “inexcusable”, regardless of the intent.
“Disabled people are not burdens and disabled students should not be confronted with questions like this on campus,” the USYD SRC Disabilities Collective and Caregivers Network said in a statement.
“If their intent was to oppose ableist views in academia, or have positive conversations around disability, they have instead perpetuated academic ableism by literally putting the worth of disabled lives up for public debate.
“Disabled students make up a significant proportion of the student body. We should not have to encounter debates on the worth of our existence on campus.
‘We are fellow students and community members with agency of our own.’
The collective continued that disabled people were not “objects of pity” or “political volleyballs to be used to score outrage points”.
“We are fellow students and community members with agency of our own,” it added, describing the Catholic Society’s actions as “callous disrespect for disabled lives”.
“Using disabled people as props and conversation-starters belies how little genuine care the Catholic Society has for real disabled people, and how readily they see us as malleable objects free to use in whatever capacity suits their agenda,” it said.
The collective said it hoped the Catholic Society would “make a commitment to engage more respectfully with disabled students in the future”.