An enactment of discrimination against people with disabilities – March 2019

by Dr Allan Shafer – Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist & Socioanalyst, Melbourne.

Accompanying a Special Exhibition – Registered, persecuted, annihilated: The Sick and Disabled under National Socialism, the Jewish Holocaust Centre of Melbourne, convened a workshop on the 9th December 2018 on the theme “Registered, Persecuted, Annihilated: The legacy of the Nazi persecution of people with disabilities”.

This theme corresponded well with the title of the 2019 PCCA Conference, ‘80 Years Later, will history repeat itself? The fallout of the Holocaust over those affected: looking back, moving forward’.

Nine panellists offered their thoughts on this topic, ranging across psychiatry, equity law, disability policy, developmental disability and other areas.

The role I was invited to take up was as discussant, drawing together the threads and themes of all the presentations.

A very powerful incident occurred – an enactment really. Despite the benevolence which characterised the event, provision had not been made for a key speaker – an academic in a wheel-chair, with severe physical disabilities – to get up onto the small podium.  The organisers and the audience of ‘bystanders” – all with goodwill – seemed unable to repair the situation and ended up leaving her presenting at floor level, with no table to hold her papers and struggling simultaneously to manage a hand-held microphone.

An atmosphere of anxiety prevailed but she was left floundering and trying to make her presentation. When, at the end, I offered my observations about the whole workshop I decided to take a risk and, focussing on this incident, to make an interpretation about what had happened.

I thought this was a powerful piece of evidence about unconscious group dynamics related to the topic of persecution of or discrimination against people with disabilities. I decided to make this interpretation in my discussion and the audience was somewhat shocked – and confronted – to discover this dynamic and particularly, how they had unconsciously been complicit in and guilty of creating and sustaining an experience of discrimination: even – or especially – as bystanders whose passivity maintained the discrimination.

While it was not immediately clear how my comment affected the audience beyond this, a number of people did approach me to thank me afterwards – suggesting that they had appreciated their part in the group dynamic. Of note were the inquiries a few people made about the 2019 PCCA conference.

It was a powerful learning moment and one which emerged particularly from my appreciation and understanding of group dynamics. This is the kind of discovery, realisation and enlightenment that can be made accessible through learning from group relations conferences. The forthcoming 2019 PCCA conference is one such opportunity. These experiences can help members of groups to reflect on and manage their feelings and actions.

Dr Allan Shafer

Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist & Socioanalyst, Melbourne.

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