Would the Prime Minister have treated an able-bodied woman like this?

Did Prime Minister Kevin Rudd act inappropriately when he touched the head of a woman with a disability this week? That’s the question the community is asking after footage of Kevin Rudd doing exactly that went viral on the internet today.

The clip was shown as part of an ABC television segment about the Government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme. In the footage, which was taken on the day the scheme was launched, Kevin Rudd holds hands and poses for a photo with a woman in a wheelchair. As the now-Prime Minister walks away from the cameras, he places his hand on the woman’s head and ruffles her hair.

The shots of Mr Rudd comprise just a few seconds of the six-and-a-half minute story but those few seconds have made a big impact. They’ve been enough to prompt an Australian disability advocate to speak out, saying that the Prime Minister’s gesture was condescending and even insulting.

Disability advocate and editor of the ABC”s Ramp Up, Stella Young is no stranger to being treated differently because she uses a wheelchair. As a woman with a disability, Stella describes being patted on the head like a child as “a common enough occurrence that it very rarely takes me completely by surprise”.

When Young first became aware of the footage of Mr Rudd, she tweeted:


In a follow-up article on Ramp Up, Young wrote about why she took offense to the Prime Minister’s actions. And Stella said that while she acknowledged the Prime Minister’s actions were not malicious, by patting the woman on the head, Mr Rudd showed himself to be part of a greater societal problem. That is, a society that treats people with disabilities as second class citizens.

Young wrote:

We often hear that people mean well; that so many just don’t how to interact with people with disabilities. They’re unsure of the ‘right’ reaction, so they default to condescension that makes them feel better in the face of their discomfort. In patting a disabled person on the head, they can congratulate themselves on their own empathy and tolerance.

In truth, this is about more than a pat on head. It’s about the paternalism and condescension Australians with disabilities face every day. Perhaps even more than lack of access and support, it is these attitudes that are holding us back.

(You can read the full Ramp Up article here).

But there are many who disagree with Young and they claim that the Prime Minister was just being friendly and his actions are undeserving of criticism. They say that the woman in the video did not show any resentment or concern towards Mr Rudd’s gesture and on that basis alone, the issue should be left alone.

News Limited columnist Joe Hilderbrand is one of those who appears to think the issue is being blown out of proportion. He tweeted today:


The Prime Minister and his office have not yet made a comment on the story but we’re keen to know your thoughts.

Was the Prime Minister out of line when he patted a woman using a wheelchair on the head?