Last week, while I was on holiday, I was listening to a podcast about a man who can ride a bike. Nothing unusual, right? Except that this man was blind. As blind as a bat. In fact, they call him Batman.
Imagine that. A blind man riding a bike, just like a sighted person can. He uses a method called echolocation. He clicks his tongue and the sounds bounce off the things around him to create a picture in his mind of his surroundings. He can do anything. He can ride bikes and climb mountains. Anything a sighted person can do, he can do (maybe even better). He says any vision impaired person could do this. But there's one thing that stopping them. Us.
Maybe a little bit them, too. Though mostly us.
Daniel Kish says the expectations society has of vision impaired people is what holds them back. His whole life people have never expected much from him because he can't see. Despite this, he's tried everything because HE knew HE could.
Still, people try to help him do really basic things, like walking or eating. They try to help him do everything others are completely capable of doing alone but for some reason they think he can't.
I know exactly how he feels, because people also have low expectations of Aboriginal people.
No one has ever tried to help me walk or eat; I would probably be a little creeped out if that did happen. But, for as long as I can remember, people have said things to me like "you speak so well for an Aboriginal person" or "no one expects that much from you, you're Aboriginal".
Sometimes they're overt, as I mentioned above, and at other times they're more subtle. These expectations, the way others see us, affects the way we see ourselves, they even influence our performance.
In the 1960s, a very clever man named Bob Rosenthal wrote on a whole bunch of rat cages, which contained a whole bunch of regular lab rats. On half of them he put signs up saying the rats were very clever, on the others he wrote that the rats were a bit dim. He then put a group of minion scientists to work at training the rats to run through a maze.
And guess what? The rats from the cages with the signs that said they were smart performed better. He came to the conclusion that the non-verbal communication, the way that the scientists handled and treated the rats, impacted their performance. He's done more research in classrooms and workplaces and the reverse is also true. It's called the Golem Effect, where low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.
Social Darwinism had led us to believe that Indigenous people weren't as smart, not as capable and probably wouldn't survive the turn of the century. So that accounts for the lack of confidence we had in Indigenous people, but there's no reason for these sorts of attitudes to still exist.
But they do.
While I was doing a cadetship earlier in my career I had a voice coach who insisted that the other Indigenous cadet and I didn't have much hope. Every week when we had to go to her, she'd say things like: "Oh, you don't have to try very hard, everyone knows you're here on an Indigenous program" or "you probably won't get a job unless it's one of those Indigenous ones".
She was wrong. We've both been employed in great jobs since we finished our training, I'm now a political reporter at SBS in Canberra and the other cadet has since won a Walkley Award. Hardly the sort of outcomes you'd expect if you believed this person who had such incredibly low expectations of us because of our background.
I've often thought about how easy it would have been to give up at that point. It was an awful experience. Anyone who's experienced any sort of bullying in the workplace would attest to that. When people have such low expectations of you, you start believing that what they're saying is true and maybe you're not good enough or maybe you shouldn't try.
When I was growing up my grandfather used to say to me that it's not good enough to be as good as the white people around us, that just to be equal we had to be better. Better at everything: sport, school, socially and at work.
In my family, the message that we're not as good others and the realisation of the low expectations that society has of us are so deeply entrenched that that saying is one of the earliest memories I have. I've been told that since I was little. I think it's about time we changed that and lifted the burden of low expectations from the shoulders of Indigenous people.
I hope that instead of telling my grandchildren that they have to be their best because no one thinks they can, I will be able to say they have to be their best because everyone expects it of them. The results could be extraordinary, like a blind man riding a bike.