‘I’m The Unhealthy Baby’

It’s something we’ve all said without thinking.

The universally accepted response to the question, “So what are you hoping for, a boy or a girl?” is, “I don’t care, as long as the baby’s healthy”.

Thirty-four year-old Queenslander Karni Liddell found herself saying this, time again, to groups of friends: “Gosh, it would be your worst nightmare, wouldn’t it?!”

Until one day, a few years ago, when she realised, “I’m the unhealthy baby. I’m the baby that I’ve been talking about; that people said wasn’t wanted. Does that make me everyone’s worst nightmare?”

In a searing speech at TEDxSouthBankWomen, the paralympian lifts the lid on discrimination against the disabled, beginning in the womb.

Now, I feel ashamed for saying such things: It’s casual discrimination at its worst.

The implication is that many millions of people don’t deserve to be born, because they’re somehow ‘less’ than what Liddell calls the ABs: able-bodied.

In Australia, one in every 33 babies is born with a congenital disorder.

Overall, almost 20 per cent of Australians are living with a disability.

While it’s difficult to distil a global figure, the World Health Organisation estimates nearly 7.9 million kids are born with a “serious birth defect” while around 100 million people are “moderately or severely disabled”.

In Liddell’s words, “Disability is likely; it’s consistent; it’s natural”.

Doctor’s told her parents she wouldn’t walk, crawl, or live past her teenage years because of spinal muscular atrophy.

Thanks to a homemade rehab program, she was walking at three, running around the playground in primary school, and winning two swimming medals at the paralympics in her teens and early 20s.

It’s a message echoed by Young Australian of the Year,paralympian Jacqueline Freney: “I’m an example of how a child with special needs can develop and achieve with support, guidance, encouragement and opportunity. I ask that all Australians respect each other’s diversity and acknowledge their ability to contribute to this great country.”

Now employed as a radio broadcaster, keynote speaker, and social worker, Karni Liddell says she couldn’t be happier.

And she makes a compelling point: “There are plenty of able-bodied people who aren’t that healthy, aren’t overly happy, and aren’t successful.”

She contends we should replace ‘healthy’ with another ‘h’ word.

“What if we started saying, ‘All I want to have is a happy child’”, she suggests. “Could that hand the unhealthy babies among us the gift that we are, in fact, a gift…?”

TEDx is built on the basis of one big idea. This certainly fits the bill. But I wonder whether it, too, is fraught.

We now know mental illness has a hereditary component.

Does this mean we don’t want a child who is suffering from depression? (And by “don’t want” I mean “want to get rid of” as opposed to “would not prefer”).

Meanwhile, some might think this is taking ‘political correctness’ too far. I can hear the talkback hosts huffing now: “Well, of course no one wants an unhealthy baby! It’s common sense.”

But words matter. They wound. And they label.

Perhaps we should pause before trotting out hackneyed phrases.

In fact, asking someone whether they’d prefer a boy or a girl is a pretty stupid question in the first place. Generally, we don’t have a choice.

Karni Liddell hopes to have a baby, despite the hereditary nature of her condition.

And she says she’s willing to risk changing her language: “What if that one word (happy) increased the chances of enabling the unhealthy babies among us to feel wanted; to feel like a dream, not a nightmare; to feel equal.

“Isn’t it worth the risk?”