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Column: Why are personalised attacks on children with disabilities, like Greta Thunberg, being tolerated?

We should debate Thunberg’s ideas but comments that focus on the symptoms of her condition are out of order, writes Shane Dunphy.

Shane Dunphy

MY FIRST JOB in social care was working in a training unit for adults with intellectual disabilities.

I loved it. My boss was a social worker named John Carroll who was a bit controversial at the time. He had returned to Ireland in the early 1980s after working in the UK for years, determined to change the way people saw disability.

He firmly believed that, regardless of what label you place on a person, we are all inherently the same.  

Language can become a way of fencing people in, of limiting them. In his unit, he referred to everyone, staff and clients alike, as co-workers.

John retired a decade ago, but I wonder what he would make of the recent treatment of environmental activist Greta Thunberg?  

Thunberg, who is 16, is on the autistic spectrum, she has also been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and selective mutism. 

Well known for her campaign on climate change, Thunberg has been hugely visible on the world political stage recently and has garnered quite a bit of media attention – not all of it positive.

What surprises me is how much of the commentary has negatively focused on the symptoms of her various conditions.

Journalist Brendan O’Neill, writing in the online magazine Spiked, branded her a ‘weirdo’ and wrote about her ‘monotone voice’, suggesting her face was always locked in an expression of ‘apocalyptic dread’.

Australian writer Helen Dale took to Twitter to call on the BBC to arrange to have Thunberg interviewed by tough journalist Andrew Neil in the hopes she would have a meltdown on air, “Because afterwards, I guarantee we’ll never hear from her again.”

To be clear, neither writer was commenting on Thunberg’s ideas. They were targeting the obvious, physical manifestations of her autism.

Can I remind you, this is a 16-year-old child?

Neil Markham is a football fan and a proud Dad. Last week he posted a video of his daughter, Ella, who also happens to be 16, dancing after a Tottenham Hotspur match. Ella lives with Down syndrome.

To Markham’s horror, a slew of abusive, derogatory and hugely offensive comments was posted in response to the video.  

So many, in fact, that it made headlines both here and in the UK. The Markhams received widespread support from the public and many prominent members of the soccer world came out in support of them too.

At the time of writing these horrendous posts are still appearing on Neil Markham’s Twitter feed.

Once again, to be very clear, these tweets are not comments on Ella Markham’s dance moves or the team she supports. They are attacks and slurs on her because she lives with a genetic condition. And let me once again reiterate that this is a child.

Irish politician Michael O’Dowd has commented in the Irish papers this week on the abuse that his son, Conor, who also has Down syndrome, receives on both Facebook and Twitter.

What interests me in all of this is that the response to such behaviour seems comparatively muted. Any comment seen as even vaguely oppositional to issues of sexuality, gender or race receives a huge outcry.

One example is author John Boyne’s recent decision to shut down his Twitter account as an example of the force of collective opinion.

While in the case of the Markham’s there has been a significant backlash -  often when it comes to attacks on those with a disability the outcry is not as pronounced as it should be. 

I don’t want to suggest people with special needs should be wrapped up in cotton wool.  I believe Greta Thunberg should be debated – on her ideas – and I think Ella Markham and her Dad should be able to hold their own in a discussion on football.

I just don’t believe anyone should be attacked for being who they are. 

John Carroll was right – those with disabilities should be held to account just the same as everybody else and I’ll provide you with an anecdote to illustrate what I mean. 

I had probably been working at the unit for about three months when I had a career-changing experience. One of the people who attended the centre was a young man in his late 20s who (like Ella Markham and Conor O’Dowd) lived with Down syndrome. For the sake of this article, I’ll call him James.

James was usually boisterous and enthused by everything we did, but on this particular day, he was in an uncharacteristically bad mood. He spent the afternoon being obstructive, refusing to engage with any of the activities he would usually participate in and making things difficult for those who did.      

Down Syndrome, which is also known as trisomy 21, is a genetic disorder caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. It is characterised by physical and developmental delays, distinct facial features and usually carries mild to moderate intellectual disabilities (although individuals with Down syndrome can have normal intellectual functioning).

James was very capable but we were aware that he at times struggled to control his emotional responses.

When it came time to go home, James stomped out without saying goodbye. He usually cycled to and from the unit, so we all assumed he had made good his escape and hoped he would be in a better frame of mind the following day.

I stayed late to do some paperwork and was locking up when I heard a scuffling behind me and turned to find James, his face like thunder.  He was now sitting astride his bike, which he had parked right across the porch to our building, meaning I could not leave.

“Would you mind moving please, James?” I asked, trying to sound calm and patient – I was actually quite annoyed at this stage. He shook his head emphatically.

“If you’re trying to be a pain in the arse, James, you’re succeeding,” I said – I’d had a long day and was getting really fed up.  “Now would you move your bike, please, so I can go home?”

I didn’t see the punch coming.  It was well executed (he put a lot of his weight behind it) and hit me square on the jaw, knocking me back into the door with a heavy thud.

I was genuinely stunned, and when the world stopped spinning and I regained my feet, James was nothing but a rapidly pedalling speck on the horizon.

The following morning I sat down with John Carroll and told him what had happened. I told him that I felt I had completely mishandled the situation, and suggested that maybe I should be sent on some sort of crisis management training. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for social care?

He listened patiently, and responded with something that has stayed with me ever since: “Shane, has it occurred to you that James was just being very rude and that he owes you an apology?”

John never swore, but what he was saying was that James had been a bit of an asshole. And I realised that my boss was right – and that changed how I saw what had happened, and how we should handle it. 

When James came in later that day looking very guilty, John took him aside and made sure I received that apology, reminding the youngster that I would have been within my rights to press charges.

It was clear from the conversation that James was going through his own personal difficulties (hence his unusually dark mood) but that didn’t excuse his behaviour.

The words Down syndrome were never mentioned, and nor should they have been. We discussed the action and the reasonable response to that action. Because what was significant was the act and the thought process behind it. The fact that James lived with a disability was inconsequential.

In my career in social care, in my time teaching college and in the world of writing and publishing, I have encountered people of all shapes, sizes, races and creeds, at all levels of physical ability and disability.  

Some have behaved well, some have behaved badly. Some have been wonderful, inspirational people and some have been assholes. And I would have to admit that I have myself from time to time – fallen into the latter category.  

Take issue with the person for what they say or their behaviour but not for having a condition.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert and author. He is Head of the Social Care Department at Waterford College of Further Education.    

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Shane Dunphy

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