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'I was furious and scared': Sinéad Burke on how being harassed on O'Connell Street inspired her new education campaign

Burke is a campaigner, advocate and academic, and last year became a contributing editor at fashion magazine Vogue UK.

File photo of Sinead Burke.
File photo of Sinead Burke.
Image: Aurore Marechal/ABACAPRESS.COM

IRISH WRITER AND activist Sinéad Burke has spoken out about being harassed on O’Connell Street by two teenage boys, and how the incident left her shaking and upset, but also inspired to educate people on the importance of treating everyone equally. 

Burke is a campaigner, advocate and academic, and last year became a contributing editor at fashion magazine Vogue UK. 

Writing in Vogue, Burke – who was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and is 3ft 5in in height – spoke about her harassment a month ago on O’Connell Street. 

Burke said she was walking down O’Connell Street on afternoon last month on her way to meet a friend at a Japanese restaurant. On her way, she saw two boys – no older than 16 – walk past her. 

She said one nudged the other and laughed. 

In Burke’s words:

“As a little person, this behaviour is sadly part of my everyday experience.

As a teacher, I have a deep yearning to make these moments educational and want to help people learn that it is unkind and unjust to make derogatory remarks about people with dwarfism, but I’ve become accustomed to sensing when it is safe and unsafe to do so.

“I took a deep breath and kept walking.”

However, following this the boys took things further. 

“It seemed to happen in slow motion. A whoosh, followed by a thud. One of the boys landed in front of me. He had jumped over me, leap-frogged over my head from behind.

“I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t make sense of it. He walked to the end of the road, turned around and walked past me again with a frightening grin. I was furious and scared.

“With tears threatening, I asked him if he knew that his behaviour was illegal.

“He laughed and jogged back to his friend who had recorded the entire incident on his phone.
They seemed proud of themselves, proud of their actions. They knew that their content, my harassment, could go viral or be an instant pass to popularity among their peer group. I was devastated. 

Very upset 

Burke wrote that she was crying, “the kind of crying where you can’t catch your breath and speaking is difficult even though there is so much you need to say”.

She said that people saw her distress but continued walking past, so she called her mother, who told her to contact the gardaí and report it as a crime, which she did. 

Gardaí began an investigation immediately, she wrote. 

She wrote that in her work as an advocate and campaigner, Burke has a lot of time for the gardaí. Over the past three years, she said the organisation she works with – Little People of Ireland, (Ireland’s national organisation for little people and their families) – have developed a good relationship with the gardaí.

However, Burke said she felt that making a complaint to the gardaí wasn’t enough, and wondered how to educate people not to engage in that kind of aggressive, cruel behaviour.

In the weeks since, my experience has left me shaken and feeling like I still have so many questions: How do we transform a society that is apathetic to harming and ‘othering’ people to fulfil a culture of ‘likes’?
How do we construct a moral compass that teaches people the impact of their actions? How do we encourage people to adopt a currency of kindness? The answer is simple, but not easy: education. 

Education 

Burke said that following this she contacted her friend, a programme officer for NEIC – a social and economic regeneration project for Dublin’s North East Inner City.

I had a big idea, I wanted to speak to every primary school child in the area. I wanted to encourage curiosity, challenge ignorance, empower them with a better vocabulary, and ask them to use their voices to make a difference.

She said that speaking in schools in the last number of weeks had been “an enormous privilege” and that children had asked her all sorts of questions. 

Burke wrote that speaking with children had reminded her of “how uncomfortable adults are talking about things that we do not know or understand”.

She said this needed to be challenged in order to make the world a more equal place for everyone, regardless of difference.

“How often do you ask ‘whose voices and perspectives are not being considered?’,” she wrote. 

“Within your organisation, how many disabled people exist? If your friends or colleagues use words that are offensive, do you challenge them and provide new terminology?

“Can you use social media to amplify and support people who are fighting for their rights?

“There is so much that we each can do. Advocates are making themselves vulnerable every day explaining the most intimate details of their lives to educate society and to make our world safer and kinder.

We cannot do it alone. We need you all to shift the lens and to stand for something. We need you to stand with us. 

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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