By Catia Malaquias
Since I wrote explaining why the R-word is so offensive to people with intellectual disability, the Australia Football League and Greater Western Sydney FC have indicated that no further action will be taken in relation to the Heath Shaw incident as he apologised promptly and sincerely for the offence caused.
I don’t doubt Shaw’s apology was sincere.
My concern is that the public, the viewers watching the TV and media coverage of the game and subsequently of the incident, understand why such a slur is so offensive – rather than just being left with the impression it is “horrible” or “insensitive” or “politically incorrect”.
The R-word is directly offensive to people with intellectual disability, whether it is specifically directed at them or not.
If a footballer was called the N-word or similar, would we expect an apology directed to the footballer as well as an equally direct apology to indigenous Australians generally?
If a footballer was slurred as to their sexual preference, would we expect an apology directed to the footballer as well as an equally direct apology to all Australians of that sexual preference?
If a footballer was slurred as to his religious beliefs, would we expect an apology directed to the footballer as well as an equally direct apology to all Australians with those beliefs.
Often, in each of the above cases, the greater emphasis of the apology is on redressing offence to the broader minority group.
However, Tom Papley, the target of the R-word slur, does not have an intellectual disability but is the primary recipient of an apology for being slurred as to intellectual disability. He does deserve an apology, but what about people with intellectual disability – and those around them, their friends and family? They were collectively and directly slurred by the public use of the R-word – albeit not publicly intended by Shaw – a football field on live TV is a public place.
Heath Shaw’s apology to “anyone else who took offence” misses the mark and misses the opportunity to educate the public. A lesser “apology-standard” has been applied by the AFL and GWS in respect of a group in our society that already experiences significant prejudice, exclusion and low expectations. Put simply, they deserve more.
[Cover photo © Emma Dau]