Bubbles, Planes and Prejudice

By Catia Malaquias

Many of us live and work in unrepresentative “bubbles”. In neighbourhoods and workplaces that do not reflect the diversity of our broader communities.  Educational opportunity, socio-economic status, cultural and racial background can differ markedly from “bubble” to “bubble”.  Added to this, the societal practice of segregating people with disability, creating its own “bubbles” of sorts.

When some of us are born into, are educated within and grow to live and work inside a non-representative microcosm, we grow conditioned to perceive it as more legitimate – and by extension we see our value by reference to that “bubble”. We are disconnected from other types of human experiences in our broader community, unable to develop insight into the richness of diversity and to value and respect difference.

But the public transport system is one place where social micro-“bubbles” intersect – and sometimes collide.  Buses, trains and planes – where we cannot always control where we sit or who we are seated next to.

Less than a month ago, it was reported that a man on a Ryan Air flight in the UK hurled hate speech at another passenger – the white man became upset after realising that he was seated next to an elderly black woman and proceeded to call her an “ugly black bastard”.  The incident went viral on social and mainstream media and the British Prime Minister Theresa May condemned it as “abhorrent”.  It was.

At around the same time, on a Qantas flight from Sydney to Port Macquarie a man was removed for apparently complaining that he had been seated next to a 6 year old girl with Down syndrome – “Oh Ok. I have to sit next to retards now”. In that case, which has only been reported 2 days ago, the girl’s father seated in an adjacent row rightly took exception and the flight was delayed for 3 hours.  A female adult passenger with Down syndrome on the same flight was also understandably upset by the incident.

The alleged complainant, a Sydney barrister, with a doctorate practising in medical negligence, reportedly sought to defend his offensive slur on the basis it was not directed at the child but rather was a statement to the flight attendant.  Further, he suggested the father overreacted as “the father wasn’t part of the conversation”.

Both incidents are appalling but the second incident struck close to home and it stirred up many emotions.

You see, I am the parent of a child with Down syndrome and a member of the legal profession. I have always enjoyed my work, and appreciate the opportunity to do a job where my skills are valued and where I am treated with respect.

But in the 9 years since Julius was born, I have had the chance to reflect on many of the assumptions that I held previously – and which are commonly held – and to recognise some enduring values in relation to intellectual function and privilege.

One thing I can say for certain is that high education and professional qualifications, a distinguished career and a privileged upbringing does not immunise a person from prejudice – particularly implicit prejudice.  On the contrary, I believe that rarefied and limited social experience increases the potential and degree for implicit prejudice against people that do not share the same “bubble”; who we perceive not to be “like us”.

This is where implicit prejudice speaks the language of “entitlement” – an entitlement to the preservation of the integrity of one’s “bubble”.

For much of history, people with intellectual disability have experienced segregation, rejection and exclusion wherever they go – that is, if they are even allowed to go there.

Eugenics – the devaluation, dehumanisation and destruction of people with disability – particularly intellectual disability – is based on both a sense of intellectual superiority or elitism and “entitlement”.  Worse, eugenics is about the “elite” of society reaching out and taking pre-emptive action to maintain their future integrity based on their idea of a natural “order” of who is valued and who isn’t – to preserve and improve their “entitlement”.

The “r-word” has a history – a history that includes the eugenics movement of the early to mid – 1900s –  a movement that had heavily amongst its protagonists the most respected and educated people (men) of the time – lawyers, judges, doctors, politicians, government administrators – in the UK, America, Europe and Australia.

Words like the “r-word”, in one way or another, have always been used against people with intellectual disability.

But the r-word is the tip of the iceberg.  Every day on social media, in any given political discussion, “moron”, “idiot” and “imbecile” – once also used as dehumanising instruments of the eugenics movement, to label and classify people according to intellectual function – are tossed around like harmless confetti, but all the while reinforcing the association between intellectual disability and undesirable attributes – poor decision making, thoughtlessness, lack of integrity or principles, ignorance, foolishness, malevolence and – somewhat ironically – prejudice. They are insults used for the specific purpose of undermining someone’s worth but in reality, the actions or words that are being criticised don’t have anything to do with a person’s intellectual function.

Most of us would not dream of insulting a 6 year-old child with Down syndrome or of using hate speech against another person  – but when we use ableist language or permit its casual use by others, in our own ways we are contributing to a toxic culture towards people with intellectual disability.  It is this same culture that devalues and dehumanises people (like my son), that defaults to denying them access to quality education, employment and equal rights, that accepts and encourages the creation of “special” places for “special” people and perpetuates their treatment as separate, lesser human beings.

The advancement of inclusive media and inclusive education, two central missions of Starting With Julius, is about penetrating “bubbles” – exposing the unexposed and informing the under-informed that there is value in diversity in community and humanity – demonstrating that value as a human being is not a function of a narrow prism of intellectual worth – but inherent worth that is a definitional given for being born the individual that each of us is.

So returning to the two stories – while I was not surprised by the viral reaction to the dehumanisation and devaluation of the black elderly woman in the first story, I was also sadly not surprised by the muted reaction to the dehumanisation and devaluation of a 6 year-old girl with Down syndrome.

Some bubbles burst louder than others.  But the damage is the same.

The first step is to acknowledge the bubble, the second to show there is no entitlement  to living within it.

Equality of existence means there is only one legitimate ‘bubble’ – the totality of society itself.


Read also from Starting With Julius:

“R-word: No Excuses but if You’re Sorry Make Your Apology Count”

“Why Heath Shaw’s Apology for Using the R-word Misses the Mark”

“Usefulness is Not a Measure of Human Worth”

If you want to make the pledge end the r-word and help to “spread the word end the word” click here.

[Cover photo © Omar Prestwich]

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