By Catia Malaquias
The greatest barriers to the full inclusion of people with disability in our society, in our schools, workplaces and broader community, lies in the prejudice and discriminatory attitudes of the non-disabled people around them, their teachers, potential employers, neighbours and even their parents.
Italy’s national Down Syndrome Association, Coordown, together with the support of Down Syndrome Australia, has released its much anticipated annual international video campaign for World Down Syndrome Day, 21 March 2023 – “Ridiculous Excuses Not To Be Inclusive”.
World Down Syndrome Day has been officially recognised by the United Nations since 2012, and Coordown has released an international video campaign for the day every year since 2012, bringing a focus to the human rights and goal of full inclusion of people with Down syndrome, and disabilities generally.
This year’s international video campaign, supported in particular by the Tik Tok social media platform, uses situational humour to broadcast the very serious message that our discriminatory attitudes as individuals limit the participation of, and therefore the quality of outcomes for, people with disability in our society. This idea that non-physical attitudinal environment may present as much (if not more) of a barrier for people with disability as physical features is a key theme that underpinned the drafting of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). For example, whilst a ramp may assist a person in a wheelchair to access a school or classroom, the discriminatory attitudes of school staff may operate to deprive the person of their potential to achieve through a combination of low expectations and betraying any sense of being welcomed or belonging.
Whilst discrimination against people with disability, or ableism, is often overt, deliberate and conscious – sometimes called explicit or conscious bias because the person is aware that they are discriminating – a more insidious and longer-term barrier to the educational, economic and social inclusion of people with disability is unconscious or implicit bias – which is internalised bias that affects a person’s decision-making but the person is not even aware of that bias against, or negativity towards, people with disability.
When asked if they are biased or prejudiced against people with disability, people will generally respond that they are not, even if they are – they feel able to counter or mask any prejudice they may have – being prejudiced is morally ‘bad’ and few think themselves to be, or want to be perceived as, ‘bad people’. But implicit bias or unconscious prejudice operates below the conscious level and arises largely from the influences in our formational social environment (from our childhood upbringing – from the attitudes at our childhood family dining table, early school friends, favourite childhood TV programs etc) – it has an inter-generational and longitudinal component. Its very real but usually unacknowledged presence is given away by body language and spontaneous behaviours and reactions, for example, by avoiding eye contact, less warmth and tolerance in engagement, a propensity to more punitive responses and general reduced willingness to interact with a person with disability. Similarly, delayed processing for positive associations with disability in comparison to prompt processing for negative associations are suggestive of implied prejudice or bias. Robust ‘implicit association tests’ have been developed to measure implied bias and are offered on a number of websites for self-testing. Try one here. You can also read about the ‘Learning for Justice’ project that aims to work with communities to dismantle prejudice and advance the human rights of all people.
Studies show that over the last decade or so explicit or conscious bias against people with disability as well as, for example, against people on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or race, have in each case significantly decreased across society. However, implicit or unconscious bias against people with disability has remained stubbornly the same over that time, whilst implicit bias or unconscious bias against gender, sexual orientation and race have also significantly decreased. Researcher Tess Charlesworth talks about this in her video and you can read an interview with her in this article ‘Why disability bias is a particularly stubborn problem’.
A real difference, contributing to unconscious or implicit societal attitudes towards gender, sexual orientation and race significantly improving and becoming more neutral and genuinely accepting, is the mass media (across society) attention that has been given to gender, sexual orientation and race equality – for example, media coverage of the debate for and passage of same sex marriage legislation in many countries, the Me Too movement as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. This saturation and high profile and pervasive media coverage has opened many people’s eyes to the prejudice in their communities and importantly through that to question and realise the potential for their own internalised prejudices.
While disability has developed some profile through legal rules aimed at overcoming discrimination (such as the UNCRPD and domestic legislation), mainstream media has not given disability discrimination and the disability rights movement anywhere near comparable coverage so as to bring disability under the mainstream social justice spotlight and into the living rooms and social media feeds of the broader community. In Australia, this fact is easily demonstrated by the relative non-coverage by all forms of media of the current Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability and the relative disassociation of the Royal Commission from the Australian disability rights movement. This is a real tragedy as the Disability Royal Commission, at least in Australia, had the potential to be a ‘once in a generation’ seismic “social attitudes changing” event, desperately needed to accelerate attitudinal change in the face of hundreds of years of concerted ableism – accentuated in particular by the eugenics ideology that gripped the western world at the beginning of and well into the 1900s and whose implied bias legacy remains insidiously and implicitly entrenched in the DNA of our modern institutions and professions well after the formal demise of eugenics with Nazi Germany.
The UNCRPD is the only international treaty that explicitly recognises a role for the media industry to help the realisation of the human rights of a minority – being people with disability – because of its potential, if utilised appropriately, to alleviate (rather than to affirm) prejudice.
Coordown’s campaign, with its largely smiling actors and catchy jingle, is another example of the amazing creative talent of the “two Lucas” of the Small New York creative agency, with whom Coordown has consistently partnered since 2012 with the groundbreaking ‘Integration Day’ video campaign. Like many of their previous award winning campaigns, this one finds a way to use ‘mass media’ penetrating platforms, lubricated by humour and music, to deliver a ‘mind opening’ message – which is critical, as one cannot overcome their own prejudice until they realise its existence – especially the potential for its subconscious existence and its exclusionary impact on others.
[Header image: Banner photograph shows the words ‘Ridiculous Excuses Not to Be Inclusive’ in 3 dimensional yellow and purple font overlaid on a photograph of a woman with black hair and dark brown skin wearing a knitted woollen hat and winter clothes with her arm on the shoulders of a child with dark brown skin wearing a knitted woollen hat and winter clothes. The child’s facial features indicate that he has Down syndrome. Both are looking sideways in a disapproving manner.]