By Catia Malaquias
Social and on-line media have carried the story of George Jasonides, a 24 year-old Autistic man whose support worker, while accompanying him on a shopping trip, was allegedly confronted by the manager of a Spotlight store in Victoria, Australia and told to “put him on a leash” as he “scared” customers. The manager then allegedly followed the pair around the store “like they were criminals” and slammed the door of her office while the support worker tried to speak in George’s defence.
George had apparently never done anything “wrong” in the Spotlight store, which he had visited countless times before.
The incident left Claudia, his support worker, in tears and George traumatised. George’s sister Natole Jasonides said:
“He held Claudia’s hand the whole way home and his palms were clammy which is not typical of him – he was visibly anxious. He hasn’t been himself all week … He has been going to bed early which is his coping mechanism. He is good at sensing vibes …”.
The experience no doubt has robbed George of his right to enjoy his community, to be part of it, like everyone else. As his sister said in her Facebook post:
“… it is a basic human right to have the ability to freely access the community. … George was robbed of this basic human right …”.
So how did Spotlight Australia, a large national business, respond? It made a public statement to 7 News that it is in contact with George’s family to offer “our sincere apologies”. So far so good, but then the statement for public consumption adopts the too common and too hollow “sorry if you were offended” position, and then only if it happened:
“We have spoken to the store team in question and wish to express that any offence that was given, does not reflect the values of Spotlight.
We are a family business committed to our communities and our doors are open to all. We have taken statements from all staff members and all of them say those words about ‘on a leash’ were not used.”
If the words “on a leash” really were not spoken, is the incident any less disgusting? Is it somehow better for the store manager (or the team) to have simply made clear that George was not welcome in the store?
If the reason George and his support worker were confronted related to his cultural background, his race or his sexuality, we would expect that Spotlight’s apology would have extended to all people of that cultural group, that race or of that sexuality.
But when the reason a person is insulted, excluded or discriminated against relates to their disability, particularly intellectual disability, the apology rarely extends to people with that disability as a group. Somehow it is more acceptable for the “atoning” to be limited to the specific individual or their family. Earlier this year AFL footballer Heath Shaw rightly apologised to a fellow footballer with no intellectual disability for calling him the “r-word”, but no apology or other recognition of the broader slur on people with intellectual disability and their families was offered.
Spotlight Australia, a major Australian retailer, has an opportunity to make a statement that goes some way to counter discriminatory attitudes in our communities and to help make a difference to people with intellectual disability. That is something George Jasonides’ sister will appreciate and she has articulately prepared the groundwork for such a statement in the final paragraph of her Facebook post:
“Today I shed a tear for our community if these antiquated attitudes still exist. As a young person, I truly thought we had transcended as people – especially in Australia. We are edging our way to becoming a more tolerant society, with less prejudice and more understanding of all kinds of people. I am not writing this because he is my brother. Sure, it offends me and breaks my heart but George represents an extremely vulnerable minority. A minority that quite often doesn’t have a voice. …”
This is more than about George – it is about everyone – everyone like George who experiences discrimination because of disability and who is made vulnerable because of prejudice and everyone who loves or cares for someone like George – and it is also about educating everyone else who should know better. That is taking and showing corporate social responsibility.
[Cover photo © Ali Yahya]