How A Devastating Hate Crime Provoked Sinéad Burke's Powerful New Campaign
Through the group Little People of Ireland, Sinéad Burke is visiting schools across the country and facilitating conversations with the next generation in a bid to stymie hate crime and promote difference as a point of unity for us all.
I'm the kind of person who spends a considerable amount of time perusing the menu of a restaurant before sitting down to order. But being disabled, the act of going to lunch with a friend means that the menu is often the last thing to be considered. Just over a month ago, I heard about a new Japanese restaurant that seemed to appear overnight and was getting a bit of buzz in my hometown of Dublin. Ringing ahead to enquire about accessibility, I learned that there was a mix of high and lower seating, that the entrance was flat and that even though the serving counter and cash register would both be out of my reach, staff promised to assist me.
And so, on a Tuesday afternoon a few days later, I got off the bus and turned left on O’Connell Street, one of Dublin’s main thoroughfares. It felt like the first day of spring and I was looking forward to meeting my friend as I passed the Department of Education and saw the restaurant up ahead. The street wasn’t bustling but it wasn’t quiet either. As I got closer, two boys, no older than 16, walked past me. One nudged the other, pointed to me and they both laughed. 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.
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.
I 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. People walked past. They saw my distress - but kept walking, even though I needed them to ask me if I was okay. I called my Mam. Her warm hello quickly turned to worry, but she knew to immediately try and remind me that other people’s actions do not equate to my value or validity as a person. She also told me to report it as a crime, which I did. An Garda Síochána, Ireland’s police, responded immediately and set about opening an investigation.
In my work as an advocate and campaigner, I have a lot of time for the police. Over the past three years, Little People of Ireland (Ireland’s national organisation for little people and their families) has developed an essential relationship with the Gardaí. Sergeant David McInerney, its Diversity Officer, attends our annual convention and speaks to members on their right to exist without harm or harassment, and the responsibility of the Gardaí to uphold and protect them. In turn, I speak to the graduating police in the Garda Training College and try to widen the lens on how they perceive hate speech and hate crime. Mostly, I ask them to root their policing in empathy.
Yet, back on O’Connell Street, I couldn’t help feeling that, even though it was the right thing to do, calling the police wouldn’t be enough. If those boys were taken in and questioned, what would they learn, other than to not get caught? They would likely not gain any understanding of how the arrogance of being able to jump four feet in the air had frightened me in such an aggressive way. They wouldn’t see how scared I was or how easily they could have kicked me in the head or neck and caused serious physical harm. They would not be asked to answer questions about peer pressure or the importance of saying no when called upon to be an accomplice. Social media can be a powerful tool; it can be used to empower, to be a catalyst for change, but it can also be weaponised. Cruelty finds home in anonymity.
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. Through Little People of Ireland, I visit schools across the country and facilitate conversations with the next generation on what it means to be different and how that concept unites us all. But I wanted to reach the schools, the children and the community in the specific area where the incident happened.
The NEIC is a social and economic regeneration project for Dublin’s North East Inner City. It aims to transform culture and provide opportunities for communities to flourish. My friend Michael Darragh MacAuley is one of its programme officers. After speaking to the Gardaí, my second phone call was to him. 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. Being in those classrooms these past few weeks has been an enormous privilege. Children ask the most extraordinary questions - some wanted to know if I could drive, if I was married, where I bought my clothes, every detail about the role as a Contributing Editor at British Vogue, and what it feels like when people are cruel.
Speaking with children reminds me of how uncomfortable adults are talking about things that we do not know or understand. We choose not to ask questions, we harness discomfort as fear and create a system where we only speak to those who look, think and see the world like us. This is a learned behaviour, not one that comes naturally, which means that it can and hopefully will change. We each have the power to make that difference. This change can take shape in so many different ways: How often do you ask "Whose voices and perspectives are not being considered?". 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.