Julie Helen: Courage and calm in the face of controversial views on disability

In her weekly column Julie Helen reacts to the interview Brendan O'Connor did with Richard Dawkins
Julie Helen: Courage and calm in the face of controversial views on disability

Julie Helen and her brother Diarmuid.

SOMETIMES, a media interview prompts me to think about activism, integrity and the public voice of activism in relation to people with disabilities.

Fellow Corkonian, Brendan O’Connor conducted an interview with evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins on his weekend radio show recently. I’ll be honest, I deliberately didn’t give the interview all my attention on the first listen. Dawkins is notorious for his views on disability in that he believes having a child with a disability is a negative thing and if parents have a choice, they shouldn’t have a child with a disability.

Obviously, as a person with a disability myself, there is no way I could ever agree with Dawkins and his purely scientific and evolutionary view. If it was a case of survival of the fittest, I would be dead. 

Dawkin’s language and cold and calculated perspective is always going to be inflammatory for me. 

Even when I hear his name, it makes me feel anxious, but I can’t avoid him because that is denying a perspective and everyone is entitled to their opinion, there’s room for us all.

Julie Helen, disability activist, taking part in the Hands Up! campaign earlier this year, to mark International Women's Day.
Julie Helen, disability activist, taking part in the Hands Up! campaign earlier this year, to mark International Women's Day.

The views of Dawkins are not actually what I want to delve deeper into. What is important in this recent interview is how the man interviewing Dawkins reacted to his assertions that having a child with Down syndrome in particular would increase the level of suffering in the world. Brendan has a daughter, Mary, who has Down syndrome. So here was a dad, in front of a microphone, with a man who thinks disability is disastrously negative. I don’t know Brendan personally, I have never met him. I have followed his open and honest accounts of being a dad of a young lady with Down Syndrome and I have always been impressed by his willingness to explore disability.

As a journalist, Brendan stayed so calm when a scientist was asserting an opinion that his daughter may have brought more suffering into the world. Brendan’s questions were considered and measured. He had some incredibly direct things to say, one being “Do you know anybody with Down syndrome?” The answer was no. Dawkins was unable to provide any logical or scientific proof that somebody with Down Syndrome causes suffering, but he thought it was “plausible”.

Brendan O'Connor.
Brendan O'Connor.

Dawkins, I feel, tried to draw Brendan out by saying how he didn’t doubt that he loved his child, and O’Connor immediately dismissed the emotional side of the conversation. 

As a sister of somebody with Down syndrome, I felt like punching the air in triumph when Brendan was subtly discounting Dawkins opinion and letting him know that he could be wrong.

The whole conversation was initially hinged on comments Dawkins had made in the social media sphere about having a child with Down syndrome being immoral. Brendan challenged this, and he got Dawkins to concede that saying so was a stretch too far. Brendan also reminded us that any child who may be “perfect” can cause all kinds of trouble, but we have no way to check it or scientifically predict that it will or will not happen.

I engage in disability groups from all over the world and clips of the interview I am talking about started appearing everywhere.

I experienced immense pride to be able to say “I’m from Ireland”, and claiming Brendan as someone who took on a world-renowned extremist with professionalism and integrity. He represented me as a person with a disability and sibling and his courage and sense of calm was impressive.

Julie writes a column every week in WoW!

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