Discrimination and the Lost Art of Apology

Today I read an ABC News report on an incident where a man with cerebral palsy says he was refused entry to the Adelaide Casino last month because the bouncer thought he was drunk. Mark Thiele had been out with friends in the city and walked a few blocks with them from Hindley Street to the Casino. Due to the physical difficulty with moving his body, even this moderately short distance was an effort: “Walking that sort of distance does get very, very sweaty over that sort of short period.” It seems the combination of his cerebral palsy and the symptoms of obvious exertion convinced the bouncer that Mark was intoxicated, even though he reports telling the bouncer: “I wasn’t a drunk, I was crippled.”

It’s a troubling story, and one that doesn’t appear to be an isolated occurrence.  According to National Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, the allegation that someone with cerebral palsey has been mistaken for being drunk has been made under the Discrimination Act on a number of occasions.

About six years ago I saw UK comedian, Francesca Martinez, at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Her show was smart and funny and at times sweetly barbed. Francesca has cerebral palsy and she opened by telling the audience:  “In case you’re wondering if there’s a word for my condition . . .  it’s sober. When I’m drunk I walk in a straight line.”  (She also cut my then-boyfriend’s chest-length blond hair with a large and decidedly shaky pair of scissors, much to the horrified gasps of the audience. I couldn’t stop laughing. For weeks.)

So I can perhaps understand, to some degree, the bouncer’s initial assumption. What I find harder to understand is why security staff weren’t better trained to identify a medical condition and be able to differentiate it from severe intoxication. Especially once the suspected “drunkard” explained that he had cerebral palsy. (One can only assume that his friends would have backed him up — this detail isn’t given in the report, although it is stated that Mark Thiele was the only one in his party refused admittance.) But I wasn’t there and I don’t know what was going through the mind of the bouncer and what other concerns he might have had that night. Perhaps he was unfamiliar with cerebral palsy and how it physically affects someone. Perhaps he thought Mark Thiele was joking or lying about not being drunk. Who knows? I don’t want to damn a person for possibly making an honest mistake in misunderstanding a situation.

However the response from casino management leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. “It was certainly not our intention that Mark would have felt discriminated against and I’m sorry that he does feel that way,” said David Christian, the casino’s general manager. Is that really supposed to be an apology? I’m sorry you feel you’ve been discriminated against? I’m sorry, Mr Christian, but that’s just bullshit. Your intention and the way Mark Thiele may or may not feel about what happened actually have little bearing whatsoever on what actually happened. It’s the kind of half-arsed string of weasel words that, sadly, seems to serve too often as contrition these days.

As for example: I’m sorry if you feel that my comparison of your face to a baboon’s rear end was insulting.

See how that works? I’m not at all sorry for the insult. Hell, I’m not even admitting there was an insult. I’m just sorry you feel that way. Actually, now that I think about it, I might even be a little hurt by your implication that I was being insulting in the first place. I’m not that kind of person at all! Hmm, now that I think about it, maybe you owe me an apology.

Even worse, David Christian says of his staff: “They believe that they made the right call. I would believe that with the calibre we have and the training we put into our security officers, and the level of management that oversees it, that they would be right most of the time.”

Well, that’s fine, Mr Christian. We already know your staff believe they made the right call. I’m also willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and agree that most of the time they would, in fact, be right. But, in this particular situation, it seems that it was totally the wrong call to make. And instead of actually apologising for what is quite probably a misunderstanding due to a lack of adequate training, and thinking about how you can reduce the likelihood of it happening again, you simply blurt out airy-fairy platitudes about believing and feeling in the hopes everyone will just shut up and forget about it. (Sadly, you’re probably right on that last score.)

Look, I’m not naive. I know there are possible legal implications to an admission of wrong-doing in any form. (Isn’t that right, Mr Howard?) But come on. There are lines to be drawn between admission of regret and admission of culpability. And, you know what? In a lot of cases, all people want is a genuine apology for a genuine error and a promise to make amends in a not necessarily monetary manner.

“I’m really sorry this happened at our Casino,” David Christian could have said. “It appears to have been an honest mistake on the part of our security staff and we will look into that and make sure they are better prepared for such situations in future. We also sincerely regret any embarrassment or disappointment Mr Thiele or his friends experienced and, if they would like to come back again one night as our guests, we would be delighted to shout them all a nice dinner.”

Such a pity he didn’t feel he could say that.


One thought on “Discrimination and the Lost Art of Apology

  1. I was screaming at the television at this report. The Casino’s response was ridiculous and management’s response as an added insult. It beggars belief that in a venue the size of the Adelaide Casino that someone on security staff hadn’t come across some one with cerebral palsy.

Comments are closed.