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Death of empathy – the technology generation gap

Has social media and technology spawned a culture of indifference to the welfare of other people?

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Social Media

So many splendid channels for communication has technology and social media afforded us. But it has a most misfortunate side-effect: it spawns a culture of indifference to the welfare of other people.

This especially includes marginalised groups, such as working carers, older people, people with disability, Indigenous people, and those from a low socio-economic background.

These days, a lot of people are closer to their ‘devices’ than they are to their fellow humans.

Two tragic stories last month underscored the proliferation of this tendency.

In Sydney’s northern beaches area, in an ocean-views home on a busy Palm Beach street, an elderly couple lay dead for weeks before anyone thought to wonder why they hadn’t been sighted lately.

Teenagers film and laugh at drowning man

And in Florida, USA, a group of teenagers shot video of a man with disability who was drowning in a lake, and taunted him as he struggled and screamed for help. Then they posted the footage on Facebook.

Jamel Dunn, 31, a father of two who walked with a cane, got into difficulties in a lake in a place called Cocoa just south of Cape Canaveral and the John F. Kennedy Space Centre. A group of five kids, aged 14 to 16, saw him and started shooting video of him struggling and screaming for help and of themselves enjoying the spectacle and laughing.

They didn’t respond to his cries for help. Nor did they lodge a 911 call. Instead, they taunted Mr Dunn, telling him he was about to die. When he failed to come up the last time, one of them declared: “Oh, he just died.” Which cracked them all up. Then they posted the video and it went viral on the internet.

The body wasn’t recovered until three days later when a friend of the Dunn family saw the video and called the police.

This was happening a few miles from the site of one of technology’s greatest triumphs, the launching of the Apollo 11 mission that put men on the moon.

Have a real conversation with your elderly neighbour

Facebook figured, too, in the Palm Beach story. After the bodies of Geoffrey Iddon, 82, and his wife, Anne, 81, were discovered, the NSW Police Northern Beaches Local Command put up a post: Time to put down those iPhones and iPads … and have a real conversation with your elderly neighbour.

The cruel irony in the Iddon case is that there exists technology by which the alarm might have been raised in time to save Mrs Iddon at least, an arm of that same splendid communications technology that cast such a thrall that nobody took any interest in them for weeks on end.

The Iddons weren’t Facebook people. But they were real human beings. Mrs Iddon was blind and had very little mobility. Mr Iddon, who was apparently in good health, and worked as a volunteer, was her sole carer. They treasured their independence and insisted they needed no outside help.

It appears that Geoffrey died of natural causes some time in June. It isn’t known how long Anne lay there calling for her husband before she died of starvation and dehydration.

A technology generation gap

Superintendent Dave Darcy, who posted the Local Command’s Facebook message called on people to pay more attention to elderly people in their communities.

“I reckon they should get off their Facebook for 20 minutes and spend a bit of time with some older people and get to understand what they’re about,” he told the ABC. “Life is a team game and you need a few other people around you to make sure you’re successful sometimes.”

He points to what might be described as a technology generation gap.

“Our elderly, particularly in that 70s to 80s group, are completely left behind in terms of social media. A friend to them isn’t the click of a button. A friend to them is someone who exchanges eye-contact and genuinely cares about them.”

The Iddons, he said, were “a fiercely independent couple, life-long partners, where the husband was a very good and diligent carer for his wife. They were very resistant to help from health services and medical services.”

As recently as May 4 they had been visited by NSW Community Health officers, but said they needed no assistance.

Another police officer, Superintendent Rob Critchlow of the Hills Local Area Command, who has a focus on the protection of the elderly, said that, in a sense, the Iddons were their own victims.

“It’s a tricky one because they were pretty functional within their own limits. They weren’t being victimised by anyone. They had resources.”

He told the ABC that some experts described that kind of independence as ‘self-actualised abuse’. A failure to seek or accept assistance was “seen medically as a form of abuse but not involving a third party”.

Rob Critchlow told the ABC that there is now alarm technology of high sophistication available to carers of elderly people.

There are sensor devices that pick up movement, or the lack of it. There are GPS-type systems that track the person’s location. It is possible, Superintendent Critchlow said, to put “a virtual fence around an elderly person’s property in case they wander”.

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School ill-treatment of students with disability

 

Another series of stories has surfaced about the ill-treatment of students with disability in schools.

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Parent Carer Image 2

The ABC’s 7.30 Report ran a story last month on yet another child with disability being mistreated at school.

The student was caged. Another student was bullied so badly at school he became suicidal.

In the first case, Emily Dive has lodged a complaint against the Victorian Education Department with the Australian Human Rights Commission on behalf of her eight-year-old son, Lachlan Murrell, who is autistic and has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Ms Dive, a working carer, claims that Lachlan was held for hours on end in a two-metre square plywood cell with a peephole in the door and no windows. He had been shunted from school to school and a year ago, was expelled for allegedly assaulting a teacher. Lachlan hasn’t set foot in a classroom since.

“He has no self-esteem,” Ms Dive told the 7.30 Report. “He has no self-worth. He has no identity as a student. Socially, he’s missed out on a lot of opportunities and obviously academically as well.”

Complaints taken to Human Right Commission

The Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino, has ordered an independent investigation into the claims.

According to the 7.30 Report, the case is one of six disability discrimination complaints currently before the Human Rights Commission involving allegations of physical restraint, seclusion and exclusion from schools. There are another five cases before the Federal Court. Some involve working carers.

One of the HRC cases involves a young boy with autism who was subjected to bullying so severe he became suicidal. The boy’s parents are claiming that the school did not take adequate measures to ensure that the bullying stopped.

As is so often the case, when the child with disability rebels against their circumstance, it’s them who carry all the blame and shame. The boy in this case was suspended from the school several times and, finally, expelled because of ‘behaviours which were symptoms and manifestations of his disabilities’.

It is never admitted that ‘behaviours’ might be symptoms and manifestations of a failing system.

According to Julie Phillips of Disability Discrimination Legal Service Inc in Melbourne, state governments across Australia are doing nothing to rectify situations like the ones in the above two examples.

“I would hope that the conversations we’re having now strike a chord with departments of education because they tend to ignore all the evidence that the system is broken … Instead of thinking about ‘what shall we do with these kids, where shall we put them? [they should] concentrate more on resourcing the schools.”

Children with disability paying for inadequate system

As it is, it’s children with disability, their families – many of whom are working carers – who are paying the price for inadequacies in the education system.

A starting point for an effort to fix the ‘broken’ system would be recognition of the fact that a student who is ‘different’ may very well need someone to mediate between him/her and the system, to intercept and divert behaviours which are ‘symptoms and manifestations of his disabilities’.

The system needs to employ and train specialist educators and teacher-aides to guide children coming from segregated environments on their entry into the strange, and very often unwelcoming, new world of mainstream education.

Attitudes need to be corrected. Aides and teachers too need to understand that the presence of a student who is different can benefit the whole class, particularly in the matter of tolerance and charity. And that surely must be a plus in a world where there is so much hostility to ‘otherness’.

The authorities commanding the system need to realise that positive outcomes are possible. Certainly, they cannot be achieved by putting kids in cages or cells.

Australian Human Rights Commission:

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Level 3, 175 Pitt Street, SYDNEY NSW 2000

GPO Box 5218, SYDNEY NSW 2001

Telephone: (02) 9284 9600
National Information Service: 1300 656 419
General enquiries and publications: 1300 369 711
TTY: 1800 620 241

The NSW Disability Discrimination Legal Centre provides free information, advice and representation in relation to disability discrimination law for people with a disability, their associates, disability organisations and community legal centres. The centre employs a full-time solicitor assisted by volunteer law students.

Phone: (02) 9310 7722

1800 800 708

Text Telephone Number: (02) 9313 4320

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Website: http://www.ddlcnsw.org.au

Postal Address: PO Box 989, STRAWBERRY HILLS, 2012