Entertainment & Culture

Punchlines, prejudice and a lack of disabled actors

Disability rights campaigner, Nicky Clark (@mrsnickyclark), shares this article on the interplay between two of her campaigns, one of which aims to increase the number of disabled actors playing disabled characters and the other to fight against the use of language offensive to people with disabilities.

My role as a disability rights campaigner began informally around the time my girls were diagnosed with Autism but became formal after my daughter Lizzy was cast as Poppy in “Dustbin Baby” for the BBC playing a character with the same condition as herself, Asperger’s Syndrome.

It may seem a bit of drum banging from me as a non-disabled person but, to be honest, the militancy which stalks these issues in terms of who is “allowed” to comment on disability issues and who isn’t is at times frustrating. Those people are thankfully in the minority.

I launched The Don’t Play Me Pay Me Campaign in 2008 after Lizzy was the first person in the UK with Asperger’s Syndrome to be cast as a character with the same condition in “Dustbin Baby” for the BBC and the People not Punchlines Campaign in June 2011 after the vogue focus of disability in comedy as justifiable targets became progressively more widespread. Disability and comedy do go hand in hand but treating disabled people as targets in the Comedy of Cruelty is at odds with the notion of an inclusive society.

For me my two national campaigns dovetail. With far greater inclusion of disabled performers as writers and performers on TV and in advertising, etc we would reduce fear and ignorance of disabled people and reduce the social acceptability of dehumanising approaches. We’ve seen this in portrayals of women, race and sexual orientation as stereotyping diminishes and accurate portrayals increase. The time for accurate portrayals disability is long overdue.

I’ve found the social network of Twitter to be crucial in allowing me to access and engage with people.

Non-disabled advocates (often parent/carers) can sometimes be held in nauseatingly saintly regard. This is irritating. We are as flawed and foible-y challenged as anyone.

Equally frustrating to me is the notion that all disabled people are “stoic little victims”, a charge which actors like Mat Fraser, David Proud and stand up’s and writers like Francesca Martinez and Jack Thorne delight in smacking down.

The issue of disablist language is a key one for me. The way we speak on issues and the language we use can often be traduced as a non-issue in the days of political policy disenfranchisement of disabled people on an unprecedented scale. However it is in the language we use every day that the seeds of abuse are sown and the hate speech in the streets manifests.

Terms like “Mong” “retard” Spaz” and “window licker” – are commonly used and whilst I am opposed to censorship in writing or fiction, I do feel that celebrities with large fan bases should look carefully at the myths and stereotypes they promote and the net effect of bullying they unintentionally provoke.

An epithet for stupid or foolish using hate speech referencing disability is damaging and having seen personally the damage hate speech can do and the length of time this hurt persists, I’m keen for public figures to think again about the ways in which they normalize these terms.

I feel that if a much greater proportion of disabled characters were portrayed by disabled actors then stigmatizing language would be less prevalent, as would – to my mind – cringe-making efforts by non-disabled actors portraying disabled people. Their work may be deemed brave ground breaking and lauded with Oscars but to me they are the artistic equivalent of children using their lunchtimes mocking others for a laugh.

I campaign as I do, not because I wish to halt fun or stem creativity, but in order to I ask comedians like Frankie Boyle to be more creative if anything. Lazy jokes about Harvey Price may bring the shock laugh but are they really all he is? They say much more about him and societies approach to the acceptable face of discrimination than they do about Harvey.  He’s not alone but he’s making a lucrative living from his comedy of cruelty.

As a carer and a campaigner I know it’s a long road and a nuanced issue in these myopic days of ours. Nuanced debate being often replaced by knee jerk labelling, means that I’m seen as the Mary Whitehouse of disablist language.  That’s fine if it brings comfort but this accusation is not true. It’s a stereotype and as entrenched and intractable as the “oppressive” carer/parent or the “victim” disabled person.

We need to open our eyes.  The people who loudly decry all efforts to widen the perception of disabled people, who yell “you’re curbing free speech” have probably never met any disabled people let alone seen things from their point of view.

We are an evolving species are we not? As we learn more we need to adapt. We also need to reflect those adaptations we make, in a similar way to race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. No-one makes racist jokes on TV anymore without rebuke – why should this courtesy not be extended to disability? Why do we still see the mockery of disabled people as the fast track to a second series on C4?

By Nicky Clark

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