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


  1. What an excellent article. I see nothing wrong with non-disabled people challenging oppressive disablist language. Perhaps it is everyone’s duty, if they want to live in a just and equal society (just as we have a duty to challenge sexist, racist and homophobic language if we expect to live in a just and equal society).

    So more power to your elbow!

    Ironic or what, that someone wrote, on the introduction to your article “and the other to fight against the use of language offensive to people with disabilities.” I’m a disabled person (not a “person with disabilities”) and, perhaps, a pedant. And, when it comes to language, I find the use of the term “people with disabilities” utterly nonsensical – except within the context of explaining the Medical Model of Disability – and it is offensive to my eye!

    1. Hi John,

      It’s Martyn here. I am glad you raised the point on language as a) it is important b) I know you have been brewing this comment and c) I can air my views in return.

      Firstly, thanks for taking the time to write and also complement what I agree was a fabulous article.

      I am fortunate enough to have been placed on a disability and diversity training session known as a train the trainer. This led to my training others on the social model of disability for 4 years and grasping how language can oppress individuals.

      However, my good friend and co-editor Srin has been working his bottom off in the city for a law company. He has worked hard on achieving his goals, overcoming societal barriers and staying resilient. He has not, however, been ingrained in the disability rights movement and therefore uses language that may not be ‘on message’ but is nonetheless his own well intended prose.

      Whilst this is not an excuse, especially for a disability publication, it does highlight the notion of where we differ from other disability publications. We believe in giving people their own voice, concentrating on living with a disability and never judging people – even if we disagree.

      Therefore I would urge you and Srin to sit down, discuss why you find ‘persons with disabilities’ offensive (even though the United Nations uses this term) and come to a compromise of whether Srin may change his language, or that you agree to allow individuals to express in a way they feel comfortable.

      It could be detrimental to the movement, but I argue speaking out with a positive message leads to much progress too.

      Whatever the outcome, I know you are both great chaps and I urge everyone to concentrate on removing the barriers that ‘disabled people’ face, whilst just getting out there and kicking ass! 🙂

      Best wishes

    2. Hi John, its Srin here.

      First up, I am sorry for any offence caused. This is not something I would ever intend to do.

      Personally though, I dislike the term “disabled person”. I am a human being, a person first and foremost just like anybody else, who just happens to have a disability. Hence, I prefer to refer to disability as something secondary to who I am. In the same way, I am a person, “with black hair” or “brown eyes” or with “Indian ethnic origins”. These are all secondary physical characteristics that I have.

      However, I recognise that everybody has personal preferences and language is highly subjective by its very nature. What I think is more important is the intention behind the word / phrase. Therefore, when you use the term “disabled person”, I wouldn’t be offended. Although my personal preference is something else, I know that you do not intend to use the phrase to convey any negative or derogatory intention.

      I am 25 years old and have had a disability for all of that time, but the “accepted” language of disability is still very new to me, and in all honesty, academic models still feel a little alien to me. This might sound a little naive, but I simply just go about my life on a daily basis doing the best I can.

      As Martyn says, this is something that needs further discussion so happy to chat about it over a tea / coffee / beer sometime! 🙂

      Warm regards,

    3. @John

      I disagree with your point on using the term person with disabilities. I am from Detroit, Michigan, and here in the US , a ‘person with disabilities’ (PWD) is the accepted phrase. I recognize that there are differences in language between english speaking nations, but this is a slightly petty debate. Disability Horizons, to my knowledge, is not just for a British audience so equally you need to recognize that there is more to disability than words used in particular academic models in a particular country. Disability rights and awareness are global issues and we should be focusing our efforts to stamp out the use of language by so-called ‘celebrities’ that is used intentionally to offend, like the horrible words that the author has highlighted rather than picking battles within the disability community over terms / words that mean fundamentally the same thing.

  2. I think that’s an interesting point, John and I can see where you’re coming from.

    I think the ways in which we refer to ourselves and feel comfortable being referred to are very individual. Personally, I prefer to describe myself as a ‘wheelchair user’ because it states the fact without defining me as a person. The phrase ‘Person/people with a disability’ is understandably often used because it puts the person first and the disability second, which is how I’m sure many of us want to be regarded by able-bodied people, potential employers in particular.

    As far as humour goes, I have a bit of a rough sense of humour about my disability as that’s how I get through the sucky aspects of it. And I certainly don’t think disability should be off limits in comedy, as long as it’s *clever*.

    I love people like Francesca Martinez because her humour is observational and doesn’t seek to denigrate anyone. I think this is the huge mistake that some able-bodied comedians make, they don’t LIVE that experience so really any attempt to make light of it just comes out as crass and hurtful. There have definitely been times when able-bodied writers have written good comedy around disability. The football joke in ‘All About me’ comes to mind.

  3. I agree that there needs to be more disabled actors, but I see that as a different issue to whether disabled characters should be played by disabled people.

    I disagree with the idea that disabled characters must be played by disabled people. If a character was poor or gay, you wouldn’t say that the actor would need to be either poor or gay in order to play that character. Its simply acting, and as an actor myself, it is my job to take on the characteristics of the character I play, whatever they may be.

    Equally, as an aspiring actor with a disability, I see there being a danger of disabled actors being typecasted to only play disabled character roles.

    Rather than creating pressure to force production teams to cast disabled actors to play the roles of disabled characters, I think drama schools, arts funding orgs, the government and society in general need to invest more in developing upcoming disabled talent so that a disabled actor would be winning a role purely on their merit as a fantastic actor.

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