Monday, 21 May 2012

Disability Awareness

The other day, as I nestled into the comforts of a Saturday night with a pizza, I switched the television on. There appeared to be some form of Family Guy marathon going on BBC3, so I shrugged and left it on. The cosy night in turned sour, however, when one of the butt of the jokes happened to be that of an autistic lady in a wheelchair and how her presence would make the characters feel uncomfortable.
I'm not new to Family Guy, I understand that the premise of many jokes runs on off-colour humour but this reasoning does not settle well with me. There are a few problems with this joke:

  • The woman in question was part of a cut-away gag, a cheap flash of a joke that is not intrinsic to the overall storyline.
  • The woman was presented as unfathomable, unrelatable and frightening.
  • Her only purpose for existence was for the 5 seconds of humour. The basis of a real human is reduced to nothing.

Okay, but this is a cartoon, you say! Fine, okay, perhaps you could argue that I'm over thinking a silly TV show. Fine. If you think that what is shown to millions of people is not relative to anything tangible, fine.

Then how about the example of Heidi Crowter, a young lady with Down's Syndrome who was shamefully portrayed as an extremely unfunny meme on the internet? An image of her as a young child was taken from a support group and warped into a ridiculous outlet of 'humour', for the sake of a few cheap laughs.

The portrayal of disability online is tedious, ignorant and truly upsetting to those affected or to those who know anyone affected with it. Rather than shown as an amazing defeat of hindrances, becoming less able either physically or mentally is thrown away as an easy target to make faceless strangers on the internet giggle. They are shown as stupid or completely alien to 'normal' people.

Well, welcome to the internet, you snort and pat yourself on the back for such an original and insightful statement which suddenly makes all low-brow, offensive jokes acceptable.

Let's take it further: real life. My mother suffered from Cerebrospinal Meningitis when she was 2, rendering most of the right hand side of her body unresponsive. She cannot use her right hand, her speech is impaired, she has problems walking. Despite these problems, she grew up into the strongest woman I know and love, the greatest mother anyone can ask for. Any reasonable person would agree.

Children mocked my mum when they saw her in the playground. I heard every abusive term under the sun about her, some that I repeated to my mum in confusion who had to explain that some people can get nasty when they don't understand something or someone. Mum could not even say to me, 'Well, they are children, they will grow up and understand better.'

Adults behaved the same too.

Holding my mum's hand, as we did simple tasks such as going to the shops, I encountered some of the worst behaviour from supposed 'grown ups', such behaviour that upset and disgusted me even as a young child.
Getting on the bus, my mum would ask, 'a child and an adult ticket please'. The bus driver laughs in her face and does nothing. Mum's face flashes with annoyance and repeats herself. Bus driver laughs again. Seven year old me has to step in and talk on behalf of my mum, because apparently it is not clear what an adult and a child wishes for when getting on a bus. This event happened every week.

Some facts:
  • There are over 10 million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability in the UK and disabled people are significantly more likely to be victims of crime than non-disabled people. (Source: British Crime Survey 2009/10).
  • 20% of repeat victims of anti-social behaviour are disabled people.
  • There were 1,569 recorded disability hate crimes across England, Wales and Northern Ireland during 2010, an increase from 1,294 incidents occurring in 2009, according to recent figures published by the Association of Chief Police Officers. (Source:
With such a large presence in British society, it seems strange that attitudes towards the disabled is still mostly negative. Reported hate crimes are on the rise and that only accounts for reported offences; it's easy to estimate that the levels of abuse are far greater and vastly invisible - reports can be denied or ignored, leaving the perpetrators free to continue their attacks.

I believe that such mockery and torment of the disabled that appears as an outlet for 'comedy' is just the foundation for something more extreme and horrifying. If you can dehumanise somebody into a joke or a meme, you can take that further and dehumanise them completely in order to attack. I don't want to police anybody in what's funny or what isn't, we should all be able to understand what is right and wrong but by laughing at such humour against the vunerable, you're giving the thumbs up to the misery and humilation that disabled people face on a day to day basis.

What we need is a vast increase on education, not only in schools but the workplace and on television, too. When we stamp out ignorance, I honestly believe we'll be able to give the disabled a slightly more comfortable living than what they are used to.

To read more, here are some useful websites:


  1. Wonderfully worded post about an issue that more people should be aware of!

  2. As much as I can sympathise with your particular story, circumstances and upbringing, I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill and opening a can of worms (to simultaneously use up my metaphor quota for this post). Why stop at disabilities, why not move the topic on to religion, or race, or sexuality, or gender, or education, or occupation, get the picture, I'm sure. The truth of the matter is, whether you like it or not, it's humour - it's meant in jest, not seriously, and if you take it too seriously you risk getting frustrated and het up about something which everyone else takes for what it is: a joke.

    Comedy, in every way shape and form, has always been offensive to some. It's nothing new, and it'll never stop, and I would hate it if people became too sensitive to let comedians have the freedom to make jokes about whatever they want. The beauty of comedy in the formats it is available in now (TV, DVD, Live show, internet) is that YOU as the consumer can choose whether to watch or listen, or ignore it. Posting things like this, while you may feel admiral and like you're defending something you believe strongly in (for which I applaud), are a little odd when you could just choose not to watch it if you're offended by it. No-one forces you to.

    You may think you're raising awareness of the fact it's nearing a line, or even crossing it. I'm afraid it just comes across as a little self-righteous to post things like this when you probably have laughed at something which is offensive to, say, a policeman or a man, or a Jew. Who's to say it's OK to laugh at them but not this?

    It's all too similar to the uproar and chaos that Jerry Springer: The Opera caused earlier in the decade. People were outraged that comedy dare to touch Christianity. Well, why not? Comedy makes fun of a lot of things. But the key aspect is that it's never to be taken seriously. Comedians like Frankie Boyle (who I detest) cross every line imaginable, but even then they occasionally come out saying that some things weren't treated in the right manner - comedians/script writers, etc have morals too.

    I personally don't get too offended by comedy because it's there to entertain and there's something risque about humour that talks about taboo or sensitive subjects. But if, for example, a politician said similar things about disabled persons, or I saw it happening in the street, I'd be disgusted just as every sane person would be. I just don't think the two are comparable, and that's why I think you're being a little too touchy on this subject when all it is is having a bit of fun in a cartoon (yes, I know you said I'd say that, but oh well).

    Of course it's relatable to real life - that's what makes it funny! Just because we laugh or make jokes about it doesn't therefore mean we condone or agree in real life...that would be a very poor generalisation to make.

    1. You're forgetting that Family Guy is the most unfunny TV show in the entire world, if people want to make jokes about something risqué then do it so its *actually* funny.

    2. Why would I laugh at anything about religion or race either, just because I didn't include it in this post? It's all the same as what I'm writig about. Fine, switch off the TV if it's offensive but for the most part, people can't switch this off in real life at all.

    3. Also, I think you're missing the point a little if you think this is focused entirely on Family Guy, it's just the opener to my issue with disabled people as a whole being used as a cheap gag when laughing about the vunerable is about as funny as pulling my teeth out.

  3. this is an amazing post Holly. you have an incredible talent for getting a point across. :)