Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Catastrophe of casual disablism.

Like pretty much everyone I love Catastrophe. The show written by and starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan details a couple struggling with all the issues that couples struggle with. Family, work, sex, illness, ageing parents and siblings.

It’s written with huge heart and it brilliantly observes the struggles of us all. In the second series the issue of foetal testing in relation to Downs Syndrome was also broached with great integrity and compassion.  It was done without being judgemental because the characters are relateable and the writing was sensitive and measured, whilst still being funny and kind.

If any casual bigotry surfaces, it’s met with a grimace or frown.  It’s brilliantly judged because as with all great writing no subject is taboo but it’s dealt with.

On Sunday I caught up with last week’s Catastrophe.  It was World Autism Awareness Day and I’d been tweeting my film out as I do every year and this year as with many years recently, the terrain for disabled people is tough going. There’s a hardening of attitude from government and a tabloid need for scapegoats, so disability benefit claimants are hounded by the DWP and the public is accepting of it. So I needed to take a break and to vaccinate my brain with laughter.

Watching Catastrophe was wonderful as always. Funny, heartfelt and sad in equal measure.  Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are as wonderful on Twitter as they are in character. Tackling the nonsense of Trump and the horrors of sexism, the trampling of women’s rights to their own reproductive choices and the cruelty of anti-refugee rhetoric.

They’re admirable and really well liked for very good reason.

Then watching the show, I felt like I’d missed a step walking down the stairs.  

On a trip home to Ireland to visit her dad, Sharon’s brother Fergal produces a photograph of her as a  teenager and as brothers, do he mocked her. When he was asked where he got the photo from, he replied,

“Oh Sharon used to be a flight attendant for retarded slut airlines”

Then all three characters laugh.

No frown, no question, just a big laugh.


That’s where the problem lies. Fiction, as I’ve always said on the subject of pejorative insults, needs to be free to use language which is unpleasant, because it needs to be highlighted as the actions of unpleasant people. No writer should sanitise the world with censorship to make it as we would wish.

In fiction we can see that unpleasant people, unpleasant characters will use bigoted phrases to reveal themselves as bigots, racists, misogynists and homophobes. This is also true of disablism.

Where I felt the step was missed was that Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan gave the joke legitimacy. It was ok, because Sharon laughed. It was funny. It was fine.

It was the laughter that changed it from an unpleasant comment to acceptable ridicule. Irrespective of who it was aimed at the word "retarded", is still a punch in the guts. Because it mocks learning disability, not teenage fashion choices. 

"Spastic Slut" and "Mong slut" would do that too, but retarded is the last acceptable bigotry because "loads of people say it" so that must mean it's ok.

The problem is that when a well loved character laughs at a joke which uses “retarded” or any disablist slur as it’s axis, at it’s root, then it sends a clear message that this is more than ok. 
Laughter is the fastest communication of any stigma intentional or not.

It’s very difficult to raise this as an issue because of the popularity of the programme and it’s makers but actually the normalising of the joke by popular people is the problem. We can’t just question the choices of people we loathe, or disagree with, we have to question everyone or we’re cherry picking examples of the issue to suit ourselves.

The treatment of learning disabled people, particularly in this political climate is worrying and dire. To call out disablism is key. Casual disablism is no different. 


I don’t ever ask for language to be banned. I ask for people with a public profile, with the luxury of popularity and with the privilege of creative freedom, to decide whether normalising stigmatising attitudes, really is the serving their core integrity. Or whether in encouraging millions to laugh at a joke with disability at its core, they're actually doing the same as those they decry.


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