In the early 1980s a horribly racist ‘joke’ did the rounds at my school. One lad in my year, whose family originally came from Pakistan, always laughed along with this joke. We all thought he was a jolly good sport; we weren’t mature, or enlightened, enough to understand why he felt the need to do this. Such a joke would, quite rightly, be unacceptable today, and were anyone to make such a remark in front of his children they would, quite rightly, challenge it.
What has this to do with Down’s Syndrome?
A couple of evenings ago, a fellow DS advocate made a post on her Facebook page after watching the Jonathan Ross show. She wondered how actor Kit Harington, who is also a DS advocate, felt about sitting next to comedian Frankie Boyle, who in the past has made some rather vile and offensive ‘jokes’, mocking children with Down’s Syndrome, their appearance, and in particular the way they speak.
She received a comment from a lady, who would appear also to be the mother of a disabled child, suggesting that we parents of disabled children should ‘thicken our skin’, ‘deafen our ears’ and not ‘waste our time caring what a few individuals say’. She finished by adding ‘it really doesn’t matter’.
But it does matter. And we should use our time productively by not only worrying about what a few individuals say, but actively challenging it. Frankie Boyle has a public platform as a stand-up comedian and TV personality. Lots of people hear what he says, and take notice of it. His ‘jokes’ perpetuate negative stereotypes in the public consciousness, and tacitly suggest that it is acceptable to make fun of disabled people. Perhaps he imagines they can’t fight back. It’s not just a cheap laugh, it’s a form of bullying, and discrimination.
In urging us to ‘deafen our ears’ the lady commenter becomes complicit with Frankie Boyle in suggesting that such ‘humour’ is acceptable. In urging us to ‘thicken our skin’, she makes the parents of disabled children the ‘problem’, by implying that they are over sensitive, and again, that such remarks are acceptable. Her attitude makes disabled people the ‘problem’, instead of the society which dehumanises and discriminates against them. She ignores the fact that, for some people, particularly those with learning difficulties, society itself is the most disabling aspect of their lives.
Disability is not (only) a medical issue. Disability, like race, is a civil rights issue. It is a human rights issue. When Frankie Boyle, and others, make our loved ones the butt of a cheap laugh, they chip away at their humanity, subtly eroding it in the public perception. This leads not only to poor attitudes, but to poor public policy-making and planning, generated by a lack of understanding. It contributes, drop by drop, to the mindset of the politicians who fail to see disabled people and their families as potential voters, and so ignore our needs; who see disabled people as non-productive, and a drain on the public purse – ‘Eaters’ as the Nazis called them, when advancing their extermination policies.
Oh yes – it really DOES matter.