Ian Macrae reflects on one comedian’s distorted version of the paralympic legacy.
Much in the news because of the 50th anniversary of his most famous “I have a dream” speech, Dr Martin Luther King once defined the three great evils as poverty, prejudice and bigotry. At this time when, as disabled people we are involved in civil rights action and protest of our own, both in terms of the contemporary political and economic environment and of attitudes and discrimination in wider society, each of the three play their part in our on-going oppression.
The impact of poverty is easy to quantify. The threat to Disability Living Allowance which many of us face; the massive effect on many of the loss of Incapacity Benefit in pursuit of an illusory “back to work” agenda; the penalty being imposed on people who have what’s regarded as an “extra” room in their house but which in fact is required by them for valid reasons relating to their impairment, condition or life as a disabled person. All of these demonstrate the reality of poverty.
Prejudice and bigotry can often be less easy to pin down because their roots, like those of a rampant weed can be found reaching far and wide throughout society. For many disabled people, casual verbal abuse in the street is a routine part of daily life. Others are targeted in their homes by people waging campaigns of hate and terror. There may not be flaming crosses on people’s lawns, but the nightly taunts, the dog shit through the letterbox, the constant threat of violence all do their work.
More invidiously there was the recent example of a note slipped quietly through the door of the parent of an autistic child suggesting that they really should consider doing their duty and having the child killed, all, of course, for the best possible motives.
And then we come to those beacons of bigotry, those public figures and performers who think they have the right to spout their offensive and fascistic views because they either believe they have society’s approval for doing so or they don’t care whether they do or not. Most notable among these is comedian Jim Davidson. Having avoided one area of controversy relating to sexual assault, he crashes straight into another with a number of ill-judged and mistimed gags about Paralympic athletes.
Just when everyone else is seeing the potential of Paralympic stars to provide positive role models to disabled youngsters, Davidson targets a couple of them with what passes for his brand of comedy.
Why is it seen as acceptable for him to stand up in public and make jokes about “Midgets”? When I raised this during an interview on the BBC’s radio station for London, Penny Smith, one of the co-hosts of the show said, “Oh he’s a comedian. He makes jokes about everyone.”
This seems a remarkable position for an experienced and respected woman broadcaster to take. Presumably then she’d not object to Davidson continuing the comic tradition of making jokes about fat mother-in-laws.
But let’s analyse it a little more.
What Davidson was reported as saying during his act was “I hate fucking midgets”. This, off the back of a series of lines about Paralympic athletes including Ellie Simmonds. What would the reaction have been if, after a series of disobliging comments about Mo Farah he had said the same thing with “Somalis” replacing “Midgets” as the butt. We can only presume that Penny Smith would accept this as part of Davidson’s general rough and tumble scatter-gun approach.
For me, and I know for other disabled people, the fact that he goes on saying this kind of thing, and the fact that supposedly enlightened broadcasters like Penny Smith feel able to dismiss, even justifies his doing it only goes to show that those two great evils defined by Dr King, prejudice and bigotry are alive, well and alarmingly close to the surface. It also goes to show that disabled people are a long way from fully sharing in that great dream.