Creating a fairer Britain
04 December 2010
There has been much commentary on Frankie Boyle's appearance on “Tramadol Nights” and his ’jokes’ about Katie Price's disabled son, Harvey. I didn't see the programme when it was broadcast, so I watched it on the web to see it for myself.
The jokes about Harvey are distasteful enough, but it surprises me that people are not also talking about the many other jokes and sketches in the programme that relate to disability. These are not worth repeating verbatim, but to give you an idea of the material, Mr Boyle also takes offensive, stereotyped pot-shots at wheelchair users, people with mental health conditions, Stephen Hawking’s disability and cancer victim Jade Goody.
I have been to comedy shows where disabled comedians have made jokes about disability, and they have been really funny. More importantly, they have been empowering and have challenged stereotypes.
But Mr Boyle's disability-related jokes are different. My concern is not just that his jokes are distasteful or hurtful to individuals (and in Harvey's case, someone not in position to stand up for themselves). They denigrate disabled people in a way that implies that they are not real humans, and they are to be ridiculed or feared. As a consequence, this kind of humour perpetuates the discrimination and bad attitudes that many disabled people face.
Yet the “Tramadol Nights” audience is clearly laughing; somehow in their minds it must be okay. I think we have to question ourselves, as a society, about why such jokes are still considered permissible, given racist jokes have more or less disappeared from TV screens in recent decades.
Disabled people are at greater risk of experiencing violence or hostility, including hate crime, than the wider population. At the Equality and Human Rights Commission we are conducting an inquiry into disability-related harassment. One theme emerging from the evidence, particularly where murder or torture has occurred, is that somehow perpetrators have not viewed their disabled victims as human beings with the same human rights as everyone else. The results of our inquiry will be published in 2011 and the final report will make recommendations for how all kinds of organisations might work to eliminate disability-related harassment before it occurs.
From my perspective controversies such as this actually help our cause. Not that long ago, disability-related prejudice directed at the TV presenter Cerrie Burnell created public outcry. The reaction to Mr Boyle's performance indicates that people find these kinds of attitudes unacceptable. Both these incidents speak volumes in terms of just how far we have to move, as a society, in the way that we value, respect and treat disabled people. This debate about what is and is not acceptable will encourage more people to examine their prejudices and hopefully provide stimulus for change.