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Sticks and Stones: The Problem with Rosie Jones’ New Documentary on Disabled People’s Abuse

The families of profoundly learning-disabled people are involved in a continuous struggle for their most fundamental rights and dignities, writes Stephen Unwin

Comedian Rosie Jones. Photo: S.A.M./Alamy

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It’s not often that the title of a television programme causes so much pain. But the announcement at the beginning of the month that the comedian Rosie Jones is presenting a documentary on Channel 4 entitled Am I a Retard? has appalled many, especially (though not only) people with learning disabilities and their families. 

It seems that the aim of the documentary (which I’ve not yet seen) is to raise awareness of the dreadful abuse directed at disabled people from so many directions. I have long campaigned for awareness about such abusive language, above all because it paves the way for abusive practices, but also because it inflicts such hurt. I am glad that Channel 4 is finally taking the subject on.

Jones’ position, however, was fatally compromised by the fact that she has used exactly such language in her stage shows and has often attacked people on social media as ‘idiots’, ‘morons’ and even, I’m afraid, ‘retards’.

When taken on about this, she has simply ignored the challenges and carried on regardless. I’m told that she has now deleted the relevant social media posts, but screenshots inevitably exist. It calls into question the integrity of the whole undertaking, and it’s disappointing that Jones’ producers – TwoFour and Channel 4 – didn’t do simple due diligence. 

But Jones’ brazen hypocrisy is just one of the problems.

The bigger one is the hierarchy of disability that the title unintentionally promotes. That is, it looks to many as if Jones – who has cerebral palsy, but not learning disabilities – is insisting that because she is so evidently intelligent she isn’t a ‘retard’, and that anyone who calls her one is guilty of the worst kind of ableism.

What this overlooks, tragically, are the 1.5 million learning disabled people across Britain for whom the word was originally designated and who are regularly ignored, forgotten and abused because of their supposedly inferior minds. Indeed, many people have wondered why Jones – who has declared that she wants to reclaim the language – didn’t choose one of the awful words directed at physically disabled people instead. 

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Although Channel 4 and BAFTA has come to Jones’ defence, she has made it plain that the title was at her insistence, even when several young disabled contributors pulled out of the programme in protest.

The row gained fresh heat when the Guardian – which recently used ‘moron’ in the headline of a leading article – published an interview with Jones by the experienced and respected columnist, Frances Ryan. This described the level of online abuse that Jones has faced in sickening detail, as well as her revealing statement that she doesn’t claim to represent all disabled people and can only speak for herself and her own experience. Although it didn’t challenge Jones on her own use of the words, it did mention the three disabled participants who withdrew from the programme and whose protests encouraged others. 

And so, it was upsetting to see a bitter row blow up on Twitter between Ryan – who is also physically disabled – and several parents of young people with severe learning disabilities.

Ryan rightly insisted that the voice of disabled people should be heard and not ‘talked over’ by the non-disabled. But many of us felt she failed to acknowledge the very different sets of challenges that our loved ones face.

My son, for example, now aged 26, has profound learning disabilities, intractable epilepsy and no speech, and can offer no views on the use of the word ‘retard’ or any others indeed. None of us think that our voices are more important than others, but we remain unconvinced that, when it comes to the particular discussion about the language of abuse directed at severely learning-disabled people, we should take second place to people with a very different disability and, frankly, a powerful platform already. At its worst, it felt like we were being gaslit.

The truth is, as Frances Ryan knows well, the pain runs deep.

Parents and siblings of profoundly learning-disabled people are involved in a continuous struggle for their most fundamental rights and dignities, and are doing everything they can to stop them falling into the oubliette that society seems so determined to consign them.

We face every day a ‘meritocracy’ which insists that ‘intelligence’ – however that is defined – is the single most important quality a human being can have, and the endless promotion of the marvellous things that some disabled people can do and the lack of support we so often experience (including, I’m afraid, from high-profile physical disability campaigners) leaves us more isolated than ever.

It all just feeds our nightmares about who will champion our loved one when we are gone. Society, it feels, has abandoned them and it’s not surprising that some of us are worried and angry. 

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History is useful.

The word ‘retard’ was first used in America in the late 1950s as a term to describe learning-disabled people and gradually replaced ‘idiocy’, ‘feeble-mindedness’ and ‘mental defect’, suggesting that such people were simply delayed – en retard – in the so-called ‘great race of life’.

In 1961, the recently inaugurated JFK set up the ‘President’s Panel on Mental Retardation’, resulting in record investment in this area, and ‘retardation’ (more often, ‘developmental delay’) still appears in medical contexts. But, as so often, the word ‘retard’ was taken up as a term of vile abuse, and is now understandably regarded by many learning-disabled people and their allies as uniquely hurtful.

So, what can we do with all this unnecessary division and pain?

The answer, surely, is simple: we should all say – disabled or not, with lived experience or without – that the word ‘retard’ (along with ‘idiot’, ‘moron’, ‘cretin’ and others) promotes an essentially eugenicist mindset, the prime target of which is, and always has been, learning-disabled people, some of whom struggle to answer back, and whose dignities and wellbeing are so often forgotten.

We should commit to avoid using such vile language in the future and persuade others –however big their voice or powerful their platform – to do the same. 

I’m just not convinced that the shock tactics employed by Rosie Jones – and endorsed by Channel 4, BAFTA and the Guardian – will do much to help. They might make things worse. 

Stephen Unwin is a theatre and opera director, writer and teacher

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