Political Correctness (PC) has a number of definitions under the FreeDictionary. For example the dictionary defines political correctness as; “…relating to, or supporting broad social, political, and educational change, especially to redress historical injustices in matters such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.” (We will forgive them for leaving out disability) By such a definition I am politically correct to the extreme. It also defines PC as. “… Being or perceived as being over-concerned with such change, often to the exclusion of other matters.” I am not sure that you can really be over-concerned but again, there you have it, I am PC – Absolutely.
BUT scroll down and you will see further definition of PC as; “..avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against” By this measure I am very unPC. I have a very dry and often black sense of humour. I laugh at a variety of jokes whether they are about gender, disability, sex or death. Often my humour can be very offensive. Socially, in my aspirations to improve the lot of people with a disability, I am a champion of PC. Ethically by my use of jokes about sensitive topics I often am very unPC. Of late I have read a couple of articles by social commentators that have made me question my moral compass in regards to PC.
Shirley Stott Despoja, writing in the Adelaide Review, has written a thought provoking piece, You gotta laugh. Oh no you don’t. Stott Despoja highlights that we often laugh about things that we fear. We fear death, so to make light of it we make jokes about it. We fear losing our hearing so the deaf become figures of fun and so on. ( http://www.adelaidereview.com.au/article/1275 )
Stott Despoja is at loss as to why people laugh at demeaning jokes. She provides an example of dementia jokes that are being circulated among her older peers. Stott Despoja’s stance on this issue is so strong that she even refuses to air the joke publicly again.
She decries the fact that her peers belittle themselves with such jokes. For Despoja this is the ultimate human indignity. She points out that, “The follies of youth or the insecurities of middle age are hardly ever the subject of such vicious, demeaning and dismissive jokes” This is debatable but the question remains, why do we demean ourselves and others so? How do people who are experiencing the horror of dementia feel about these jokes? How do jokes about dementia make the families of dementia sufferers feel? What of those who have early onset dementia? Do they just laugh … “Oh that will be me later, hohohoho.” It would be mortifying for families and sufferers to read or hear such jokes. Regardless so many of us still laugh and make such jokes. Something is not quite right.
Last week I read a piece by the incomparable Stella Young who let fly at journalist Joe Hilldebrand who sent a message via Twitter that read, “I just want to say I think it’s great that Sydney Airport is providing so many jobs for the mentally handicapped” Mr Hilldebrand was not being complimentary. He was frustrated at the effectiveness of the Sydney Airport staff and so saw fit to describe them as being mentally handicapped. Ms Young believes Mr Hilldebrand’s Tweet was offensive because it suggests that people with intellectual disabilities are “Crap”. ( http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-08/young-disability-is-not-a-cute-little-joke/3817824 )
Ms Young suggests that disability is seen on two platforms, the real and the unreal. The real is where people have a lived experience of disability. They know someone with a disability and as a consequence take disability seriously and treat them with respect. The unreal is where people see disability as some sort of fictional fantasy realism. They make cheap shots and jokes about disability. Mr Hilldebrand suggesting that people with intellectual disabilities in the workplace are incompetent is an example of this . Says Young, “…people living with disabilities deserve to be respected because that’s what a benevolent society does – it treats everyone with respect.” Hilldebrand apparently has 15 000 followers on Twitter. His influence is great. But whether you have 15 000 followers or two, suggesting that people with intellectual disabilities are “crap” at work or anywhere is disrespectful and unwarranted.
And people with intellectual disabilities do get it. I vividly recall working with a group of young intellectually disabled people as part of a national job placement program. They would often tell me stories about how they were teased at school or how people would make cutting remarks about them in public places. It had and has an enormous impact on their self esteem
It is worse because many people with intellectual disabilities lack the capacity to fight back. Unlike someone like myself for or Ms Young, for example, who can make a witty come back or write a scathing piece and print it on a national website to defend ourselves. People with intellectual disabilities, and indeed any disability, are often figures of fun and bullied at school. For this to continue into adulthood must be excruciating.
Stella Young herself is an interesting study in PC. Ms Young seemingly pokes fun at herself as a way of bringing attention to disability issues. In reality she pokes fun at societies attitudes towards disability. In an article available at Watch Out For Ms Young describes herself as a, ” bona fide cripple, in da wheelchair” In another interview in The Age, Lunch with Stella Young, Ms Young explains her use of the term cripple. Says Ms Young, “I call myself a crip and people get a bit up-in-arms about it,” She explains that she finds that using the term Crip is empowering not unlike the use of the word queer by many gay people. BUT says Ms Young, “I would never presume to call another person who was disabled that I just met a crip.”
This is probably because not everyone is in a good place about their disability. In a world that tries to NORMALISE everyone many feel that disability is something one must hide. Perhaps for Young being able to use the term Crip about herself demonstrates that she has no hang ups with her disability. In not presuming to call another person a Crip Ms Young acknowledges it is not the same for every person with a disability and that one must exercise a degree of sensitivity. This is what being PC is all about.
I am pretty much on the same plane as Ms Young. I delight in being called a Crip by my close friends even though I am deaf. I might moan and groan about lack of captions on the television and Paul, my able bodied friend who has been in the disability sector for 133 years, will say, “You poor cripple.” I accept this as the ultimate sign of acceptance. But Paul would never say that to just anyone. To know when and where you can be PC while being totally unPC is about having the ‘REAL’ experience of disability. But the ‘REAL’ experience is personal and one should never presume that everyone’s experience is the same. This is why Stott Despoja finds public jokes about disability so offensive, particularly the demeaning ones such as the one used by Hilldebrand. They are not just offensive but they are also dangerous in that they often promote stereotypes of disability as ‘USELESS’.
I still struggle with PC. Stella Young is a prime example. Ms Young is a person with a disability. She is a person who uses a wheelchair. She is a person of short stature, or is she a person with an acquired form of dwarfism? (She actually has a kind of bone condition.) Or is she just a person? Or is Ms Young a woman with a disability who is a wheel chair user and of short stature? I, who have been in the disability sector for over 20 years, still struggle to come up with the right language to use. In fact I have long since given up trying.
And this is one of my pet hates about PC. You see PC is something that many people hide behind because they cannot accept people with disabilities just as they are. For many on the PC bandwagon being PC is a tool to deny the existence of disability. We once had the term handicapped. This became negative so they came up with the term disability. Disability referred to the physical condition that you have while the handicaps were the barriers that your disability caused you. Then of course we had deaf, which became hard of hearing, which changed to hearing impaired. But then people took offense to the impaired part and wanted to change it back to hard of hearing. Now we can have people of varying abilities, the differently abled or the access challenged. Men are alternate sex 1 while females are alternate sex 2 (I made that one up) But, my point is it gets ridiculous. For me the ultimate unPC is to try and find a label for a group of people that denies they exist and attempts to NORMALISE them.
But the ultimate-ultimate unPC is for those that represent you to deny you your voice. This is the new age fad. This where a group of five or six people that hide behind the placard of ELECTED representatives decide that we are all wrong and present the exact opposite of what we tell them we want to the Government. To them we are all just faceless people in the crowd making senseless and uninformed noise. To me that’s just as offensive as the Hilldebrand Tweets.
For now think twice about that disability joke you are about to distribute via email of Facebook. The Real experience of many may not match your own and offense is often taken. Worse, like with the Hildebrand Tweet, it can promote negative stereotypes. It is these stereotypes that we people with disabilities are all trying to overcome. Let’s not make it any harder than it already is.