(Source: Ramp Up)
What’s that thing they say on the Twitter? Oh, yes. *headesk*
Perhaps one of these days we’ll get through a week without a media commentator revealing their ableism. Unfortunately, that week is not this one.
Joe Hildebrand, News Limited columnist and regular panelist on Q&A, was clearly frustrated at Sydney Airport yesterday, judging by this tweet:
I just want to say I think it’s great that Sydney Airport is providing so many jobs for the mentally handicapped.
Oh dear. Looks like we’re going ‘there’ again.
So Joe’s received some poor customer service? Encountered some people who aren’t doing their job to the standard he expects? Gotten a bit grumpy in the long queues?
Once again, disability rears its head in social media and invokes what I like to call The Two Hand rule. On the one hand, disability is something Real. It’s experienced by real people and treated seriously by people who don’t directly experience it. Everyone probably has at least a passing acquaintance with someone who has a disability. After all, we make up about 20 per cent of the Australian population, whether you have the type that’s visible to the naked eye or not. And in sage conversations, we all like to murmur amongst each other and agree that, yes, people living with disabilities deserve to be respected because that’s what a benevolent society does – it treats everyone with respect.
And on the other hand, we have the Not Real kind of disability. The one you can use to make cheap jokes to score cheaper points. It’s this kind of Not Real disability that presumably led Hildebrand to compare, for the benefit of his almost 15,000 strong twitter followers, workplace incompetence to intellectual disability.
Look, I empathise with the guy, I really do. I find being at airports stressful too. Although I’m generally more worried about whether my wheelchair will get broken in the cargo hold, whether it will end up on the same plane as me, the fact that I haven’t had a coffee or even a sip of water that morning because I can’t get to the toilet on a plane and where on earth I might find wheelchair repair people if my chair is, in fact, not operational when I finally get it back. But I totally get it – customer service that isn’t quite to your liking can be very, very bad.
And the man was just making a joke, right? Why does the PC Brigade have to ruin everything?
Like the countless people who make thoughtless jokes about disability, I don’t think Joe Hildebrand was conscious of the ableism inherent in his silly joke. But it was there. And the thing with speaking from a position of privilege is that you’re not often asked to think about how your language affects other people – and when you are, it seems everyone jumps up and down complaining about how the system is oppressing their freedom of speech, with little thought for those whom the speech routinely oppresses.
Much like the LGBT community has to deal with people (okay, mostly teenagers – the rest of us have finally cottoned on that it’s more than a little bit homophobic) referring to things that are a bit shit as ‘so gay’ in our post-ironic society. I find it hard to imagine Hildebrand referring to the staff at Sydney Airport as ‘so gay’ – so why is it still okay for disability to be treated as synonymous with subpar performance?
Hildebrand’s tweet is offensive because it uses disability as a shortcut to mean “crap”. And in doing so, he reveals a subtle and no doubt unconscious contempt for disabled people that is still rife in our culture. At best, it displays a blatant ignorance of the very real barriers faced by people with disability, some of which, ironically, are employment and air travel. At its worst, it assumes that jokes like these are okay – because they’re not about anyone important. Perhaps it’s assumed that people with intellectual disabilities won’t ‘get it’ anyway. That they can’t be hurt by a joke they don’t understand.
Let me assure you, intellectual disability does not preclude you from being aware that you’re being made fun of. It doesn’t stop that kind of bullying from being hurtful. And sadly, this kind of ridicule is all too familiar for people with intellectual disabilities. It doesn’t stop when they leave the schoolyard because, unfortunately, they continue to cop it from their adult peers for the rest of their lives.
But even if those who are the butt of these jokes didn’t understand them, is that really the kind of society we want to be? One that turns a blind eye to cruel, exploitative humour at the expense of vulnerable people who can’t fight – or tweet – back?
Joe Hildebrand is a professional journalist and a high profile media commentator. By engaging in this kind of behaviour, he reinforces the idea that these kinds of base, schoolyard taunts are acceptable. Disability is not a cute little joke. And as a white, middle-class, non-disabled man, it is certainly not Joe Hildebrand’s cute little joke.
People will no doubt defend it as harmless, as humour of this kind always is. They’ll dismiss any criticism as the kind of kneejerk, uptight reaction you expect from the Fun Police. But humour can only be harmless if by definition it causes no harm. This doesn’t fit that bill.
I’m prepared to accept that Hildebrand didn’t intend to lampoon the disability community. But as someone who’s spent a lifetime on the receiving end of this kind of ‘harmless’ humour, I feel I’ve earned the necessary credentials to determine whether someone is being clever, or simply using us as the convenient punchline to a poorly thought out joke. In Hildebrand’s case, I’m afraid, it was the latter.
Update: Joe Hildebrand has responded to this article via Twitter:
“Just want to say how sorry I am for using the words “mentally handicapped” in a tweet. That was really retarded of me.”
“Just want to say I’m sorry for offending so many people by using the word “retarded” in a tweet. That was really Irish of me.”
“Sorry I just offended so many people by using the term “Irish”. Just having a blonde moment.”
(Source: Ramp Up)