By Laurence Clark
The Independent 21.10.11
I’m no stranger to using taboo words about disability in my comedy. Three years ago I took my stand-up comedy show ‘Spastic Fantastic’ to the Edinburgh Fringe. The show followed my attempts, as someone with cerebral palsy, to reclaim the word ‘spastic’. These attempts ranged from slipping the word into conversations at parties to posing on the streets as a market researcher for Spazz Stick lipbalm (which really does exist). I even filmed my acapela boy band of people with cerebral palsy, called ‘Spastic Fantastic’, performing to passers-by on the South Bank.
In many ways disabled comics can get away with this sort of close-to-the-bone material by approaching it through our own personal experiences of disability. This can often be to the envy of non-disabled comics who can all too easily come across as ignorant or insensitive when trying to tackle edgy disability material.
I used my show ‘Spastic Fantastic’ to test my theory that the press would much rather focus on what to call disabled people, as opposed to what we’ve got to say. This theory was borne out by the fact the show got far more publicity and, as a consequence larger audiences than anything else I’ve done to date. I’m pretty sure this theory is not lost on Ricky Gervais too!
For Gervais to argue in yesterday’s Independent that the meaning of ‘mong’ has now somehow evolved to a point where it no longer has connotations for people with Down syndrome simply doesn’t ring true to me. Granted, in modern culture the word has now taken on other meanings, such as being slow on the uptake and gurning after taking ecstasy tablets, however these meanings can clearly be traced back to the original.
If Ricky Gervais has the courage of his convictions then he should take his argument about how the meaning of ‘mong’ has changed to a self-advocacy group of people with learning difficulties, such as People First. I’m sure they would waste no time enlightening him as to exactly how this word is still used in hateful, malicious ways against them.
However whilst I think Gervais’s argument is wrong, I would always defend his right to free speech without censorship. I’d never want disabled people to be treated as ‘special cases’ or ‘off-limits’ as this could potentially be even more damaging. For far too long we were largely excluded from mainstream media, due I believe in part to ignorance around how to talk about and include us in a positive way. Gervais himself helped turn this around with some brilliantly insightful portrayals of disabled characters in The Office and Extras, and I’ve no doubt there’s more to come with the imminent arrival of Life’s Too Short. However this kind of intelligent, considered comedy writing is a far cry from his recent controversial tweets. Every comic has to make a judgement call with their material and, in this instance I can’t help but think he’s miscalculated.