What’s up with him?

by Laurence Clark

BBC Ouch 27th August 2007


The other week I was a little offended by a newspaper article describing me as someone who “has to use a wheelchair and has somewhat drawled speech.” My initial reaction was to think, “If I’d wanted a diagnosis of my medical condition I’d have gone to my GP, not a comedy reviewer!”

I guess we all have our own ways to describe our medical conditions that we feel comfortable with – and ‘somewhat drawled speech’ certainly isn’t one of mine! I’d have sooner they’d written about my comedy material instead.

And yet, as much as we hate being labelled, I think if we were honest with ourselves, deep down all of us would confess to a certain amount of curiosity around other people’s impairments. Human nature seems to demand that we assign labels to everyone around us, even though it’s wrong to do so. Even some of the most die-hard, political disability activists I know are not averse to a quick game of “Guess What’s Wrong With The Person Sitting Over There”, every once in a while.

As I’ve worked on my stand up act recently, I’ve come to realise that telling an audience I have cerebral palsy early on in my set, actually has the effect of putting them at ease. It’s as if I’ve answered some big, unspoken question that they were all thinking but no one dared ask me. I’d previously naively thought that the nature of my impairment was blatantly obvious to anyone who met me.

Of course this natural curiosity extends to other human attributes. At the moment I’m obsessed with Facebook, the social-networking website, as it enables me to look up the profiles of people I know to see what their sexual preference is. For example, the other day I used it to confirm my theory that a friend of mine is bisexual – something that I’d never have the guts to ask them directly. It’s not that I need to know this information or will treat them any differently because of it, it’s just that my sheer insatiable nosiness demanded that I find out.

If only Facebook asked people to declare their impairments as well… I’d never be off there.

Some people take this whole labelling business way too far, however. A few years ago a friend who’s a disability rights campaigner was working at the Tory party conference. Upon approaching a certain MP to get support for her organisation’s campaign on disability and labelling, she was met with a response along the lines of: “It’d be so much easier if they all wore badges displaying what’s wrong with them. It would stop people like me putting my foot in it!”

You can’t help but feel sorry for them, can you?

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