(Image description: The Sun Facebook page, 5 January 2016. Steve and Vicky Carruthers on their wedding day. Text: “I don’t care if my child has Crouzon or Downs Syndrome or any syndrome. We want to bring a life into this world and make our child feel happy, not ashamed, about who they are.” The Undateables star who found love is set to start a family despite abuse.)
The show’s title is problematic – suggesting people with visible differences and disabilities are undesirable, Undateable. The show makes disability a spectacle, and I also believe there is a ‘feel good’ push for the audience (on the verge of inspiration porn), But it is highlighting appearance diversity, which is commendable.
As I wrote here, when sensationalist reality TV shows (especially about disability and visibly different appearances) air, the social media commentary can be brutal. Armchair hate speech is rife.
Another program that aired in the UK this week was Tricks of the Restaurant Trade, and viewers discussed it on social media. Like The Undateables, it featured a person with a facial difference. It caused a stir.
Appearance activism group Changing Faces challenged some of the responses to the program on Twitter. One man said he isn’t sure he’d want someone who looks different sitting at the front of his restaurant. He would be worried a customer’s visibly different appearance would discourage potential customers from entering his restaurant, and appearance could determine where he seated them. You can read the full exchange between @tayhills and Changing Faces from here. This was the part of the conversation that shocked me most:
“@FaceEquality: “.@tayhils @Adam_Pearson You said you “wouldn’t want him sat in the window of [your] restaurant”. Why?”
@tayhils: @FaceEquality @Adam_Pearson “because I wouldn’t want anyone to avoid coming into my restaurant because of his face.”
When challenged by someone else, @tayhills said he wouldn’t put someone who looked different “in the ‘back room’ either. I’d just seat him somewhere comfortable that didn’t affec[t] my business.”
“@adamwisdish95: @tayhils Turn it around, do you make sure that there’s always two pretty girls in the window seat so that people are more likely to enter?
@tayhils: @adamwisdish95 That’s not something I’m opposed to doing either. It would depend on the customer base.”
Imagine @tayhils sat someone out of other customers’ view, so as not to deter business – or worse – refused someone entry into his restaurant because of RACE (Face)?
The hateful, discriminatory, derogatory language towards is concerning. If people are talking like this from their living rooms or on their bus, scrolling through their phones leaving seemingly thoughtless comments, how are they reacting towards visibly different and disabled people in the streets?
Who knows if @tayhills would actually carry out his discriminatory threat if someone with a facial disfigurement entered his restaurant – his bravado might be false. Would he let me in to his restaurant and place me where I’m not in plain view, or would I get lucky and be seated near the window?
But his mere words indicate intolerance and hate speech. Disability activist Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis type 1, (he describes it as “a condition that causes benign tumours to grow on nerve endings – in my case, on my face”), has written how derogatory remarks can lead to disability hate crime.
Adam says disability hate crime is
“any criminal offence where the victim, or another person, thinks it has happened because of prejudice based on their disability, or perceived disability.
But the behaviours I do come into contact with, if left unchecked and unchallenged, can become the origins of such hate crime. Pointing and staring can quickly progress into name-calling, particularly on nights out when alcohol is added to the equation.
It’s in the pub, when I’m having a pint of beer after a hard week of work that I feel at my most vulnerable and exposed.
When people get drunk, they like to call me names. I have been called “spastic”, “elephant man” and “deformed mutant”. Whatever motivates such behaviour, following the definition, this is disability hate crime.”
The judgement and exclusion of people that happens face to face can be tiring. It can be aggressive and demoralising. It can get violent.
The online conversation that goes on around those who look different is just as bad. Perhaps the keyboard warriors have had just as many drinks at home in front of the TV as they do in the pub?! Sadly, programs aimed at raising awareness such as The Undateables can perpetuate discriminatory attitudes towards appearance diversity, and it’s amplified because social media users have an immediate and sometimes vast audience.
My friend Steve Carruthers, one of The Undateables contestants, has found love and recently married (so happy for him!).
(Image: Steve Carruthers and his wife Vicky.)
He has done a lot of media about the series this week. The hate speech Steve (and his wife) endured on social media brought me to tears, with people suggesting the couple should not have children because of the risk of passing on Crouzon Syndrome. The public gallery are weighing into their right and ability to start a family due to his disability. Of course they are.
Steve courageously and graciously responded to some of the social media comments:
“Those posting comments in a negative light your entitled to your opinion but you really know nothing of my upbringing. I was brought up with 3 other siblings with the exact same condition one was severley disabled but led a v v amazing life amd achieved alot he had many college degrees a career in his teens as a regional disabled athlete winning gold medals in regional disability running. My sister had 2 beautiful kids without cruzons and also i was brought up very well im a university educated man with a good job and a happy life. I will bring my child up in exactly the same way with with love happiness and care regardless of their condition. Your defined by the life you lead not by your disability.”
Steve told me how he felt seeing the comments:
“It’s made me feel a bit upset that some people feel so strongly against anyone having a disabled child just because they feel its cruel. In this day and age bringing any child into this world theres a risk of bullying regardless of disability or not.”
People might not think their words on social media (and laughter behind the screen) are harmful. They might be good people, claiming to have a diverse friendship group and go to church regularly. But their words are telling. It shows their discomfort about disability and visible differences, and their privilege as well. Their words are long lasting, with the capacity to be shared and read over and over. Perhaps a bigger impact than an encounter with a rude drunk in a pub. This online cowardice is indicative of society’s judgement of visibly different people.
The reactions to this disability hate speech (I will keep calling it that because that’s what it is) are equally as telling – with compassionate, educated and open minded people calling them out. If you see these sorts of comments on social media, call it out. Don’t stand for it. Stand up for those on the receiving end.
What if we regarded the impact of appearance-related discrimination and hate speech the same way as we see race-related discrimination (and that’s not dismissing the latter)?
Replace race with face.
You can view James Partridge, Changing Faces’ CEO’s view on The Undateables here.