Laughing at “THE DISABLED” – power, perception and prejudice.


A recent controversy at the Queensland University of Technology has has resulted in severe punitive action being taken  against two academics, Gary MacLennan and John Hookham who, in the name of speaking up for “the disabled”, publically criticised a Phd. Student, Michael Noonan and his Phd thesis “Laughing at the disabled (later renamed “laughing with the disabled”) for demeaning “the disabled”. The student is exploring the notions of “laughing at” and “laughing with” the disabled and is making a comedic film featuring two  men with intellectual disabilities.

As a result of their public criticism of QUT and Noonan’s work the two academics were suspended for six months without pay. The legal wranglings of this matter continue but what began as a significant contribution to the discussion of disability issues has now become an issue of academic integrity and free speech, in particular the role of the university and academics in the wider community and perhaps most significantly it has become an issue of employee rights and the excessive punitive measures meted out to MacLennan and Hookham for their public criticism of the university.

My own position is that I strongly disagree with the sentiments and attitudes about “disability” expressed by MacLennan, Hookham and their supporters. From what I have heard of Noonan’s work it seems to be fascinating and a significant step in challenging dominant prejudices and stereotypes of “the disabled”. However I am deeply disturbed about the punitive action taken by QUT against the academics for speaking out, not just because of industrial justice or the importance of free speech but because they are repressing the discussion, the dynamic friction, of disability issues in the public domain as well as in the institutions that train those who will work with people with disabilities. By repressing the discussion of contrary opinion, QUT has played a major role in concretising status quo attitudes and policies which will make them invulnerable to innovation of any sort including that envisioned by Noonan’s work. By repressing those who would criticise and challenge, of any perspective, is an arrogant dismissal of a major and necessary public debate that is all too often swept under the carpet because of embarrassment, political correctness or the entrenched institutional norms of the disability industry.

Despite my disagreement with MacLennan and Hookham on which I am about to pontificate, these two men have initiated a public debate which seriously needs to occur and it is most unfortunate for the development of an apparently progressive disability project that QUT has turned this into a highly politicised free speech issue.

I can’t comment too much on Noonan’s work as it is being kept secret because of the controversy and will apparently not be made public until the film is released.

Gary MacLennan and John Hookham have seen some of Noonans preliminary work and were deeply disturbed by what they saw of the project and wrote a widely publicised article entitled “Philistines of relativism no longer at the gates”
where they criticised what they saw as offensive material and its acceptance by the academic trends of post-structuralism or post modernism. The following is a reflection on Gary Maclennan and John Hookham’s article (henceforth known as “the article”) and the movement that has arisen in support of these men.

The myth of the disabled

The article speaks of “the tradition of mocking the disabled”. I will get to the mocking business later but for now deal with “the disabled” as a notion embraced by the academics and their supporters including a supporter’s statement that “the disabled community protesting the suspension of Hookham and MacLennan”, an assertion also made in the youtube video “The Disability Community speaks out against QUT”.

It is inaccurate to speak of “the disabled” as a class or a community, as if disability provided a cultural and historical unity with some evolved mass sensibility. A person with a disability is going to be defined or socialised by their family, peers, work, institutions and television – just like anyone else. The public perception of a disabled community is generated by workers in the disability industry and is an illusion that describes their work issues and environment more than the real lives of people with disabilities.
The exception is the deaf community who resist the notion that they have a disability, just a different language, culture and community.

This disability worker generated illusion of a “disabled community”is that which informs government and community group policy and programs for this class of people “the disabled”.

By objectifying the heterogeneous lives and perspectives of real people who have disabilities into a single box labeled “disabled” we create the mechanism by which society imposes its own notions of what a disability is and what a person with a disability is in accordance with this preconception of “the disabled”.

This box containing “the disabled” is governed by a range of social norms which do not apply to “ordinary people” thus creating a distinct and separate class of people who, for their own protection, are proscribed from particular kinds of social activity taken for granted by “the normals”, the example in the case of the article, the comedic tradition of self mocking is considered inappropriate. Other taboos imposed on “the disabled” are sexuality and alcohol consumption, also displayed in the article with the disapproving reference to a pub scene in Noonan’s film “This produced a scene wherein a drunk Aboriginal woman amorously mauled William”. “The disabled” is a notion of disempowerment and dehumanisation.

“The disabled” in the entertainment and media industries.

If entertainers with disabilities like, Steady Eddy or Dave Allen with his amputated finger or Ian Dury’s self reflection “Spasticus Autisticus” want to make fun of themselves, any aspect of themselves including their disability they are engaging in a mainstream comic tradition that is not considered to be offensive in any other context than “the disabled”. Danny Devito’s height has not been used by Hollywood as a cruel attack on short people and Devito is not exploited.

The first two of ““twelve secrets of comedy””.
from Sandi C. Shore’s “Stand Up Comedy Workshop Workbook” are

“Secret 1 ………Comedy is based on truth. Are you stupid? Go with it! Are you a liar? So what! Are you fat? Good. Are you perfect? Oh, please.”

“Secret 2……We are perfect as we are. The idea is not to change a thing about yourself, faults and all. The reason you should accept yourself is that you can’t fool your audience. They can see right through you.”

Yet the article seems to think that this mainstream principle of comedy which appears to be part of Noonan’s Film is not appropriate for “the disabled”. Disability, it seems, is something that should be hidden. The article suggests that these two young men were being used by the film maker, including being presented with scripts and set up situations, but is this not the normal film industrial relationship for all on-screen talent? Yet this industrial norm is described by the article as exploitation when applied to “the disabled”.

There are indeed the power relationships inherent in film making and the manipulation and presentation of on screen subjects. However, I believe, a film maker should not change their style if they are working with people with intellectual disabilities if (and only if) the person has a functioning and sensitive support and advocacy structure to negotiate with the film maker in conjunction with (not on behalf of) the particular actor. The existence of such a structure is one of the few publically available facts of the nature of Noonan’s work.

Vulnerability and Adulthood

One of the issues raised by the article was that of the vulnerability of people with intellectual disabilities, which is indeed a different issue than the situation of the artists such as Steady Eddy, Dave Allen and Ian Dury. The article speaks of the actors in Noonan’s film in the following terms….

“It’s worth noting that William’s condition may make it difficult for him to understand the subtexts of social interaction.”


“But we don’t think it’s funny to mock and ridicule two intellectually disabled boys. We think we, and the university, have a duty of care to those who are less fortunate than us.”

Speakers at the rallies supporting the persecuted academics have also spoken of the actor as “boys”which is a bit of a faux-par within disability protocols when discussing adults, including young adults.  The two men in Noonan’s film are 20 and 40 years old.   It is the perception of adults with intellectual disabilities as child-like that is, in my opinion, the single largest cause of oppression of people with such disabilities. The major obstacle to personal maturity is not any intellectual capacity but a rather a world who will not allow these people to grow up and participate as equal citizens.

It is especially important to reinforce adulthood in young people with intellectual disabilities, just is it is for any young person. Perhaps the most important skill of adulthood is to be able to make responsible and mature decisions about our own lives, irrespective of peer group pressure or the expectations of anyone else – including the principles and protocols of the disability industry. A young adult, with disabilities or not, does not need the imposition of an act of parliament, an industrial standard or the counsel of a social worker to find out who they are and what value system they will apply to the decisions in their own life.

Recent enlightened disability legislation has as a principle of the “presumption of capacity”. That is similar to the “presumption of innocence” in that a person is considered to be legally fully capable of making their own decisions until a proper assessment of their capacity indicates a limited capacity. However, beyond the similarity with the presumption of innocence, if a person is deemed to have a limited capacity, whatever capacity they do have is to be fostered and facilitated and incorporated into the making of decisions about that person by a guardian, advocate or support person.

Another principle of disability legislation is that the role of guardians, advocates and support people is to assist people with disabilities to participate fully in the community as if they did not have a disability – the world is modified so that the disability is no longer relevant, not modified so that it is reduced to the level of the disability. The role of the assistant is to complement their client’s capacity, to fill in the gaps caused by the physical or intellectual disability so that the client can be a full and independent citizen. The guardians, advocates and support workers are correctly bound by the principles of the current legislation in exercising their responsibilities, but nowhere in any disability legislation anywhere are there any instructions or even principles about what decisions, whether supported or individually that a person with disabilities may or may not make about their life.

In the eyes of the an enlightened law, if not the general community, a person with an intellectual disability is not bound in any way by the expectations of the disability box as their support staff are. Support structures and people are designed to empower a person to full capacity, not protect them from real and equal involvement in the world because of any incapacity.

Notions of “the disabled” are illusions that objectify and dehumanise human beings, that define a person by the obstacles in their life or those things that make them “less fortunate than ourselves” rather than their capacities, interests and aspirations.

In conclusion

 I would like to suggest a close parralell between community attitudes and policy regarding disability and Aboriginality. Too often Aboriginality has been perceived by policy makers as a disability that needs to be overcome rather than a cultural framework on which to build. But this article is not about that.

There are four historical policies/attitudes of 1/extermination, 2/protection, 3/assimilation and 4/self determination that have been applied, though differently, to Aboriginal people and people with disabilities. Just as poisonings and the native police exterminated aboriginal people, disabled people were often killed in hospitatal at birth “for their own good”. Then they were protected in institutions as Aboriginal people were herded into missions and reserves. Then the disability field focused on getting people out into the community and Aboriginal people were released from the missions into mainstream society. Self determination has stalled in both cases. While being well articulated by indigenous people and actually manifested in government policy with the development of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, indigenous policy has turned around and is now marching back through the assimilation era and returning to the protection era with John Howard’s Aboriginal emergency or Peter Beattie’s Aboriginal grog laws.

Similarly, self determination has stalled as a policy in the disability field because its implications necessarily mean professional disability workers must let go of the power over the lives of people with disability, meaning residents of nursing homes should run the management committee of their home which conflicts directly with the status quo interests of, for example, a private nursing home and its investors. Institutional power is not determined by the needs of individual clients, they just plug in to the system however it is. But until there is a reform of power in the institutions that deliver services so that the user groups themselves design and manage them, even if only in an executive fashion, then self determination is just a shallow platitude for people with disabilities.

The four policies represent an evolution that has largely been driven by the activism of indigenous people and people living with disabilities demanding recognition of their basic human rights. In both cases policy has stalled at assimilation but the next step of self determination has been clearly mapped out already, all that remains is the political will to move forward. But the political will will not manifest if the social attitudes that underpin paternalistic policies such as protection and assimilation are widespread in the community, as is our contemporary status quo. 

I was once at a lecture in Mayne Hall at the University of Queensland by famous disability theorist and theologian Jean Vanier, the founder of the “Communities of the Ark” in France. After his lecture he was asked a question from the floor along the lines “in your work with the disabled have you ever witnessed a miracle healing?” Vanier replied quite brilliantly. “Yes! I have witnessed many people change their attitudes towards people with disabilities.”

Background on the QUT controversy – youtube of ABC’s “Stateline” June 15 2007

See also paradigm oz – “Still laughing at the disabled”

 update – I just found this interview on a U.S. blog “The Warren Report”         “Hobbling Hollywood”             

an excerpt – “I’m disabled and I laugh at it, so it must be OK, right? There’s nothing worse than a disabled person who takes it all too seriously. That’s a one-way ticket to serious long-term misery.”



Filed under disability

9 responses to “Laughing at “THE DISABLED” – power, perception and prejudice.

  1. Captain Oats

    Hi John

    I just wanted to say that this is a fabulous contribution to debate over Hookham & MacLennan’s “intervention”.

    I think it’s important that your argument gets wider exposure. Have you considered submitting it to Online Opinion? It’s just the kind of thing that they would ordinarily publish.

    (I’m not affiliated with OLO in any way, btw.)


  2. Oz to Captain Oats

    I sent an email to OLO and just got one back saying thanks but it is old news.

  3. Captain Oats

    That’s a real shame.

    Still, I’m not convinced that this one will go away, so maybe it will be new news again soon.


  4. Pingback: “Unlikely Travellers” screening at BIFF « PARADIGM OZ

  5. Pingback: The Dead Roo » Movie Review - “Unlikely Travellers” directed by Michael Noonan

  6. Riggergirl

    Oz – congratulations on a brilliant article. You have so clearly articulated a number of feelings that I had in response to McLennan and Hookham’s rather patronising attitude towards people with a disability. I could not have expressed myself so well.
    Everyone’s lives are enriched by inclusiveness in their community. The ability to express a sense of humour, including self-deprecating humour, is a normal and natural part of this, and shouldn’t be held to be the exclusive reserve of so-called “normal people”.

  7. Found your site in google, and it has a lot of usefull information. Thanx.

  8. Howdy! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Cheers

  9. Pingback: Staring at “The Disabled” and seeing nothing. | PARADIGM OZ

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