Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Rosie Jones’ new documentary: has it caused more harm than good?

Rosie Jones’ new documentary has sparked controversy among the disabled community after its title featured a word that many people with learning disabilities find deeply offensive.

The ‘R’ word was historically used as a medical term, but it is now considered an ableist slur, which the learning disability charity Mencap has condemned as ‘unspeakable’.

By using the ‘R’ word in the title of the documentary, Rosie, who has cerebral palsy, attempts to highlight how often this hurtful, offensive word is used casually, both on social media and in real life.

In the film, Rosie reports a tweet calling her the ‘R’ word, but Twitter refuses to take it down when she initially reports it. Rosie argues that this shows ableism is not taken as seriously as racism and homophobia, particularly in online worlds.

She then travels to Twitter HQ wearing a T-shirt and carrying a cookie which are both branded with the ableist slur. They read: “Am I [R word]?”. Twitter then agreed to take the tweet down.

Ableism ‘not taken as seriously as racism or homophobia’

Rosie then goes on a journey to discover whether trolls realise the impact they have on people online, and to ask why they do it in the first place.

In doing so, Rosie reveals that a lack of education is driving ableist hate speech online. The purpose of the documentary is therefore to educate non-disabled people about the dangers of ableist abuse and the importance of using inclusive language.

While the disabled community are aware of the harmful nature of this word (and ableist language in general), Rosie says the general public are not as well informed.

“I do think if you went into any pub, any day of the week, you would hear non-disabled people casually saying ableist slurs,” Rosie said.

The documentary is therefore predominantly aimed at non-disabled people, as Jones explains: “This might sound very rude, I do hope disabled people watch it, but if I’m honest, this documentary is not for disabled people, ‘cause they already know all this s***. They don’t need to be reminded of the s*** we deal with every day.

“This is a film for non-disabled people who don’t know what ableism is… It is for non-disabled people who think it’s okay to sling that term and other equally abusive, ableist words in the pub willy-nilly. It is for them to see that it’s not OK.”

Rosie Jones (Source: Channel 4)
Rosie Jones (Source: Channel 4)

Documentary may have ‘caused more harm than good’

The overarching theme of the documentary and the solution proposed by Jones is to educate people more widely about the dangers of using hurtful language.

However, Ciara McCarthy, who has cerebral palsy, argues that the documentary “may have caused more harm than good”.

In an article for Digital Spy, McCarthy writes: “As someone with cerebral palsy, like Rosie, I experienced bullying in school, and the words she featured on the show were ones I had heard directed towards me in person or online.

“To deflect the impact, I used to refer to myself with those slurs, thinking it would be less hurtful if I beat others to it. However, the ‘R’ word was a word I was uncomfortable with due to its historical ramifications.

“For many disabled people, seeing that word in a documentary title brought back years of abuse and trauma. In the documentary, Rosie never once explained the impact the ‘R’ word can have on people or why it is so hurtful,” she writes.

McCarthy also highlights that the documentary lacked wider representation and additional viewpoints. Various disabled activists pulled out of the documentary due to the use of the word, and McCarthy says varied viewpoints are “essential in portraying the realities of ableism”.

This was highlighted in a recent video by Mencap, which features comments from people with learning disabilities and their thoughts on the use of the word.

One person with a learning disability said the word makes them feel as though they’ve been “punched in the stomach”, while another described the ‘R’ word as an “emotional bullet”.

Mencap is now calling on the general public to challenge and report the word if you hear it, thereby making it “unspeakable.”

Jones said using the word was necessary to make people realise how offensive it is

Many of the disabled community therefore argue that the case for more inclusive language could have been made without including the ‘R’ word in the documentary’s title.

Ciara Lawrence, who has a learning disability, tweeted: “I was bullied when I was younger and called the ‘R’ word and it has had an emotional effect on me all my life. It is saying to children and to society now that it’s ok to use that language and it’s not ok.

“People do not understand what the term means for people with a learning disability like me. It describes us as second class and it describes us as stupid and unable to learn or do anything.

“I was upset about the documentary as I was a big fan of Rosie Jones, but she didn’t speak to people like me about her documentary and we could have helped her to understand the impact and effect the title would have had for people like me.”

However, Rosie has defended her decision to include the word in the title of the documentary, and argues that discussing the word will make people realise just how offensive it is.

“I need to say, first and foremost: it was my choice, my idea. I really wanted to take control of it and say, ‘This is not OK’.

“I understand that some people may be offended, or will be very upset by it, but at the same time, it is unfortunately still a word that has been used every day towards me.

“I fundamentally believe that people don’t take ableist slurs as seriously as other slurs, so I decided to put it in the title so that hopefully people will still realise how offensive it is,” she said.

The disability charity Scope has praised Rosie for speaking out about an important issue affecting disabled communities.

They tweeted: “The title of the programme has understandably caused upset and divided opinion in our community. We don’t like the name of the documentary, but it’s important that the subject of ableism and online abuse is being spotlighted.”

“Online abuse, bullying and trolling is a common experience for disabled people. More than half of us have witnessed negative comments about disabled people online. Enough is enough.”

Mencap invite Channel 4 to discuss ‘genuine inclusion’ of people with a learning disability

The learning disability charity Mencap says while they understand the need to talk about bullying and offensive language, using such language is harmful.

Jackie O’Sullivan, Executive Director of Communication, Advocacy and Activism at learning disability charity Mencap said: “The ‘R’ word has been used as an offensive slur directly towards people with a learning disability, or referring to them, for years. People have told us that they are shocked and upset by the title of this documentary.

“As a campaigning organisation we understand the desperate need to get people talking about the incessant bullying and outdated attitudes towards disabled people. But using triggering, upsetting and harmful language to spark debate comes at a cost.

“If offensive words are to be eliminated in the narrative around disability, they must be taken out of circulation entirely. They should be regarded as truly unspeakable.”

O’Sullivan added that Mencap is “concerned” about how the views of people with a learning disability were considered in this situation, and they have now contacted Channel 4 to ask them about their editorial decisions.

“[We] will invite them to discuss the genuine inclusion of people with a learning disability, whose views so often go unheard,” she said.

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