Rosie Jones is a brave woman

Yesterday evening I watched Rosie Jones’ programme on Channel 4 about ableist trolling and would strongly encourage you to watch it too. In case you haven’t come across the term before I rather like this explanation:

Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability. Like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than,’ and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities.

There is meta-irony in the fact that Rosie Jones has been trolled for her choice of title for the programme: “Rosie Jones: Am I a R*tard?”. In fact she spends the first few minutes explaining why she decided to go with those words, and even before the programme started the continuity announcer had warned us that it contained offensive language.

But the shock value was justified. Some time ago the she had used a company to remove offensive material from her Twitter feed, but in the programme she asked them to show her what she had been missing. I do hope she was receiving counselling at this point, because it was pretty awful.

She homed in on the use of the term “retard”, and then decided to report one of the comments to Twitter as a test case and ask them to remove it. Twitter responded suspiciously quickly and said that they couldn’t see anything offensive in the use of the term. She became very angry at that point, on behalf of the many disabled users who might have also reported similar tweets. When she discussed that response with a social media expert she learnt that it was an automated response, so she needed to find a way to speak to a real person. So she delivered a cookie (geddit?), decorated with the offending tweet, to the headquarters of Twitter UK, and that seemed to do the trick.

Of course, that was all a ploy to get us talking about the issue of ableist trolling. As Rosie Jones said, it would have been dealt with much more appropriately if it had been a misogynistic, racist or homophobic comment. The programme ended with a plea to us all to take the matter seriously.

Last week I wrote a post that touched on ageism , which of course has many overlaps with ableism. I talked about the closure of ticket offices at train stations and the impact this could have on the elderly. I could just as well have written about the impact on people with disabilities, such as those who can’t see the screen on a ticket machine. That generated a rather unpleasant comment which implied that it was inappropriate to worry about wealthy elderly people. We do moderate comments sometimes but in a way I was glad that had slipped through the net because it gave other people a chance to challenge that kind of thinking. But that was peanuts compared with the appalling and highly personal comments that have been thrown at disabled people in the public eye.

So that’s our challenge as Liberal Democrats. We have been effective in our campaigning against sexism, racism and homophobia; now we need to turn our attention to ableism. Who is up for it?


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • I see a problem here. Clearly anyone who uses the “R” word when talking to or about a person with a disability is a petty reprehensible human being, but could the word be used as a general (and broadly acceptable) term of abuse ? A couple of years ago I saw a well known comedian perform. They were a tough audience and just didn’t seem to be on his wave length. He obviously decided to take the locals on and he declared that it was a lovely part of the world and the the people were very nice, just a bit r……. ! Half the audience laughed, the rest pretended to be outraged. So perhaps it’s not quite like the “N” word, which is never acceptable, ever.

  • I have no intention of causing any offense with the below. I’m not going to use * to replace letters because as a user of a Screenreader it can make it harder to work out what word is intended. I’d put the word ‘retard’ into the same category as ‘spac’ and ‘handycapped’ words that carry significant negative connetations and should not be used. I certainly wouldn’t use any of them myself.
    There are complecations here as a lot of people I have met over the years have felt uncomfortable about using the word ‘blind’. As someone who has no sight, ‘blind’ is a perfectly apt description of my inability to see. But, if you are meeting someone for the first time a better phrase to use might be visually impaired, given that you aren’t likely to know whether they are like me, totally without sight, have light perception or a greater degree of vision. Language is complex and ever changing, which is what makes it so fascinating.

  • I can see why Rosie chose to use inflammatory language, and accept that she wasn’t doing it mindlessly, and some of those complaining were opportunistic.

    But I also know someone who was genuinely upset by it, because she has witnessed her sister, who has learning difficulties, being on the receiving end of it. So she objected on her own behalf and on behalf of her sister who cannot speak out. That’s not trolling.

  • David Ellams 24th Jul '23 - 2:25pm

    @Chris Cory – The R word is only deemed acceptable by a broader range of people than the N word because ableism is more widely accepted than racism. (However, I’m not criticising Rosie Jones for using it in order to shock and draw attention to ableism.)

  • David Evans 25th Jul '23 - 5:03pm


    I understand and acknowledge the reasoning you put into explaining why “words that carry significant negative connetations and should not be used”. However, the problem you will find is that the connotation associated with a new word grows over time as the word comes into mainstream use, simply because it describes something that is a problem (which a while ago some management gurus decided was too negative and promoted the use of the incorrect term issue instead).

    I remember a long time ago when I was a young auditor and I and my manager had to do an audit of Reading Central Youth Centre, where I inadvertently used the word coloured and was promptly told the people were “black not coloured.” These days they are “people of colour” and not black.

    Putting it simply words acquire connotations over time from the thing they are used to describe. Responding to this by inventing a new term simply means we continually churn new words in a desperate attempt to run away from the old one only for the process to repeat. All we end up doing is making language ever more complex and confusing.

    Which all leads to even more problems because communication between the generations becomes ever more difficult, and can become a mechanism for exclusion and alienation.

    All in all, however well meaning, it usually ends up being a negative sum game.

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