08 January 2016

Appearance diversity, The Undateables and online disability hate speech.

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.

(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 Undateables started on Channel 4 in the UK this week. It's a show about people with visible differences and disabilities searching for love. I wrote about The Undateables in 2013.

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."

But he's ok with seating "pretty girls" in a window to attract customers.

"@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!).

Steve Carruthers from The Undateables with his wife Vicky.

(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.




  1. Such a wonderful post, thank you so much for sharing. There is way too much hate in the world. Wether it is because of people's skin color or any other part of their physical appearance, or their religious or political beliefs, intolerance in any form should be condemned and I think we can all do more to make it clear to those that say hurtful things about others, and specially those that go so far as to discriminate, that their behavior is unacceptable and we will not stand for it. Sitting in silence when others are abused and hurt makes us all complicit. Thank you for speaking up.

  2. Great post Carly. That reality show really does have a terrible name!

  3. Hi Carly. I too have Crouzon syndrome, like Steve, but have had reconstructive surgeries so it is not so obvious. I do have children - two have Crouzon syndrome and my third has Down syndrome. My children are my world. Yes they've all had operations but they don't remember most of them as they were done when they were small. I have to say that a syndrome is not a person. It is just a part of a person. My children are way more than their diagnosis. My eldest children are very intelligent and have many talents; they have goals for their lives and I know they will achieve them. They all have friends. My husband and I have loved them and brought them up to be well-behaved. As a teacher I saw many children who would've given anything to be in a loving home like ours. It would have been a huge shame if we had decided not to have them because of the 50/50 risk. Our children make the world a better place by being in it. I support Steve and Vicky completely.

  4. I hadn't heard of this show before, but this post really resonated with me. I work at a university and do a lot of diversity/sensitivity with our students. Some of them move me with their ability to see what's important and not the superficial while other things I hear are completely disheartening. I am so glad that this post exists to challenge the way people view others and bring awareness.

  5. An emotion that I couldn't imagine feeling when I was watching this show would be 'laughter'. I saw empowerment, courage and love. I really enjoyed the show, but could not grow to appreciate it's title. Hate speech is hate speech, whether it's to do with race, religion, appearance, illness or politics. Right now in the world we live in, we need respect, love and understanding. Thanks for sharing, Carly.

  6. As someone that's recently been on receiving end of not just hate speech, but an orchestrated online hate mob: I'd disagree that if you see hate speech on social media you should always call it out.

    I locked my Twitter account down and that made the mob shut up and go away because they could no longer see any reactions they elicited.

    But, if someone calls them out on their hate speech: It'll remind them that I exist and set them off again. They may not be able to see my tweets any more; but I can still see theirs in my @ column.

    So this week I've had to quickly ask 2 different people who've come to my defence to delete their tweets before the mob see them because I don't want to poke the monster and set it off again.

    So I think the most important course of action is to ask the person on the receiving end what they want to happen. If they want you to talk back to the person dishing out the hate speech then do it. But otherwise I think the best course of action is probably just to report the hate speech posts for harassment (not that Twitter care about harassment on their site) and block the perpetrators.

    Because sometimes standing up for the person on the receiving end can make their life worse by dragging out the abuser's enthusiasm.

  7. Love how you bring a balance and rationality to these topics Carly. People are people and we should just let them be. I hate how judgemental people are and can't believe some of the comments people are throwing around. Kudos to those who have been dealt challenges - whatever they may be - and their courage and tenacity in overcoming them.


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