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Asperger's to Tourette's: British PM's "jibe" divides online community

Ridiculing a significant minority of a society can fragment and fracture a nation. While the UK spearheads equality, the prime minister's comments mocking a disability negate our positive cultural shift.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor on

Ridicule comes from a lack of understanding. A lack of understanding comes from an unwillingness to learn.

Each time someone in the street belittles another based on a fact of life one cannot control, it fragments society that little bit further. When a leader of a nation does so, the top-level down effects can be felt for an immeasurable period of time.

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In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, British prime minister David Cameron compared the UK's opposition treasury minister, who suffers from a stammer, as "like having someone with Tourette's sitting opposite you".

The comments were on par with President Obama's remarks about his bowling skill being "like the Special Olympics", or former prime minister Gordon Brown's "bigoted woman" remarks which arguably led to his party and him losing the election.

But the backlash has been minimal, in what has been a week of high-profile political gaffes in the country.

Cameron apologised on BBC television, saying it was an "off the cuff" remark.

Tourette's syndrome is a neurological condition characterised by different kinds of ‘tics', from involuntary vocal actions through to full-blown limb shaking.

I suffer -- and I use the term carefully -- with the condition on a daily basis.

It is not the first time Cameron has made an "off the cuff" remark. Early last year, he mimicked a phrase in a popular British television advert, calling on one opposition member of Parliament to, "calm down, dear", in what was seen as a sexist remark. He apologised shortly after for causing any offence.

Considering this is the man who leads what is seemingly one of the most culturally aware nations in the world, his comments are not only damaging to his administration, but to the entire nation, for which he represents on the world stage.

But so many ‘hidden' disabilities are entirely misjudged or even ridiculed through lack of understanding and sheer ignorance.

Asperger's for "geeks" vs. Tourette's for the "sweary"

It is likely that the IT industry has the largest percentage of people with Asperger's and other autistic spectrum disorders. Some may not be diagnosed until they are much older and far out of their teenage years.

"Forgive me, I have ADD", one sufferer told me, when they engage with new colleagues at their IT-oriented workplace. Everyone laughs and says, "Yeah, so do I". In some sub-cultures, it is like wearing glasses. It's almost expected of you. At very least, the condition is pre-empted.

But stereotypes come from somewhere. Popular culture can identify common or even less-common markers to identify prominent features to a particular condition, disability, or even a nation of people.

While data is limited, the IT industry may have a higher proportion of those who suffer on the autistic spectrum disorders. But how much of it replies on a stereotype? Hacker News may regularly make reference to autistic spectrum disorders, but in reality, we just don't know how prevalent such conditions are within the community.

Tourette's sufferers have a unique set of symptoms, a similar characteristic to Asperger's. Only one in ten suffer from the ‘swearing' tic, known as coprolalia. From 1988's Rain Man to "Tourette's Guy" on YouTube, these stereotypes remain at the front of our view of certain disabilities, disorders and conditions. Within society, most conditions to the wider public are mostly misunderstood.

Autistic spectrum disorders are one of the most misunderstood conditions. Many experts are still investigating the causation and the vast array of symptoms. There is no one "scale' that anyone can seem to agree on. You can have highly functioning Asperger's combined with ADD (attention deficit disorder), or pure ADD with a different level of functionality. We only know so much about the human brain, and we are only now beginning to understand how previously unknown parts of the brain works.

Clinically to socially, flippantly comparing one inequality to another is careless, vacuous and downright discriminatory. Disabilities or religions, sexuality or any other dimension of difference, should not be compared. One disability is no more difficult to cope with than another. It is individualised and personalised to that singular entity of human flesh and bone.

Our disability can be part of our identity, and with that identity, Cameron has without thought devalued an aspect to many of our lives. ZDNet's Violet Blue considers the ‘tech connection' to Asperger's and other mental health factors in the technology community.

Any generalisations of a widely misunderstood condition continues to perpetuate the stereotype.

The Anglo-American cultural divide

After spending a lot of time in the United States, most Americans I encountered do not see 'hidden' disabilities like Tourette's. It is not as though they are ignorant of such conditions, but simply do not see it. I can tic, shout out the most offensive words, twitch visibly within someone's sights, and yet receive no physical or verbal response.

To this day, I do not know why.

Many within my own culture will engage in full-on mockery and cruelty. Some enjoy pointing, laughing and acting in a way that would make most others feel sick to the stomach.

Cameron's comments, though made outside Parliament and against a minority of collective disabled people and sufferers of all conditions in the UK, will affect all disabled people. What is the difference in mocking one subset of society, yet not equally mocking those in wheelchairs, or with Asperger's, or with Down's syndrome, for example? Why is Tourette's ‘fair game' for mockery and humour?

Under UK law, there is no statute to govern how those with disabilities are treated in everyday society.

The House of Commons is an archaic, bloated, sluggish device. Comedy for a politician often does not come naturally, and is more like ‘having a crack' than anything else. While members of the House of Commons are enjoy parliamentary privilege to say as they please without fear of legal retribution -- even towards one another -- rules of society should be adhered to, whether as social convention or in written law.

The law makes it: "unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of disability in the areas of employment, provision of goods, facilities and services and buying or renting land or property". Outside these realms, legal case law and set precedence, for which the UK's legal system is based upon, is weak at best.

It is against UK law to discriminate against a gender in a workplace, as it is to discriminate against someone with a disability in the same setting. Yet, it is a criminal public order offence to cause "aggravated harassment, alarm of distress" based on religion or race.

But hot on the minds of recent events in the UK, someone can be arrested and charged for racially abusing a footballer on Twitter, yet it is wholly unfair that a member of the public, let alone the prime minister, can use "abusive or insulting" language -- as per section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 -- about someone's disability.

Cameron's comments are not only unpunishable by law, but he also enjoys a lack of direct accountability unlike the vast majority in society. He cannot be fired. Despite his ‘accountability to the electorate', his words arguably do not ‘matter' enough to be a resigning issue. The prime minister, whoever may hold the position of any political affiliation, is almost untouchable. The position suffers little to no retribution.

While the comments may stem from thoughtlessness rather than maliciousness, it can still give others the technical authority to follow suit.

The prime minister is in a position of 'ultimate authority', but more than that he is the person who needs to set a positive example in terms of the way others' behave on behalf of the nation.

Social media reacts, with mixed results

Politics aside, Cameron's words will have impact on the disabled community. His comments have given carte blancheto those with prejudice to act in a way that is widely believed to be socially unacceptable.

While Cameron's comments mark only a minority of society, a significant number of web users nevertheless take it upon themselves to use the focus for their own humour.

But the context in which the word is used in brings it back into common usage. Twitter, Facebook, and the wider online community reacted to Cameron's tasteless remark, often bringing the validity and reality of the condition into disrepute.

While at the time of writing this, many tweets focused on Cameron's comments negatively, others are taking the opportunity to bandwagon the term for their own points of ridicule.

But because Cameron has focused on Tourette's, it spirals the social media-enabled web to then reintroduce it into further negativity.

Because social media is borderless, one man's comments can be spread globally in a matter of seconds. A UK-made comments becomes a worldwide outcry, as seen with many other instances of poor judgement and tasteless remarks. The discussion and mockery reaches a wider audience, and therefore cements the stereotype.

The problem we face in society is how such comments are regulated. There is no perfect solution, nor is there an algorithmic or equitable solution as to when a joke can be made, or when comments will be taken entirely out of context, or simply cause offence. This is one of the major let downs, yet equally beautiful features of our human evolution.

And, arguably, written verse no matter how well it is portrayed, can only invoke often polarised perspectives: either a "for" the comment, or "against" the comment.

One flicker of the eye, a one-sided raise of the lips to form a cheeky smile, or even the way one's voice slips through a darker, deeper tone, are many of the millions of combinations that enable us to read through these kinds of comments.

Humour and comedy can either come from a good place or a bad place. In fairness to Cameron, we do not know under what conditions or what context the comments were made, or what was singled out by the newspaper in which these comments were made.

And while many others and I with a disability can see the bright side and the positives of such conditions, through learning processes and coping mechanisms, particularly with conditions like Tourette's, it does not give others the right to mock us in return.

Image source: Flickr.

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