‘Cripping-up’ – disability blackface?

While social justice issues such as gender, racial and most recently sexuality equality are well established conversations in Australian society, the discussion around disabled rights is significantly less developed.

Significant progress has certainly been made from the days when the disabled were considered lost causes, or even targets for racial ‘cleansing’. Public awareness has advanced to the point where most are aware that people suffering from disabilities are simply people living with a condition, and deserve to have their particular needs respected and addressed.

However, the national understanding of the issue remains rather simplistic, meaning that we struggle to discuss more nuanced question when they arise; questions such as how disabilities should be portrayed on film and stage.

Intellectually disability has long been a powerful trope for writers and directors seeking pathos or drama in their productions. Films such as Forest Gump and Rain Man achieved wide success from the concept. However, in virtually every instance one factor remains constant – the disabled are cast as able-bodied actors rather than actors with the disabilities being portrayed. Many in the disabled community have come to describe this practice as ‘cripping-up’.

On the face of it this may seem a simple necessity; intellectual disabilities by their very nature tend to decrease an individual’s ability to participate in something as complex, intense and long-winded as the production of a film or stage play. Surely attempting to cast an actor with the disability being portrayed would practical impossible to manage, not to mention the relative scarcity of such actors?

However, this response demonstrates the immaturity of the conversation about disabled rights, making broad assumptions about a diverse range of individuals with varying severity of conditions. While the general logic of the statement may seem sound, it ignores the fact that there are numerous disabled actors active already, such as the professional company Back to Back based in Geelong. Surely if a director was seeking an actor to play a disabled character, their first port of call should be companies like this?

But this in turn raises the spectre of affirmative action and the accusation that such practices prioritise an individual’s nature over their actual merit to complete the job – disabled actors may indeed exist, but if an able-bodied person is better able to portray the character, then surely it would be condescending to give it to the disabled actors purely because of their condition?

Quite apart from the subjectivity surrounding whether an actor plays a part ‘better’ than another, consider if we were to run that scenario through other social debates; casting a white person as a black character for example.

If any director was to attempt this they would correctly be accused of conducting black-face – the disempowerment of a historically persecuted minority, by a powerful majority which could never hope to understand the suffering circumstance and society has imposed upon them. A description which also happens to perfectly fit the disabled community.

This is not to suggest that the portrayals of the disabled by able-bodied actors have always been demeaning, in fact films like Forrest Gump in particular tend to show it as a pseudo-superpower. However, if we are to continue the progress achieved on topics such as race, gender and sexuality, the national conversation about justice for the disabled must mature beyond the simple avoidance of direct harm, and instead address the question of empowerment. And one very significant step towards this would be giving disabled people control over the way in which they are portrayed in the public eye.

Case studies wanted


Ethilogical is looking for partners to develop case studies showcasing businesses excelling in ethical performance.

Does you organisation hold itself to high standards, employ effective accountability mechanisms, and/or hold a strong commitment to client and employee consultation? If so then Ethilogical would like to discuss the development of a case study demonstrating your leadership.

This process involves a 30 minute interview with an appropriate representative regarding the nature of the ethical ideals employed, the mechanisms used to implement these ethics, and any risks/barriers/opportunities for improvement that may exist.

A two-page case study will then be developed based on the conversation and a brief analysis of the ethics and mechanisms based on the information provided, noting their benefits and limitations from both a principled and applied perspective. This offers participating organisations a specialist review of their current practices and provide prompts for future improvement you could consider.

All information gained from the interview would be treated with strict confidentiality pending approval by participating organisation for public distribution.

The intention of these case studies is to help capture current ethical best-practices in the field, to demonstrate the value of professional ethics in a business context to other organisations. While a critical analysis will be provided, this will be purely constructive in nature, demonstrating opportunities for continual improvement rather than criticising the current efforts of any organisation.

If you wish to participate or learn more, contact us at gordon@ethilogical.com or on +61 0403 591 045.

Intellectual Cowardice: the Benefits and Risks of Trigger Warnings

Published by The Ethics Centre as part of their IQ2 Debate series.

Gordon Young – Principal, Ethilogical Consulting


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Trigger warnings are one of the most fiercely contested concepts in the great ‘political correctness’ debate. Trigger warnings demand audiences be warned of content and ideas that may be traumatic. Their proponents aim to protect the vulnerable from harm and exclusion. Detractors describe them as ‘coddling the mind’ and as being a form of censorship.

The debate has largely been unfolding at universities, where the stakes and the ferocity are greatly amplified. Today, universities worldwide are confronted by student groups demanding lecturers provide warnings before discussing any topic that could conceivably traumatise a student.

Examples range from “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression”. Others have included seemingly more benign issues like “calories in a food item”.

On the face of it, this seems like an absurd burden to place on educators. A full list would cover virtually every topic, making nearly any class a minefield of trauma. However, with some claiming up to 50 percent of students have some history of trauma, it’s important to consider whether warnings could help them manage. If they could, surely avoiding harm justifies the extra work for academic staff?

If only it were so simple.

Universities are where the professionals and leaders of tomorrow are shaped. Control over the language used in such places influences what ideas and ideals are conveyed. As a result, the simple question of trigger warnings is seen by many as nothing less than a battle for the future of politics itself.

This is explains why criticism of trigger warnings includes that they exist to censor ‘politically incorrect’ ideas. But while the suppression of speech is indeed a factor in political correctness, it simply doesn’t apply to trigger warnings.

Such warnings are just that: warnings. They’re provided to audiences to allow them to make informed decisions, just like content advice and ratings for movies, television and radio. Given these kinds of warnings are so common and unobtrusive – not to mention the vast volume of offensive content still available despite them – the risk of outright censorship seems low.

However, this suggests the possibility of another kind of censorship: instead of controlling ideas, perhaps trigger warnings allow people to control language itself. Some students are already using trigger warnings to police the language used by academics – interrupting lectures to express their disagreement with certain terms. This behavior is enabled by the culture set by trigger warnings and can lead to significant disruption of the learning experience.

Many critics of trigger warnings see this as a suppression of the kind of intellectual debate universities are designed for. They argue this cost is too great justify, even if it does mean giving up the mental health benefits some may gain.

This assessment ignores a pretty fundamental reality of universities: academics have vastly more power than students. Teachers can remove troublesome students from classes or exams if they find them overly disruptive. In this context, students policing the language of their significantly more powerful teachers may be viewed as a way for the powerless to keep check on the powerful.

It may indeed be disruptive and obnoxious but if anything, trigger warnings will promote debate by giving students a basis to criticise their teachers. If academics don’t like it then they can simply boot the offending student out of the room – ironically, an act of severe censorship that no one appears to be objecting to.

A more compelling argument against trigger warnings is the risk of echo chambers. Some students may use these warnings, meant for dealing with trauma, to instead avoid content they disagree with or find offensive. Such behavior would create similar confirmation biases to online echo chambers, inhibiting learning and constructive debate where more than view is explored.

However, the risk of echo chambers already exists. If students want to avoid material they don’t like, they can make an assessment of which courses to enroll in based on subject titles or course descriptions. It’s unclear whether trigger warnings would heighten the risk of being exposed to few worldviews though it is true they could be used for this purpose.

Of course, this assumes the phrasing of the trigger warnings is neutral. They should be designed only to provide information rather than using loaded terms that ‘prime’ students to take offense. For example, ‘discussions of obesity’ would be a neutral warning, whereas ‘fat-shaming’ is not. It implies the class takes a negative attitude to weight and the views are incorrect or bigoted when neither is necessarily true.

Value laden trigger warnings greatly exacerbate the threat of confirmation bias. Students risk forming prejudicial opinions on the content of specific, negatively labelled classes. This is likely to bias them against the content regardless of its validity, further enhancing the echo chamber effect.

The free speech argument isn’t the only criticism of trigger warnings. Some commentators argue trigger warnings areharmful to student mental health. In a controversial article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note a key part of treatment for trauma is exposure therapy. People are given a safe environment to confront the ‘triggering’ material and eventually break the association between the trigger and their initial trauma. How can someone overcome trauma if they continually avoid their triggers?

While intuitively appealing, this essentially suggests victims of trauma should be exposed to triggers by staff who are not trained to assist them through the process rather than being informed in a way that allows them to manage their own mental health. And while this seems totally irresponsible, it does raise a good point: trigger warnings must not replace treatment.

Any student who legitimately requires trigger warnings also requires psychological treatment. Trigger warnings may assist them to manage trauma but this is not a license to accept or normalise their conditions. Sadly, mental healthcare continues to suffer from a cultural stigma in most communities and is difficult to access for many.

Trigger warnings can help bridge this gap but ultimately focus should be placed on addressing the trauma at the source of the problem rather than playing whack-a-mole with the various symptoms.

JOIN THE DEBATE: Hear some of Australia’s best thinkers at The Ethics Centre’s 2017 IQ2 debate series. Tickets on sale now.