18 April 2009

Susan Boyle

She became instantly famous last Saturday because of her audition for Britain's Got Talent. As soon as the program aired I started reading mentions of her online, but it wasn't until Tuesday that I actually watched the YouTube vid to see what all the fuss was about.

As soon as she started talking I thought "she seems to be slightly learning disabled." I suspect that the majority of the audience, not being as disability aware as me, thought that she was just stupid:

Stupid for appearing on national television in an unflattering dress.

Stupid for appearing on national television without running a bit of Frizz Ease through her fuzzy hair.

Stupid for appearing on national television with unplucked eyebrows. Surely everyone's heard of tweezers and noticed that everyone on telly has skinny eyebrows? She must be stupid to have not noticed that.

Stupid to think that she's sexy enough to flirt with the judges.

Tanya Gold wrote in The Guardian about how Susan was a victim of 'uglyism' until she burst into song. I think she was a victim of a different ism - disablism.

It wouldn't matter if Susan's IQ was less than 70 (the typical criteria for a "learning disabled" label) or over 170... she appeared to be learning disabled, and the audience both those present and watching at home, judged her on that appearance and started discriminating accordingly.

In Yesterday's Hate Mail she "came out" as learning disabled (I don't read it, I promise. Someone pointed the link out on a disability messageboard):

She had suffered mild brain damage after being starved of oxygen at birth.

Recalling her childhood, she said earlier this week: 'I was born with a disability and that made me a target for bullies.'

Rather entertainingly that article also says "Her rather wild hairdo and bushy eyebrows have led her to be dubbed the 'hairy angel' in some quarters." - It was their paper that gave her that name!

There's a global assumption that disabled people can't have any talent for anything; and so the audience having given her the label of stupid assumed that there was no possible way she could actually be a good singer. Surely if she's too stupid to know how one should appear on TV she must be so stupid that she thinks she's got a talent even though she can't have?

And so they laughed.

Then she sang. The laughter stopped.

Suddenly everything turned round, instead of laughing at her, the audience applauded along with her.

But this applause was of course also the result of a disablist belief system. The world has such low expectations of us that when we turn out to be capable of doing something that warrants far more praise than if a non-disabled person had the same skill.

I thought Susan's performance was great, I think it's great that a disabled person has shot to fame for being talented. I think it's great that a disabled person is now admired by the disablists that were bullying her only 2 weeks ago.

I have to wonder though, would she be the global phenomenon she is if her learning impairment hadn't been so apparent during the pre-audition interview?


  1. Anonymous11:07 pm

    'Appears learning disabled!'

    You have the same stereotypical response as the able bodied you appear to be castigating.

    And what seems to be a sour grapes attitude as well.

  2. "Anonymous" ... ?


  3. Lisy, I think you hit the nail on the spot!

    And that sour grapes accusation doesn't make the slightest sense to me.

  4. I got that Susan might be older, from a small town, and a little less affluent than her audience, but I never got disabled. When she came out as having a small learning deficit as a child, I got that it was the reason for her level of sheltering along with the reasons above, an old idea from older parents. It meant to me that those less willing to see the person might just see "out of it" and not think much about how she got there and what she might know that they don't. I saw more about social class and affluence than disability. You can make it all about disability if you want it to, but the packaging tells a story. For me it said, small town, older parents, not much money.

  5. Anonymous11:11 pm

    Learning disabilities are not diagnosed based on IQ. In fact, learning disabilities have nothing to do with IQ; you seem to be using the phrase "learning disability" as a euphemsim for someone with a below-70 IQ.

    The phrase you are searching for is "cognitive disability." Someone with an IQ of below 70 can be said to have a cognitive disability.

    I would suggest doing some research on learning disabilities to better educate yourself on this topic.

    You could start here: http://www.ldonline.org/ldbasics/whatisld