Reflections On the Coney Island Freak Show

October 26, 2015 by richard

– Originally published in The Huffington Post 10/08/2015


“Why are you doing this?” I asked myself as I handed over $10 to enter the infamous Coney Island Side Show. After all, as a person of short stature, I could easily have been exhibited there not so long ago. Yet something about the concept intrigued me, why they are desperately trying to keep this tradition going and how much has changed since the days of “the elephant man.”

Coney Island’s is one of the last permanent freak shows left in America, consisting of 10 acts on a continuous loop. Among them were what you might expect: fire breathers and sword swallowers, plus more provocative ones such as a scantily clad Nigerian woman gyrating with a giant snake to Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” (I could write a whole other article about that.) But it was the first act that made my heart sink. “Penguin Boy,” whose real name we never learned, was of short stature like me, and born without arms.

As I sat in the awkwardly small audience watching him parade around and make jokes about having no arms, I was struck by two emotions. First, sadness, that in 21st century New York there are still arenas — albeit small and tragic ones — where people with disabilities are exhibited as objects of curiosity. Second, I felt a sense of anger and disappointment: I was judging this man for voluntarily presenting himself as a freak. Strangely, I did not feel such anger toward the other performers, who were also apparently willing to be seen as different and provocative. I wondered if in fact I was being discriminatory. Surely it is his right to participate in whatever endeavors he chooses? After all, his act was not solely based on letting the audience gawk at his “imperfect body.” At the very end of his segment, he shoved a screwdriver firmly up his nostril.

On reflection, the reason for my anger was because my whole life I have felt like an object of curiosity. Standing at 4’5″, I am regularly stared at, receive comments, laughter and occasionally actual abuse about my height. I have never wanted to be perceived as a social misfit, yet I am constantly reminded that I am not what society considers “normal.” And here was someone in a similar position actively perpetuating the idea that people of short stature are freaks and objects of curiosity.

In the UK, where I am from, there is a TV show that causes me dread every time a new series is announced. Astonishingly in its fifth season, The Undateables presents the stories of people with disabilities looking for love. There has been much debate about the show’s ethics and whether it is appropriate prime-time scheduling. For me such programs are modern day freak shows. Although repackaged and involving mostly willing participants (though I question the extent to which some of the contestants with intellectual disabilities give informed consent), they are always made by people without disabilities, for a mostly non-disabled audience and reinforce the idea that people with disabilities — people like me — are different, that we don’t quite make the grade.

I can choose not to watch The Undateables. But I do not have a choice about the increase in unwanted attention I get when it is screened. I am frequently mistaken for contestants from that show, as is my friend Lucy, who was once waiting to cross the street when a man shouted from a passing van, “Have you found a boyfriend yet?” The people I’ve been mistaken for use wheelchairs or look nothing like me. But to the people who revel in these shows, we are all the same.

The popularity of old freak shows has long disappeared, but their legacies have not. I would challenge the producers of shows like The Undateables, anyone who watches them and any person with a disability who is considering participating in one to think about the effect they have on average people with disabilities who just want to get on with their lives, without being singled out as abnormal or freakish. It is disappointing that in countries such as the US and the UK, with advanced legislation against discrimination and strong disability movements, our attitudes toward people with disabilities are still not more enlightened.

Original article

PCS Yorkshire & the Humber Disability Network event

October 25, 2015 by admin

Thursday 26th November, 11.00 to 2.00.

Combat Stress ( will be attending on the day. They will be holding a stall and giving a talk on the support they provide for Veterans with mental ill-health.

The event is open to the public and there will be a free buffet. All welcome!

Venue: PCS Yorkshire & Humberside Regional Office, 3rd Floor, Town Centre House, Merrion Centre, Leeds LS2 8LY

Event contact: Michael Docherty, Tel: 07814226878


October 20, 2015 by admin

Interrogating disability in the media.

Edited by Ann Pointon with Chris Davis

Framed brought together the thinking and writing on a large number of the key players who were pushing for more and fairer representation of disabled people in the 1990s

Whole book as pdf.
Download here


R J Mitte talking about being a disabled actor on BBC

October 18, 2015 by richard

BBC  3.56

2015 Broadsheet Moving Image Portrayal of Disability:Then and Now

October 16, 2015 by richard

This years 12 page broadsheet examines current portrayal in TV and Film and Past portrayal of disability.

Portrayal in Film

October 13, 2015 by admin

A series of clips showing portrayals of disability in mainstream film, across the history of cinema.

Full playlist here.

Raspberry Ripple Awards

by admin

An awards ceremony ceremony co-ordinated by supporters of the 1 in 8 group which monitors disabled representation in the media. Prizes are awarded for the best and worst portrayals of disabled people in the media in a range of categories including Feature Film, Documentaries, Drama and Light Entertainment. ‘Raspberry Ripple’ is Cockney slang for ‘cripple’.
First shown on Channel 4, 1997.

Disabling Imagery

by admin

The Disabling Imagery website was finished for BFI in 2004 and contains an historical analysis of portrayal of disabled people mainly in film. It has a range of activities for primary and secondary pupils linked to specific film clips. The pack published by DEE is also downloadable in PDF format.

Disabling Imagery (website)

Disabling Imagery (pdf)


by admin

The 1 in 8 Group brought together TV Producers/Directors, Actors, Disability Rights Advocates and Parents. Its aim was to change the portrayal of disability in the mainstream media. To challenge stereotypes and make disability ordinary. It carried out lunches for casting directors,film producers, TV Soap Producers, a whole day conference for writers, producers and directors at BBC Drama, and held annual Raspberry Ripple Awards in 1996, 1997 (on Channel 4) and 1998 for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ portrayal of disability in different genre. The 1 in 8 Group produced the broadsheet stereotypes, 20,000 of which were distributed across BBC, Channel 4, the New Producers Alliance, Equity and other unions. 

Off Limits – Images of Disability

by admin

(suitable for ages 8 to 18)
Channel 4 programme from 1993 presented Mick Scarlet. Still very relevant.
Video here Length 24.22