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Paul Henry's Use Of 'R' Word Shocking

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford
Paul Henry

I have to say that Paul Henry has reached a new low. Last week, he again made another infamous outburst on Breakfast when he used the 'r' word to describe new music sensation Susan Boyle.

I will not use the full word that Henry uttered due to the fact I find it offensive. As a member of the disability community, I stand in solidarity with my comrades from the learning disability community on this issue. Therefore, I fully support IHC's statement condemning Henry's outburst and asking people to complain to TVNZ, the Human Rights Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Authority over it.

Some people will see this campaign against Henry's outburst as just another attack by the so-called 'political correctness' brigade on free speech. While I am a supporter of free speech, there are in democratic societies such as ours, reasonably justifiable limits upon it. For example, I can't under race relations laws incite racial disharmony through making racist statements and rightly so. However, I have to say that this protection against hate speech and harrassment is not given to disabled people under current law. Nor is it afforded to people on the basis of their gender, religion, sexual orientation or other status. This is why the law needs to change to give protection to minority groups who are most often the targets of hate speech. Hate speech is not free speech at all either. It is what the Nazis used to demonise their opponents and those groups they intended to eliminate such as the Jewish people.

While I would definitely not classify Paul Henry as a Nazi or neo-fascist, he certainly is an ignorant person. TVNZ simply keeps him on in order to keep their ratings up and to compete against TV3's Sunrise programme. He is this country's television equivalent of a 'shock jock' (and talkback host Michael Laws is his radio equivalent). Earlier this year, Henry mocked a female guest who possessed a moustache due to a medical condition. After a number of days, Henry was forced to apologise for the comment he made on that occassion. I do admit that his co-host on that day, Alison Mau, did try to restrain him but to no avail.

As for how Susan Boyle might be feeling? I can only hazard a guess that when the outburst finally makes it to You Tube (as Henry's last efforts have), there will need to be apologies made as well to her personally. Either that or both Henry and TVNZ could be slapped with a very hefty lawsuit.  While Boyle displayed some very eccentric behaviour when she first appeared on Britain's Got Talent , I don't think that she has a learning/intellectual disability as there is a difference between being simply eccentric (as Michael Jackson was) and having a learning impairment. Besides, she has improved on her demeanour and dress sense due to months of media training. I have to say that for a person who doesn't like the genre of music she sings, Boyle is truly an impressive talent and even if she did have an intellectual or other disability, would that matter? I don't think it would amongst the public in this day and age.

So what exactly is intellectual disability/impairment? People with learning/intellectual impairment can and do have difficulties in absorbing knowledge. Yet, for having this characteristic, they have traditionally been shunned by society and sometimes mocked. In earlier centuries and up until recent times, people with a learning impairment were institutionalised and/or kept locked away in family homes. The history of the 'r' word is that it was originally a medically derived term to categorise people with intellectual impairment. In fact, medical professionals used to exert a huge amount of control over the lives of disabled people and used terms such as the 'r' word as a means to identify people suitable for institutionalisation or exclusion. Over the years it has moved from being that to a term of abuse which is used in a negative and subjective manner.  Therefore, it has become the equivalent of the racist 'n' word as used in the United States.

In the last thirty years,  though, people with learning/intellectual disability have been entering society and fighting to claim their rightful place as ordinary citizens. Through the good work of self-advocacy groups like People First (a group which is led by people with intellectual disabilities themselves),  this group of marginalised people are fighting for their human rights to be fully recognised.

However, when prominent people like Paul Henry use the 'r' word, it sets things back. But, unlike in the past, there are disabled people's self-advocacy groups like People First and service providers like IHC who will answer back, despite any public opprobrium that might result. I say all power to them! And one more thing... this Thursday, December 3rd, marks the International Day of Disabled Persons. I don't think Mr Henry would have realised this when he made his Boyle comments but he has done one very good thing - that of highlighting the ongoing prejudice that still exists within the community against people like me and others who live with impairments.

As part of any punishment that might be meted out this week, I would suggest that TVNZ makes Paul Henry attend a People First meeting so he can see firsthand how effective people with a learning disability can be. Then the results could be shown on Breakfast. While there, he can apologise to the learning disability community and to Susan Boyle. Otherwise, TVNZ should review their contract with Henry. He might be bringing in the ratings at the moment but one day (if not this) our national broadcaster might be regretting the moment it hired him. Henry will one day really overreach himself.  When that happens, he might either have his pay docked or lose his job altogether.

To be honest, I couldn't think of a better fate for him.

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