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I TALK TO Rosie Jones

"That word has been used as a weapon towards me all my life and by using it in the title, I am turning it back around onto the perpetrators and going "This is not OK""

This week, comedian, actor and children's author Rosie Jones, who has cerebral palsy, fronts a new Channel 4 documentary in which she tries to understand how prevalent disability trolling is in the UK, and why it's often left completely unchecked.

In recent weeks, the documentary has come under scrutiny and criticism due to the inclusion of an ableist slur in its title. Amongst those upset at the use of the R-word are Shelby Lynch, Kate Stanforth and Lucy Dawson whose concern about the effects the word will have on disabled people, saw their contributions being pulled from the documentary, as opposed to the title changed, which is the outcome they would have preferred.

In her explanation, posted on social media and reiterated at the start of the documentary, Rosie Jones said "The title of the film has a very shocking word in it. The R-word. And I get it. A lot of people will find this word very shocking and upsetting. But, in my opinion, society doesn’t take this word and other ableist forms of language as seriously as any form of abuse from any other minorities."

"So, I said to Channel 4 'Let's do it, let's tackle the problem head on and use that word in the title and then hopefully, people will think twice about using the word and other ableist slurs ever again’." She also speaks more to me about this when I too, put the question to her about the documentary's title.

Defending the title further, Channel 4 said "The use of the R-word in the documentary is within the context of the subject matter being explored and specific to the abuse Rosie receives on social media. The film makes very clear it is an unacceptable and offensive ableist term and its inclusion was carefully considered in conversations with the editorial team, Rosie and a disability consultant."

Whilst Channel 4 have asterisked the second letter of the R-word, you'll have noticed that here and on social media, I've decided to also asterisk the rest of the word because I still wanted to be able to recommend what I consider to be - title aside - a powerful, important and vital documentary in which Rosie Jones sets herself the challenge of confronting a troll directly, as well as exploring the role social media has to play in the rise of this abuse.

Rosie wants everyone in the UK to be made aware of ableism and to stand up to it when they see it. The film is a call to arms for all of us to play our part in ending the suffering of those who are abused simply because of their disability.

I recently caught up with Rosie to discuss the documentary's title, the process of making such a personal documentary and what's left for her to achieve career-wise!

Why did you want to make this particular documentary?

Well as you know, I'm a comedian and I've made myself a career from telling jokes and throwing myself out of planes. And that is really really good fun. But always running alongside that is that I am a woman with cerebral palsy.

I've been disabled all my life, which means I have been exposed to ableism and abuse every single day. Being a positive, optimistic, eternally happy comedian, I never let people into that side. It felt like a dirty secret for a long time.

But it has really hit a point in my career, definitely with Covid and how the Tory government treated people with disabilities during the pandemic, where I feel passionate and I thought, I have a platform to make a difference and the opportunity to educate people about ableism and the abuse I receive.

I thought that was super important, because unfortunately, even now, even today, when you ask people what racism, sexism, and homophobia is, they can tell you like that. But if you said "What is ableism?" they don't know. They stumble over their words. They even ask "Is that a thing?" and I think while we live in a world where people don't even know what ableism is, how the hell are we going to stop it and change the world into a better place?

We only had an hour show and I really feel like we are only really scratching the surface. But this is definitely a beginner's guide to ableism. Hopefully, this is a foundation we can work from and build up to hopefully change society's beliefs on what it means to be a disabled person.

One detail that really struck me was how you walk around with headphones on so that you can't hear the abuse thrown your way. I've seen you walking around London and Edinburgh many times, and had no idea.

I am well aware that a lot of my closest friends will be learning things about me, (by watching this film), that even they don't know.

I don't want people to think that I'm sad and have an awful life, because I don't. I'm genuinely happy and genuinely love my career and what I do, but it is something I do not dwell on.

But as a disabled person, I think we do swallow a lot of that abuse because I certainly don't want people to feel sad or upset on my behalf. But actually, even that is damaging, because they need to know. They need to know what I'm hiding.

If I carry on sweeping it under the carpet, ignoring it, or swallowing the abuse, firstly, I will suffer. That will have damaging effects on me. And secondly, looking at the wider picture, no one will change. They're going to think it's OK to carry on casually using the R-word in the pub and that is even more damaging on a societal level.

How have you found the process of making this documentary?

Emotional. I have definitely started therapy because of it. I came to the realisation that I had spent a lot of my life, making people around me feel comfortable. And wasn't caring for myself.

It feels like I've spent 33 years putting my own feelings, my own sadness and my own anger to one side in a little box. Actually, through filming this documentary, I had to open that box and had to confront all the emotions I feel being disabled.

So that was tricky. It was very odd and weird for me, not to be telling jokes and breaking the tension to put everyone at ease, but actually, we need to do this. We need to live in the awkwardness for a bit. We need to live in the sadness or the anger because, through that, that's when we will make a change.

This documentary has been a long time in the making. We've been making it for nearly a year now and a year on, I feel stronger and more confident in myself. I feel like I am more honest with society, in that when I am now faced with ableism, or confrontation, or abuse, I am able to go "No! No! That is not OK." and call it out.

It has not been a walk in the park, but I am a better, stronger, rounded person because of it.

I have to ask you about the show's title which has already caused controversy and divided opinions. Why did you want to use an ableist slur in the title and not remove it when others thought you perhaps should have?

I know a lot of people will feel uncomfortable and upset and awkward around it. And to that, I say "good". Because that word has been used as a weapon towards me all my life and by using it in the title, I am turning it back around onto the perpetrators and going "This is not OK" If this makes you feel uncomfortable, change your words. Stop using it.

Unfortunately, I do think a lot of disabled people might feel upset by seeing this word, and although I want them to enjoy it, this film is not for disabled people. They already know this shit. They do not need to be reminded of the abuse that they receive every day. To them, I say, "Babe, don't watch it. Go and enjoy Schitt's Creek instead."

It's for non-disabled people. People who don't know what ableism is. People who casually say the word r***** in the pub to their friends, without even considering the connotations or the history of that word. This documentary is for them.

I know it is a controversial title, but I also need to say that it was my choice alone. Throughout, I have had the support wholeheartedly of Channel 4 and TwoFour, the production company. But the decision was mine and I'm so proud of.

I found it interesting when you mentioned how you were not bullied at school, considering the abuse you receive from adults as an adult, today.

It is interesting. In the documentary, I do say I wasn't bullied. And I don't think I was. They didn't out-and-out abuse me, but in hindsight, I do think there was low-level bullying. I do think everyone acted differently around me. It was always up to me to break the tension.

So although those children would not shout "r*****" at me in the playground, I 100% believe they would casually throw it around to each other in the playground. So although it's not out-and-out abuse and bullying and ableism, it is that low-level, ableist society and attitude where people are being ableist without even realising. Which arguably, is even more damaging than shouting a slur at a disabled person on the street.

I know you were very keen to meet with a troll in the documentary. And towards the end of the film, you do. What was that experience like?

I was scared. I didn't know what they'd be like. What they'd say. And it sounds really weird to say, but on some level, it was disappointing, because I had built myself up to meeting an almost Disney villain, and I really really wanted the troll to say "I did it. I don't regret it. I did it because I'm evil. I will carry on trolling people" because I could put the blame on them.

But actually, the reality was that we live in a grey area and I met a troll, but I didn't. I met a person who had mental health issues. I met a person who was an alcoholic. I met a person who was a three-dimensional human being with flaws, who deeply regrets what they did. I met a victim. And I think by meeting that troll, it made me realise that we cannot blame ableism or online abuse on a singular person or a singular entity.

Now I am left asking, who's accountable? Is it me as a disabled person? Is it you as a disabled ally? Is it the social media companies who invite this hate abuse? Is it up to the police who don't take disability hate crimes as seriously as other hate crimes? Or is it up to the government which doesn't have the policies and laws to hold those who abuse people accountable?

Where I am at the moment, you've got to answer with "Yes" to all of those questions. It's up to everyone. Meeting that troll wasn't a satisfying "It's your fault!" ending, we are left going "Right, so now let's at least start trying to make the world a better and more accepting place." But it's going to be a long journey.

Before I let you go, you mention in the documentary how the abuse you receive almost made you quit comedy. Can I just say, please don't. It's not you that needs to change and give up what you love doing and are so good at, it's them. I just wanted to say that.

Thank you. I seriously thought about it, but now, by making this film I'm going, "No. It's not up to me to be something I'm not. Or to stop doing what I love. It's up to them and up to society to change."

Let's end on a positive then. What's next for you?

I'm going to be annoying and just say that there are a lot of exciting things that I can't say right now. My next big thing is that I'm continuing my tour in the autumn and currently writing two more of my children's books. A lot of annoyingly secret stuff, but safe to say I'll be on your TV screens again very soon!

Is there anything you haven't done yet, that you'd love to?

I think my own sitcom. I would absolutely love my own sitcom so hopefully, one day. I am manifesting it!

Rosie Jones: Am I A R*****? airs Thursday 20th July at 10pm on Channel 4

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