Monday, February 14, 2011

Nerd or Intellectual Disability: Where's the line? Is there one?

This blog is about a television show on Corus Entertainment’s YTV network (the Y stands for Youth). It’s called It’s So Weird, and contains a skit series called Daniel Book, a takeoff of a children’s show called Daniel Cook.

Daniel Cook is good. Daniel Book is not. I consider it so insensitve,  I'm hoping it will be removed immediately from the air (with apology). But I’ll get to that later.

Before you read any further, please take a glimpse at the shows in question so you'll have some idea what I'm going on about:

If you don't have time for a look, please read on anyway. I start out with what may appear like a digression from the tv show issue, but it's not. Bear with me.

The term nerd has been thrown around a lot in recent years, possibly attributable to the rise of the computer industry and reference to some people as computer nerds. Because of it, our culture seems to have shifted somewhat, from socially ostracizing nerds to celebrating them as we watch 'nerdy' people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg accumulate large fortunes and other measures of social prestige despite their social awkwardness.

According to Wikipedia, nerd is a term for a person who avidly pursues intellectual activities, technical or scientific endeavors, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests, rather than engaging in more social or conventional activities. It often carries a derogatory connotation or stereotype.

The nerd may be awkward, shy and unattractive. Therefore, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by peers…at some point, the word nerd took on connotations of social ineptitude (emphasis mine, not Wikipedia’s).  

The first documented appearance of the word 'nerd' was the name of a creature in Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Zoo (1950), in which the narrator Gerald McGrew claims that he would collect "a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too" for his imaginary zoo.” Who knew?

Stereotypically nerds appear to lack confidence, be indifferent or oblivious to the negative perceptions held of them by others, with the result that they become frequent objects of scorn, ridicule, bullying, and social isolation.

Now that I’ve given you a short version of Nerd 101, I’ll return to YTV’s It’s So Weird, as promised.

If I were to be kind, I’d say the producers of Daniel Book were stylizing the actor in the title role as a nerd, though I don't know that Daniel pursues intellectual or scientific endeavours. Rather, they show Daniel Book learning how to kiss, go on a date, get a job. He bumbles his way through each episode, making a food of himself. The audience is supposed to find his ineptitude funny. It’s considered comedy.

Maybe it’s okay to make fun of nerds if they’re making billions of dollars. Perhaps the joke’s on us poor fools, in that case. But it’s probably not the case. Has it ever really been okay to make fun of nerds?

As I said, if I were to be kind, I’d say the producers of Daniel Book were portraying him as a nerd. But I can’t be kind. I’ve looked at episodes on YouTube, trying to see what the creative geniuses who wrote and produced these scripts were thinking (or not). I wonder how the skits got on the air without a fuss. YooHoo executive producers, anyone there?

Daniel Book isn’t a nerd. He’s a young man with an intellectual disability, developmental disability, or just plain disability, whatever you want to call it. And let me tell you, all the real Daniel Books in the world, along with their families, suffer plenty. The world isn’t always a kind place to people with these disabilities, as the TV show so beautifully exemplifies. They get laughed at. And it doesn’t stop there.

My son, who has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome has a few of Daniel’s traits. The characteristics generally belong to other diagnoses though, sometimes Asperger’s Syndrome or Down Syndrome, to name only two. But the names don’t matter.

Following is a short list of what (some) people with intellectual (or other) disabilities may at times (and certainly not always) do. Funny thing, it’s what Daniel Book does too.

They touch people inappropriately and too often (not necessarily sexually), poke them, invade their ‘personal’ space. They repeat questions over and over, ask inappropriate personal questions; are self-centred in their conversation. They don’t pick up on the social cues people are giving them (like…you’re talking too much, you’re crowding me, I’m uncomfortable with the questions you’re asking, you’re not listening to what I’m saying…). To put it (overly) simply, they don’t connect well.

So what’s so funny about that? I can’t think of a thing. But I can tell you what’s so hurtful about it. But I probably don’t have to. You can figure it out yourself, I’m sure.

Then why didn’t the people at YTV?  What were they thinking? Are they so isolated and insensitive that they don’t ‘get’ it?  I’m bringing up the whole issue of ‘Nerds’ in this blog because I’m honestly wondering if the YTV people use the excuse ‘we were only poking fun at nerds like Bill G and Mark Z.”  But honestly, how funny is that? It’s a lousy excuse.

I have to refer them back to the first few paragraphs of my blog – the ones that talk about social isolation, bullying and exclusion.

I am not the only parent of an intellectually disabled child who is fuming right now. We’re writing emails to YTV, Corus Entertainment and Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council. We’re hoping to get Daniel Book off the air.

But that alone won’t satisfy me. I want the producers, creative teams and management at YTV to do twenty hours, minimum, of volunteer work at Community Living Toronto, an organization that provides support and housing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There are some special people there they should get to know.

Compassion and empathy are good things. More people should have them.

 See what you think about the show yourself:

Want to contact the Standards Council?

Or what about YTV?

1 comment:

  1. I tried, but couldn't bear it - I have seen Daniel Cook's show and I happen to think it's terrific. This "take-off" - sorry for the flattering term - I can't think of another - is disgusting - and it bears absolutely no resemblance to DC's show - or to DC himself.
    I support your campaign and hope that the people who created this nightmare smarten up and fast.

    BTW, you're a terrific writer. I particularly love "YooHoo executive producers, anyone there?"

    Keep these fabulous articles coming. And thanks.