Negative Comments about Person with a Disability Violates Equitable Portrayal Code, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, September 23, 2009 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning a segment entitled “Spencer the Cripple” on the Dean Blundell Show on CFNY-FM (102.1 The Edge, Toronto).  A listener complained that the segment was offensive and degrading towards persons with disabilities.  The CBSC found the broadcast in violation of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code.

The Dean Blundell Show is The Edge’s morning show, which features the news, weather, music, humorous banter among the three hosts, and, occasionally, in-studio guests.  One recurring guest was Spencer Miller, a man with cerebral palsy who referred to himself as “Spencer the Cripple” and appeared on the program to speak frankly about life with a disability.  The CBSC received a complaint about the January 5, 2009 segment.  Blundell and his co-hosts asked Miller about his personal hygiene habits and stated that they did not believe Miller when he insisted that he is able to wipe himself after using the bathroom.  They also discussed Miller’s sex life, suggesting that Miller is not an active participant in such acts and that his “assistant” has to lie him down first and wipe him off after.  At one point, one of the hosts even imitated what he believed a disabled person would sound like while performing oral sex.

The CBSC Ontario Regional Panel examined the complaint under clauses of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code relating to abusive comment, stereotyping, stigmatization and victimization, and degradation, as well as the Human Rights Clause of the CAB Code of Ethics.  The Panel concluded that the segment violated all of those clauses because the hosts

unrelentingly made Miller the target of jokes and mockery.  The routine based on the wheelchair-bound Miller’s ability to wipe himself was not merely in bad taste (that being an issue for the listener’s on-off switch), but it was also a form of victimization and stereotyping.  One of the unnecessary and utterly inappropriate examples was host Blundell’s accusation: “I don’t think you can wipe your own bum.  Admit it!”  A cruel, harsh, finger-pointing differentiation for what is for most adults a basic (if generally undiscussed) activity.  […]  All in all, the Panel finds that the hosts’ comments in the areas of personal hygiene and sexual performance inappropriately portrayed Spencer Miller, as a result of his disability, as helpless and incapable.  It also finds that their comments in these areas were reproachful, insulting and condemnatory […].

[…]

There were numerous examples of laughter and tonally inappropriate comments at Spencer Miller’s expense.  In one example that the Panel found particularly shocking, Shapiro even made a mocking sound of a vocally-challenged person, which of course had no relevance whatsoever to Miller’s physical affliction, unless one were making the assumption that all persons with a disability could be put in the same container, as in “seen one, seen them all.”

The Panel also considered that some of the comments made during the discussion about Miller’s sexual activities were too explicit for the time of day at which they were broadcast.  CFNY-FM, therefore, also violated Clause 9(b) (Radio Broadcasting) of the CAB Code of Ethics.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes and the pay television Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  More than 725 radio stations, satellite radio services, television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

– 30 –

All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab