the tetrapod

Troglodytes in the chocolate factory: the disabled child as rhetoric


“I suppose you’ll be telling us that Veruca Salt has a special need next.” said Grandpa Joe. “All that spoilt girl needed was a good slap.”

“How dare you?” cried Mr Wonka. “Anybody who slaps a child is worse than Hitler! You should have noticed that poor Veruca was suffering from a terrible anger management problem.”

“What about Augustus Gloop?” asked Charlie. “He was greedy and fat. How does that make him deserve a chocolate factory?”

“Ah-ha!” cried Mr Wonka, “That dear child was clearly suffering from poor self-esteem. I hate to think what torment he was going through. […] Now, off you go! I have to take the other, more troubled children to the Great Glass Student Support Department where a thousand Oompa-Loompas will help them with their needs by catering to their every whim.”

Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the library (but no Mark Twain), and a Special Educational Needs department that can cope with everything from dyslexia to Munchausen By Proxy. If Gove is serious about bringing back O levels the Government will have to repeal the Equality Act because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be “elitist”…

These two extracts are direct quotes from blog posts written by prominent education commentators in the UK, within the last ten years. The writer of the first is a teacher and columnist with over 17,000 followers on Twitter. The writer of the second is a columnist, “caustic wit”, and now chair of the government’s new Office for Students. The latter post, now that its writer is in public office, has been hastily removed from view: the former, on the contrary, is evidently still a source of pride for its writer, who retweets it at regular intervals, noting how it remains “relevant”.

There will be plenty of readers for whom no further analysis or detail is required, and I am glad of that. If you read these extracts and feel immediately repulsed, and immediately sure that you do not want to think about their writers any more, or listen to any attempts they might make to defend themselves, I empathise. Most of me feels like that too. And yet there is something in their defence of themselves – there is something in what they think they are doing – or what they claim to think they are doing – that I can’t let go of, because I think it might be worse than the language itself.

When challenged about the fact that their writing is deeply insulting to disabled children, both commentators have mounted similar defences. Yes, they say, they have comically exaggerated and mocked. But they are not mocking the children. They’re mocking the adults around the children: they are mocking an attitude, a culture. Yes, they’ve implied that children who use school SEN departments are ridiculous pantomime characters who “deserve a slap”. Yes, they’ve painted an image of a subhuman cave-dweller as an example of a child who wouldn’t be able to take a GCSE. But it’s not about the children. It was to make a point. We’re taking it too seriously.

Now again, if your response to this begins with “B” and ends in “t” and has an “ullshi” in the middle, I can forgive you. For one thing, the “point” being made – that schools are going too far in their attempts to include children with disabilities – is a bizarre and not especially coherent one, and for another, it’s arguable that whatever your intention, there is nothing that justifies juxtaposing the word “troglodyte” with an image of a disabled child. Even if your aim is truly to achieve the best possible outcomes for disabled children, if your process for getting there involves tapping into dehumanising, dog-whistling stereotypes – even as a rhetorical device – you’ve gone wrong somewhere.

There’s something else, however, that I think these responses show, which requires that we go along with them for just a little bit longer. Let’s say the writers of these posts really want to correct something they see as wrong with our education system. And let’s say, odd as it may be, that they really think that these “humorous” caricatures will actually help them to make their point. Let’s take them at their word.

If we do, we get to something that’s possibly even worse than anything so far. Let’s take the “troglodyte” example. This term is so egregious that even its author was compelled to attempt to defend it specifically, in an addendum to his post:

That’s the context in which I use the word ‘troglodyte’. It’s supposed to conjure up the fictional, cave-dwelling creatures from the movie One Million Years BC – someone whom it’s plainly ridiculous to try and tailor the national curriculum for. It’s not supposed to be a synonym for a child with SEN.

So far, so predictable – “I didn’t mean it, it was a comic exaggeration.” Fine (I mean, not fine, but stay with me). But if we look back at the original quote, the line he uses is “functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six…“. So this comic word “troglodyte” from One Million Years Ago is sandwiched between descriptors that could, actually, apply to real children. They’d need some editing to be in line with current educational terminology, but not much. I wouldn’t call them “illiterate”, but I teach 11-13 year olds with very early literacy skills that don’t yet extend to reading or writing text. I would never say “mental age”, but in some areas my students’ development is roughly equivalent to a child in a mainstream early years setting. Notwithstanding the appalling t-word, this comic exaggeration child, this caveman joke child, this hilarious impossible rhetorical device, really existsIt’s “plainly ridiculous” to try and tailor the national curriculum for these children, is it? Well, I’m not sure what I’m doing teaching a carefully-adapted core curriculum of national curriculum subjects.

The problem is that it may be “plain” to the writer of this paragraph that such a child ought never to be included, but he’s betrayed the fact that he doesn’t think that children with high levels of need actually exist. Or he hasn’t paused for a second to think about them. Or he thinks they are acceptable cannon fodder to be labelled cavemen and thrown under the bus. Or some confused mixture of all three.

The same is true for the chocolate factory. The image of a “fat, greedy” child being given help with self-regulation and self-esteem is so unimaginably comic the author doesn’t deem it to be offensive, because it can’t possibly be real. Or a child who presents with “spoilt” behaviour being given help to manage their anger. How ridiculous. How hilarious. Imagine.

I do not think the men who wrote these things are stupid. I think, if they were forced to think about it, they would admit that versions of the children they use as comic rhetoric do actually exist in the world. But I think that they would say, or imply, that that is none of their concern. This is the thing that truly chills me. I think it is more convenient for them to consider these children outside their remit as educators. I think they want a world in which they do not have to be bothered by these tricky inconveniences who, in my Dahlesque whimsy, I insist on calling “children”.