December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Disability Rights punk pioneer Ian Dury

3 min read
Punk icon and polio sufferer Ian Dury was a pioneer for disability rights with this song Spasticus Autisticus

It’s really only in recent years that disability rights have made decent headway. I can remember people in wheelchairs not being accommodated in night clubs and other venues well within living memory. So it’s with a sigh that I think back to Ian Dury – a no-nonsense campaigner for disability rights. And expressed with the rebellious spirit of punk. A spirit that rejected patronising pats on the head and a ‘there there’ attitude. Way ahead of his time, Dury demanded equal rights in uncompromising terms.

London-born Dury contracted polio aged seven in a public swimming baths. I remember him talking about this on a TV chat show with remarkable candour. That would have been in 1949 during a surge in cases. The condition is caused by the poliovirus which can move from the gut to affect the nervous system causing paralysis. Typically, fecal matter enters the mouth – hence why a swimming pool would have been a likely contender back then.

Polio and pop stars

Even in the 1970s, after years of vaccination, you would still see incidences in the street. But after that decade, I remember visibility of polio declining very sharply. Sadly, Dury was left with the condition and a withered leg all his life. He wasn’t the only pop star with polio. Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel had the condition as a child. In recent years he’s spoken movingly about the challenges he faced. I was unaware until writing this blog post that singers Neil Young and Joni Mitchell both contracted polio in the 1950s.

DISCOVER: Punk and Ska movies of the 1980s

Dury – in keeping with punk’s uncompromising attitude on just about everything – made his disability both public and the subject of his work. In 1981, the United Nations declared an International Year Disabled Persons. Dury loathed the concept and decided to write a song that would irritate the charity brigade. And so he released Spasticus Autisticus. The chorus apparently references the movie Spartacus where his slave army stand up one after another to declare “I’m Spartacus!”. While the verses are pure Ian Dury – dry cockney humour almost in the tradition of Music Hall:

I wibble when I piddle; Cos my middle is a riddle

I dribble when I nibble; And I quibble when I scribble

The BBC, disability rights and Ian Dury

Summoning up maximum sanctimony, the BBC banned the single from being aired. Mind boggling still. How dare a disabled person express a view of their condition that able bodied people find uncomfortable? You seriously couldn’t make it up. The ban apparently followed a complaint from the Conservative MP Tim Yeo who was chair of The Spastics Society.

Already the term ‘spastic’ was questionable. Frankly it had been a term of playground abuse for years. One unpleasant PE teacher at my secondary school described my javelin throwing ability employing that word circa 1977. But it still took until 1994 for The Spastics Society to rename itself as Scope – fully 13 years after demanding that Dury be banned.

In a statement through gritted teeth, Dury’s record label Polydor noted: “The people who control pop radio seem to consider that this is a word that can’t be used in polite society or in a normal context but only in hushed, serious or reverent terms.” Dury died in the year 2000. Twelve years later, his song was played at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics.

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