Bondi Hipsters’ Nick Boshier stars as a man living ‘without specialty’ in a world where disability is the norm
The PC term for Jeremy is “without specialty” but the colloquial slur is “dud”. He wears a lanyard that announces to the rest of the world that he is in the minority – “not special” – in an alternate universe in which disability is the norm.
The tag is there to disclose Jeremy’s status to strangers, to make those “with speciality” more comfortable around him. It is meant to help him avoid embarrassing or offensive situations, he says, but in reality it makes him the subject of uninformed assumptions, belittling comments and patronising “well-meaningness” that borders on the absurd.
This is the world of Jeremy the Dud, an Australian short film that was released online last week. Flip the storyline and it’s real life for the one in five Australians who are disabled.
Nick Boshier of Bondi Hipsters and Soul Mates plays Jeremy, and is the only main cast member of Jeremy the Dud who does not identify as disabled. He is supported by a cast of Australian actors with disability including Adam Bowes, Chloe Hayden and Sam Humphrey – a refreshing change from the mainstream TV landscape that rarely casts actors with disability, let alone as characters without a tragic backstory, who are leading ordinary lives.
A co-production between Robot Army in Victoria and the non-profit organisation gen-U, the satirical film’s trailer clocked up close to 5 million views when it launched on Facebook in August. The full 20 minutes lives up to expectations, using humour and flipping reality to challenge assumptions about disability.
“This might sound odd but I never really understood that discrimination would follow many people 24/7. I hadn’t thought of that before,” Boshier tells Guardian Australia. “I learned from the cast that discrimination comes in different shapes and sizes, and doesn’t always manifest out of malice or ignorance. It’s just as easy to treat someone like the ‘other’ by patronising them through awkwardness or overcompensation.”
The film opens on Jeremy’s 21st birthday, when he gets released from the assisted care facility he has lived in since he was a child. “People say it’s impossible for people like me ever to hope to have a normal life,” he narrates.
Out on the street, strangers mock him, calling him a “stupid dud who’s got no friends” – but the discrimination isn’t always so blatant. A taxi driver slows his voice and babies Jeremy, asking him if he’s sure he can travel alone – and when he gets to his aunt Christine’s house, where he’ll be staying, his cousin Kyle feels the need to warn his friends: “He’s kind of a dud … but you can barely tell!”
As a person “without specialty”, it is expected Jeremy will become a “helper”: a job that includes “pushing wheelchairs, getting things down from the shelf, or ‘reaching’, and wiping bottoms”. In the real world, these are important roles for the independence of people with disability – but Jeremy wants more: he wants a “normal” career.
But, in this world, the expectations for people without specialty are low. An angry bar manager, who already employs one “dud”, tells Jeremy’s cousin he’s not “running a dud employment agency” and doesn’t have time to babysit: “I’m all for equal rights but I’m running a business.”
Another potential employer overcompensates by calling Jeremy “adorable” and “cute”, and a gift shop manager thinks Jeremy’s quest for work in customer service is a prank. “We don’t hire people without specialty,” she says blatantly.
“Saying ‘without specialty’ sounds just as mean as calling someone a ‘dud’,” points out Jeremy’s cousin Heidi, the only character that speaks to Jeremy as an equal.
“Yeah, ‘without specialty’ is our official term,” Jeremy says.
But, Heidi asks, “What do you want to be called?”
“Uh … ‘Jeremy’.”
The messages in Jeremy the Dud are strong but the film avoids using the word “disability”. I think using that word would reinforce that there’s no need to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed with it – after all, Jeremy doesn’t want others to feel embarrassed or offended around him.
Still, I nodded, cringed and laughed as Jeremy encountered these layers of condescension and discrimination. It is a funny film but the stigma faced is very real – and so often we have to prove we are disabled enough. The treatment Jeremy experienced has happened to me, and to my friends, but, when we recall it to others, some people don’t believe it.
Jeremy the Dud addresses that disbelief, asking: How would you feel if someone spoke to you like that? Why is it justified when it happens to us? The ableism and discrimination of the real world becomes glaringly obvious when the roles are reversed.
Hayden, who plays Heidi, can relate to what Jeremy goes through. “You can’t usually tell I’ve got a disability unless you look between the lines,” she says. “People don’t expect anything ‘different’ about me and, when I do mention it, or they find out, the reactions are crazy … and the exact reason that Jeremy the Dud needs to be watched.”
Ryan Chamley, the film’s writer and director, who doesn’t identify as being disabled, says he is passionate about challenging ignorant thinking and promoting inclusion of groups that are marginalised. He says he fully consulted with cast members and other people with disability in the writing of the script, which he is hoping to turn into a series.
“I would love for people to think about how they treat people, regardless of their intentions, some people with great intentions can still be way off,” Chamley says. “I really hope it can start conversations that lead to people being treated equally.”