A producer who worked with Ricky Gervais on The Office has admitted that jokes made about his disability while working on the show made him feel ‘a little bit uncomfortable.’
Ash Atalla worked alongside Gervais as a producer on the hit series in the early 2000s, before going on to work on comedy shows such as The IT Crowd and People Just Do Nothing.
He’s used a wheelchair for almost his whole life after contracting polio as a child in Egypt, and during his time working with Gervais became the butt of a number of jokes about his disability. During one awards show appearance in 2001, Gervais referred to Atalla as ‘my little wheelchair friend,’ and joked that he was ‘just the same as Stephen Hawking, but without all the clever stuff.’
Now, in an interview with The Times, Atalla has revealed his true feelings about the ‘jokes’, saying that while he’s not spoken out about them until now, he recalls feeling ‘uncomfortable’ at the extent to which his disability was mocked by Gervais and others he worked with, and now feels the comedian went too far.
‘Those jokes didn’t bother me at the time, but they would if they happened now. I wouldn’t allow so many jokes to be made about my wheelchair, I wouldn’t want to be defined by that,’ Atalla said, explaining that for much of his career he’s fought to have ‘something else associated with me other than being in a wheelchair.’
As well as calling out his own treatment within the industry, Atalla criticised the lack of disabled representation on our screens, highlighting the continued prevalence of ‘cripface’ – a term used to refer to able-bodied actors playing disabled characters – in Hollywood.
‘That should be rule one: don’t put walking people in a wheelchair for television. Ever,’ Atalla said. ‘It cannot be right that you can barely point to a disabled character that is not defined by their disability on TV.’
Ricky Gervais has not responded to Atalla’s comments.
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