A Colourful Commentary

“God must be a painter; why else would he have so many colours?”- A Beautiful Mind.

Just as, for many centuries, black people were stigmatised and alienated as an abnormal ‘other’, we see obvious separatism between disabled people and us.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s infamous patients wear ‘greens’ and have wild red hair, whilst the staff members are pristinely monochromatic- white uniforms, against white walls, with black skin. This version of “coloured” people may inhabit an entirely different spectrum, but they are stigmatised just the same as their black counterparts were (/are) in their struggle for equality.

If we look beyond the all consuming blackness of depression and past the, perhaps ironically coloured, Blue Badge (inappropriate due to the colour’s associations with masculinity, tranquility and stability, unlike the stereotypically unstable, turbulently distressed woman), we see the full rainbow spectrum of disability: the charity awareness ribbon.

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But, how far does wearing a coloured ribbon raise awareness or show ones support for a certain minority? Do the colours actually mean anything? Should we demarcate a single colour for each condition? Or it this just an arbitrary means of classification, leading ultimately to a juvenile society akin to the colour-coded teams on sports day? And if racism is so widely condemned in our modern society, then why are we still colour-coding?!

When asked, a selection of people, between the ages of 20 and 60, were almost unanimously oblivious to what a list of coloured ribbons stood for. That is not to say they were entirely ignorant of charitable associations; many had a pretty good idea of charity logos, emblazoned on their memory by billboards and TV ads alike. What’s more, several of those surveyed donate to charity on a regular basis and even more of the group have experienced at least one of the associated conditions on a personal or familial basis. The issue (perhaps a loaded word in this context) seemed to be rather that several stars on the Hollywood Boulevard of charities outshone the humble lapel ribbons. How could an orange piece of fabric worn for those with ADHD possibly stand up against Channel 4’s recent celeb-studded, big-budget, iPad-flashing ‘Stand up to Cancer’ telethon?

The problem begins with a lack of organisation: there is no central registry for charities or causes to bagsy a colour for their own set of ribbons. As such, no two websites are in complete agreement on what the colours stand for, thus undermining their usefulness as an awareness mechanism.

Having said that, over 90% knew the answer to breast cancer pink. Perhaps this is thanks to a basic lateral thinking puzzle: pink means girls, girls have breasts, pink means breast cancer. Is awareness therefore just a case of being selective with the colour they choose? But I’m not sure Dulux sells an easily recognisable “cerebal palsy” or “spina bifida” alongside ‘sumptuous plum’ and ‘proud peacock’. And, by that logic, why did no one recognise that asthma is exacerbated by smoke, smoke is grey, therefore a grey ribbon supports asthma? Can it really be a simple case of the association game? In which case, which crayon would you select to draw a picture of mental health?

Perhaps just as surprising as those few and far between respondents who didn’t recognise the causal association of pink, was the vast number of people who didn’t immediately associate the red ribbon with AIDS awareness and support. After all, the AIDS ribbon came first, creating the very genre of charity ribbons. The World AIDS Day association gives itself a good pat on the back for no longer needing to provide an accompanying explanation when distributing their ribbons, as the symbol is so widely known. Unfortunately, or according to my research at least, this celebration of their celebrity status seems horribly premature.

They also claim that red was chosen to represent their cause as it is ‘bold and visible’- understandable reasons when trying to make a statement- and because it symbolises ‘passion, a heart and love’- which relates to AIDS because? By this logic, red ought to be the colour for all charitable causes, because giving to charity obviously means you have a heart, and because without passion, what will these causes achieve?

I wonder, therefore, if there is something to be said about the immediate associations with colours and whether or not that will effect how we view a certain charity or cause?

Many of the colours gleaned positive, even ridiculous, responses: Barney the Dinosaur, Elmer the Elephant and the tongue-in-cheek character Ron Burgundy (immortalised by Will Ferrell in Anchorman) were repeatedly apparent. Should we really align Alzheimer’s, autism and brain aneurisms respectively with these comical characters? This could be a way of ameliorating the difficult topic of disability, making it as easy and non-threatening to discuss as children’s television. Or does it tread the line of non-PC unacceptability, by trivialising life-altering and life-threatening conditions? Colours obviously hold so many varied associations with different people that it is perhaps too volatile a medium with which to handle the sensitive subject of disability and difference; one person’s ‘vomit’ is another’s ‘Jackson Pollock’. Suddenly colour-coding isn’t so arbitrary, nor is it the same binary it was during the civil rights movement; it is too heavily loaded. Most notably, colour affiliations with ‘the fucking Tories’, ‘fucking UKIP’ and ‘the fucking Liberals’ could alienate people from wearing a certain ribbon; better not to raise awareness for cystic fibrosis than risk being labelled one of Farage’s loyal followers.

A response which seemed particularly, albeit subconsciously, telling was that which guessed the multicoloured puzzle ribbon for Autism awareness was associated with MENSA. Under this definition the ribbon becomes a rosette, to be worn with pride rather than sympathy. What’s more, this answer doesn’t appear to be a complete stab in the dark, after all, MENSA is not altogether divorced from the savant branch of the autism spectrum. But if you saw someone walking along the street displaying a sign of their supreme intelligence, you’d be more likely to mutter something under your breath about being a snob, than to extend your congratulations. We only want difference to be apparent if we remain superior, in the privileged position to sympathise and help.

The most common response to the multi-coloured ribbon was the association of the Gay Pride rainbow flag; a ribbon which is worn as a celebration of difference. However, surely I’m not the only one uncomfortable with gay people having a ribbon at all? Are we really aligning sexuality with physical diseases and mental disorders; the DSM no longer considers it deviant, so why should we?

LGBT causes do have a rainbow ribbon of their own, but it looks like they are unfairly encroaching upon Autism’s turf. The fact that ‘gay pride’ was a relatively common answer, much like the pink ribbon being general knowledge, stands as a testament to successful PR. Perhaps it’s not a case of how relevant your ribbon colour is, it’s simply a matter of who you saw wearing it. In our celebrity driven culture even deciding NOT to wear a red poppy in the run up to Remembrance day is considered newsworthy; so when a group of good looking, famous women tell you to wear pink, you do.

So, after all this; what really is the point?!

Are we participating in an illiterate interpretation of forcing disabled people to wear demarcating signs: “I have *insert disability here*” Sounds familiar…


What do these ribbons really mean? Are they raising awareness, acting as a conversation starter, like a grown up version of the ubiquitous ratty wristband that provokes “What festivals have you been at this summer then?” Are we wearing them in a stance of self-congratulations? Screaming to the world “I know all about this disease you’ve never even heard of and, what’s more, I care!” Or, embodying our finest patronising selves, are we daring to pronounce “I empathise”?!

Maybe we’ve simply outgrown charity ribbons. In a society where a #nomakeupselfie campaign can raise £8million for Cancer Research UK in just six days; where Facebook can be completely consumed by people dousing themselves in ice water for the, until then widely unpublicised, ALS/MND foundation, perhaps ribbons need to go virtual, or preferably viral. It’s far easier to capture the world’s attention online than on your lapel.

But of course, these methods are not without their problems. Why should it be considered a statement for a woman to be seen in the public domain without make up on? This, once again, plays up to gender stereotypes: pink means girls, girls wear make up. It seems that, as a society, we can’t find a way to discuss illness and disability without drawing trite, maybe even borderline offensive, links to popular culture. We want to pride ourselves on tolerance and inclusivity, but can’t help ourselves when it comes to drawing distinct lines of definition, segregating one subset of society from another. Colour-coding is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.

Perhaps the answer is to create a single, all encompassing colour: the Pangea of charity ribbons, that says “We are all united in our difference- no one is abnormal.” But, in the interest of saving fabric, if everyone simply didn’t wear a ribbon, the effect would be much the same.

I don’t intend to heartlessly reject charitable giving, merely to point out that, clearly, awareness ribbons don’t achieve their primary purpose of raising awareness! And, if they fail to do that, they merely stand for segregation and a culture of pointing out: “Look, they’re different from me.”

(All quotes and stats from my own anonymised surveys, conducted for this assignment during my BA)


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