© Mik Scarlet. First published in The Independent
So it’s that time of year again. The BBC’s Children In Need campaign. A whole night of stars begging us to give money to help the “poor little things”. Terry and Gabby front this all night-er and we give. Or should I say you give. As someone who comes from one of the groups portrayed as IN Need then I won’t be. Yes I used to be a disabled child.
Disabled from birth, I grew up with no disabled heroes, no disabled actors, pop stars, or TV presenters. I had no idea what my future would be but I knew it wouldn’t be glamorous. No it would be working in an office or factory or shop… if I was lucky. More likely it would be a life on state benefits, being look after, and down upon by society. I was lucky; I was one of the first generation if disabled kids whose parents didn’t believe the prognosis doctors and social workers gave them. Their child’s life was not going to be that grim. They fought to send me to a normal school. They fought to make sure I was integrated.
I left school with nine “O” levels and two “A levels. I didn’t go to university, as there were only two in the whole country that could take a student in a wheelchair, and both were as unappealing to me as possible. I did go to art college, but that was inaccessible and I wasn’t going to wait the six months before the local council would do ay alterations to the build before I could go to the toilet, and then I studied to be a social worker, but the number of medical social workers had been cut by Maggie’s lot and I didn’t want to go into a field I had no experience of and anyway by the time I had left 6th Form I had discovered nightclubs, music and girls, so further study had lost it’s appeal. You see sending me to a mixed ability school meant I had grown up with the able bodied. I understood that they too were ill, they too had hang up about their bodies, and that they too wanted to follow their dreams. I however had been in hospital, I had been told I would die more than once and I was disabled… anything I achieved was so amazing to everyone that I never had to worry about failing. I could drop out after 6th form and form a rock group. Hey I could spend the next 18 years trying to get a record out and no one was going to ask me “when are you going to settle down?” I could spend years hoping for my big break.
Over 10 years ago it happened and a TV producer spotted me. I began my TV presenting career doing occasional pieces for various shows but soon had my own kids TV show, and won various awards including an Emmy. I was one of the most famous disabled men in Britain and was regularly recognised by kids, both able bodied and disabled.
During the 80’s and 90’s I worked within the BBC and saw the commitment to changing attitudes towards disabled people. The BBC wanted disabled people on their staff, they wanted them to make shows and influence the attitudes of everyone on their staff. They were at the forefront of the British media when it came to disabled people, both in the employment of and attitudes towards. Then the rot set in. Towards the end of the nineties the disabled started to lose their “in” status. We became uncool, and slowly we disappeared from your screens. Two years ago the BBC axed “From The Edge”, it’s disability news show. OK the ratings were bloody awful but hey it was a speciality show. Not exactly prime time. Now the BBC output has no disabled presenters, apart from one brilliant guy who does an occasional bit on Children’s BBC. The rest of the output now views us disabled presenters as “unsexy”. At least two producers have said to my face that they think the viewers don’t want to watch disabled people. No we’ll put you off your dinner.. ???
So we’re back to being the subject of begging. Now I presented the ITV Telethon back in 1992. I saw how condescending it was going to be. With people like Michael Aspel truly believing that all disabled people dream of being cured, and producers not understanding how to ask the public for donations without portraying the recipients as pathetic, it was a good thing I was there. Luckily that was the end of the Telethon, but if the BBC insists on doing Children In Need they must realise that they can no longer make it a “By us, for them” affair. Disabled people nowadays have jobs and lives, are integrated into society and have had enough of turning on their TVs and either not being there at all or being the subject for pity.
In closing just remember the TV of yesterday. Hardly any women, no ethnic minorities, just middle class, middle aged men with plums in the mouths. How unacceptable would that be in today’s world? Well that’s how it feels to be disabled in the UK. We’re invisible. Children In Need… yeah in need of representation, of a future, of heroes. Not of pity!