Stop Press

Lots of news from Scarlet Towers.

I have just been asked to join the editorial team at the lifestyle website the Fabulous Times to cover events. So lots of trips to fabulous places and parties… I hope. My first story for them is about a visit to the V&A‘s Pearls expo. For the photos I took pop off to Flickr.

I also have another article up on the Huffington Post, called What Did You Just Call Me? about disability and language. As some one who works in disability awareness training I know how important language can be when describing disabled people, yet I also want to reclaim many of the words that are thought of as “bad”. I wonder what you think on the subject? Take a look and maybe leave a comment.

This Friday I am appearing at an event in Sheffield to celebrate the 10th aniversary of Disability Sheffield. To book a place visit here. It being held at St Mary’s Church and Conference Centre, Bramall Ln, S2 Sheffield from 10:30 to 15:30. So maybe see you there?

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Epithany

I am writing this at 5.15am after laying in bed watching the green numbers on my bedside clock inexorably click forward for many hours, my head full of thoughts. I found myself unable to sleep after watching the Channel 4 program Katie: My Beautiful Friends, which I was looking forward to(see my last blog for why). However much I wanted to enjoy the show and hoped it would play a part in changing the attitudes towards people who are scarred, the show fell short thanks yet again to the use of language. The old clichés of bravery, courage and inspiration peppered the script, and as I lay there considering why C4 had gone down this road yet again, what I could do to explain why this kind of language is so damaging and who I could contact in the media to make my voice heard, I had a realisation.

Suddenly I not only grasped the reason why this kind of language had such an effect on disabled people but how the use of language tied our minority group to all the other minorities out there and how charities played a massive part in continuing this use of damaging terminology. I have already stated how language effects that way disabled people are thought of in society. The word brave, for instance, when used to describe some who is disabled leads the non disabled to a series of preconceptions about disabled people, their lives and what it is like to be disabled. It also creates fear that if they faced a disability, they might not find the level of bravery within themselves to be able to cope. Both these thought processes lead to a feeling of otherness around disability, and create barriers. As well as that it forces disabled people to either fit into the brave category, and so if they appear to be so by achieving some amazing feat or battling through with a smile or holding down a job then they could be described as a success, but if they do not do any of the above, not only are they not brave but they are also a failure. Language like brave has no room for explanation or exploration of experience. Disabled people face many barriers to opportunity and equality, and these can prevent people from achieving the acts of bravery and inspiration that the media craves from super cripples. In truth this is real experience of disabled people in our society.

I know that I have on occasion done things and acted in such a way that I could be described as brave and inspirational. In fact as I laid there in bed I found that if a described my life in the right way almost every moment of my life could become an inspirational story of courage in the face of adversity and triumph over tragedy. Actually you could do so for every living being on the face of the planet. Not just disabled people but everyone. We all battle against problems, we all face adversity and we all have our victories, no matter how small. You could use the language that is now used to describe disabled people to describe anyone. Especially other minorities. Surely aren’t all ethnic minorities brave and inspirational to exist and succeed in society made up mainly of white people, many of whom are hostile towards people from other races? Doesn’t every member of the LGBT community battle courageously a society of straights that see them as weird and different, and even as wrong and dangerous? Aren’t religious followers inspiring to exist in a society that is turning it’s back on faith? But then surely aren’t those who do not believe also an inspiration as they reject millennia of doctrine? Even though all of these statements could be considered as true, we very rarely hear them used. The media would find itself in hot water if it did so, especially if it did it time and time again.

So why does the media feel it can get away with it when it comes to disability? I think the reasons are two fold. One reason is that there are not many disabled people working in the media at the minute. The majority of people in the media are able bodied, but more than that they are even more obsessed with perfection than society at large. We are always being told how the media plays a role in creating issues with young people around body image due to portrayal and have been recently reminded of the pressure on presenters to stay young looking, so it is obvious how they see and cover those of us who are obviously different. The media also is driven by the need to create stories. How many meetings have I been in where the air is thick with terms like “narrative” and “jeopardy”? They are so focused on whether the story has media impact they ignore it’s wider impact. But then again, how would they know? In an industry with so few disabled people in it, then how will the majority of able bodied media types know what damage something as seemingly innocent as language can do? We all need to make our voices heard about how unhappy the use of this kind of language makes us. We all know what happens if TV presenters use the wrong kind of language about another minority, so why aren’t we kicking up a stink when it happens to us?

I have found recently that the few disabled people that are actually working in the media find it hard to question the way the media portrays disability. Partly as they are ignored, but also because raising the issue can risk their jobs. I know how unpopular I have made myself in the industry on this issue, and know how that has impacted on my career. Maybe if we all shouted as loudly as I do on occasion then we might nip the current slide backwards in the bud. But I digress.

The second reason why words like brave, courageous and inspirational are used so often around disabled people is that this kind of language actually helps some people and institutions. Let’s face it, however much last night’s show was about the issues faced by people with scars it was also about someone trying to start up a charity. Charity needs donations to exist, and no one is going to give money to someone if they are perceived as being just like everyone else. If disabled people are portrayed as either brave and courageous, and so deserve charity as they are so inspirational, or tragic and pathetic, and so desperately need charity and support, then the cash will roll in. Charity is big, big business and charities that help disabled people are major players in this massive industry. So there is an incentive to continue the use of language that dis-empowers disabled people, all in the name of income. I must also admit that during my years in the media, many of my contemporaries have actually started up their own charities. They all claimed to want to help disabled people, and they also felt that it was time that this support should be provided by us and not for us. I have always felt uneasy about going down this path, partly because I feel that there should be no need for charity and partly because I mistrust the motivations behind such an act. However much I want to be believe the good intentions given I can’t help feeling that this is in some way just a route to a more secure income.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel all charities are wrong and evil. I am a patron of the Neuroblastoma Society, who raise money to research into the cancer I had as a child and support those families touched by it, and of the National Association of Bikers with Disabilities, who help get disabled people into biking. I also work closely with the Alliance For Inclusive Education as I believe that all children should attend mainstream schooling, as I myself did. What I do feel is that charities do need to play a more vocal role in fighting to ensure the correct type of language is used when discussing disability. They have to start using their financial muscle and political clout to explain to society as a whole why the language used to describe disabled people can be a major barrier to us, and in turn to everyone. Let’s face it, able bodied people are just us the day before the accident or illness. Disabled people are the only minority to exist in every other group out there. If you get it right for us, then you get it right for every one.

Right, that’s got that off my chest. Back to bed.

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Out of Touch? Part 2

I would like to say sorry for being away for a while (mad busy) and thanks to everyone who commented on my last blog. I’m so glad that there are people who do believe that how we are portrayed in the media is as important as just being portrayed.

Part of why I have been busy recently is that I was attending a conference put on by the 2012 games organisers around diversity. During the day long round of back slapping and self congratulations I discovered something that helped explain why so much of the recent portrayal of disabled people in the media has been so wide of the mark. Both the Olympic and the Paralympic games have core values, that are used the publicise the games, and to help the public understand them. The three Olympic values are “Respect”, Excellence” and “Friendship”, while the Paralympic have four core values. They are “Equality”, “Determination”,(they go down hill from here), “Inspiration” and… “Courage”. No wonder our media is full of brave super cripple stories, if one of the biggest events in the disability calender is promoting it’s members as inspirational and courageous. How the hell can we get this equality they calm to want if the two games have such different values? Who the hell decided that on the Paralympic values?

I found myself lecturing the conference on how offended I was at “courage” and “inspiration” being a core values of the Paralympics. I am sure you all understand why but I shall explain to any readers who don’t get it. Using the word courage when discussing disability creates the perception in the able bodied that anyone living with a disability is some how brave. Much of the discrimination faced by disabled people is due to an unspoken fear of disability and the possibility of becoming disabled. Part of this fear comes from the doubt that those feeling afraid could find the courage to cope if they found themselves disabled. Yet the truth is that us disabled people aren’t some kind of super hero breed. Let’s face it, what choice do we have other than get on with it? I suppose we could pay a visit to Dignitas, but other than that living with a disability is more pragmatism that bravery. Of course we can show courage, but only in the same way a every body else can.

But courage doesn’t even fit with Paralympians. They might have dedication and commitment, and show excellence but not courage. Giving your life over to pushing your body to be the best you can be at a sport has no real elements of courage that I can see. They might be inspirational, if you want to be a sporty type, but for people like me who find all sport truly tedious, they just seem to be bit too tied up with themselves. Personally, I have found that most disabled sports people are so focused on sporting achievement that they have no real interest in things like politics or how what they do effects other disabled people. The fact that have dedicated themselves to an event that uses such offensive and damaging language to describe them proves just how out of touch with disability politics they are. Not one has gone public with their complaint or made a stand in any way. It’s left, yet again, to mouthy non sporty gits like me.

There is proof that is starting to effect other disability events too. On the website of this year’s Naidex it announces that visitors can “Hear inspirational stories from role models beating their disabilities”. Argh!!!!! Let’s not even mention that TV news standard about injured soldiers climbing something or other.

So, please dear reader, don’t just post your comments to me. Make your voice heard. Mail and write to anyone who uses any language that you find offensive. Phone in to radio and TV talk shows, complain to newspapers and magazines and blog away on the subject. Let’s make a stand, or a sit at least. I know that I shall be pursuing any avenue I can think of and bugger my career. I have never been able to keep my mouth shut to get myself on, and nor shall I. I have no desire to look back and see a world that has gone backwards and know I did nothing to try to stop it. No I’ll let the Paralympians do that.

So guess I won’t be invited to the Opening Ceremonies now, eh?

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