Television & Disability – The Mik Scarlet Lecture – Part 1

Last night watched the Huw Wheldon Lecture with Dr Brian Cox OBE. As my wife Diane is currently studying for a degree in Physics, and so I am becoming interested in science by osmosis, we tend to catch whatever programs he is involved with. Not only is the Coxster one of the sexiest men is science (as I am told repeatedly by Di and her friends), but he is one of the key movers in making science more popular and understood by society. When I saw he was giving a lecture on how science should be portrayed on TV I knew I had to catch it. Finally a program about science where I would be as knowledgeable as my wife.

Of course Brian, and as someone who regularly visits my front room I feel I can call him that, didn’t let us down. The lecture was fantastic explanation of how good science programming should be made. Let’s face it, Brian Cox is one of the leading Physicists in the world today, The Wonders of the Solar System is one of the best science shows ever made, and with the help of his wife Gia who works in the media, Dr Cox (more formal now) is one of the best people to explain the direction that science TV should be moving.

Royal Television Society Lecture – You Tube – Part 1
Royal Television Society Lecture – You Tube – Part 2
Royal Television Society Lecture – You Tube – Part 3

After watching the show, I found myself wishing that someone could do the same for the direction of disability in factual and documentary TV. As I can’t get a TV company to give me 40 minutes of air time, I shall try to address how TV should deal with disability in blog form.

The first question that’s needs answering is that of language. Whatever the story being covered, what language is used changes the way that story is perceived. Let’s take an example. Say a local news station ran a story about a disabled child raising money for charity. Now having seen this story many times we all know that words like brave and courageous will pop up somewhere. The problem with words like that is context. If the child had done something that anyone might call brave or courageous, such as climbing a mountain or a parachute jump, then maybe such words might be OK. But if the child has just put on a jumble sale or done a sponsored swim then these words imply that the fact someone disabled has done these things is some way different that if it had been an able bodied child. This is not the case. The story should be about what a thoughtful child this was, and almost ignore the disability. Why? Well, the focusing on the disability makes the good deed a side story to the fact a disabled child can actually do things. It continues a belief that anyone disabled is less capable, and that this disabled child is uncommon. There is also a more subtle issue. It creates an impression that any disabled person who does not push themselves to do such uncommon tasks are in some way less. As disability is already thought of as making someone less of a person, this kind of language entrenches this attitude. As I have already said, the focus of the story should be on the fund raising and not on the disability.

This focus also carries over to the stories about people fighting illness or coming to disability. Those who are in this position are not brave or courageous. Actually most people will fight and try their hardest to cope. This is demonstrated by the fact that so few people do kill themselves or pop off to Dignitas. Of course it is hard, and I do understand that it can help your state of mind to think of yourself as brave during a dark time. But I know from personal experience that it can have equally dark effects.

When I went into my wheelchair, I was always being told I was brave. It appealed to me to think of myself that way and helped me cope. But whether you are ill or newly disabled or your disability has changed in some way, you will come to a point when it does get to be too much. When it does, you find yourself not only depressed by the situation you are in but also by the feeling that you have let everyone down by not being brave any more. In fact the lack of bravery can make you feel like you would be better off not being around, for all concerned. It happened to me when I 17. I had been in my chair for 2 years, and had coped very well (and bravely) with the illness, the surgery and readjusting to life. Then one day I found myself wondering would I ever have a girlfriend. I was sure no one would want to be with a cripple like me, and I crashed into a depression. Then I felt a total failure. Not only was I going to be alone for the rest of my life, but I was also a coward. I considered killing myself, and even prepared everything. I cut the cord of an electrical appliance, plugged it into a socket, ran it to the bathroom and ran a bath. I was going to get in, and drop the cord into the bath. It was only the fact that my parents would be the ones who would discover me that stopped me. Typically, within a few weeks I had a girlfriend and I realized that the whole “brave” thing was foolish.

At that time disability never seemed to be on TV, so this was the result of just the language used by my family and friends. We now see soldiers coping with horrific injuries and disabled sportsmen and women as strive to be the best at their chosen sport, continuously being called brave and courageous. I know that it will be having a much greater effect. Especially as these types of people have mind sets that revolve around performance and excellence. Imagine how it will effect them when they feel that they hit a low point, and have become less by no longer being brave.

Not only does it effect those who are disabled or sick, it also creates an attitude towards disability and sickness that has an effect on all society. Anyone who is not disabled or sick is sure that they could not be that brave, and so they begin to think about the subject with fear. They are sure that if it ever happened to them they would rather die, mainly as they doubt they could cope. If the media showed that the majority of people face such a life changing event in the same way as these soldiers and Paralympians do, it would make disability much more accepted and understood.

The reason why I know people would cope is because it’s why humans have evolved to be the most advanced life form on the planet. We adapt to pretty much everything that’s thrown at us. Also it would mean that when these soldiers and sporty types hit a moment when it gets too much they won’t find themselves feeling like a failure for not continuing to be stoic.

Now that’s a lot to read through, so I will stop there. Next time I will look at words like tragic and examine the subjects of news stories and documentaries. So stay tuned.

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