Memories of Representation!

On Friday August 22nd I took part in the monthly BBC Ouch Podcast, with presenters Simon Minty and Shannon Murray. It was great to be back at the BBC, to be in a studio covering stories about disability and to be working with such great people. However the whole experience did leave me a little saddened.

Mik outside New Broadcasting House

Outside the Beeb

I was filled with the memories of a time when disabled people were featured on radio and TV so much more often. It might sound crazy to any body who is young reading this, but when I started in the media over 25 years ago disabled people appeared regularly on both TV and radio. All of the TV channels had a regular show dedicated to disability, fronted and made by disabled people and in radio we not only had a dedicated show but disabled people worked in the mainstream all over the air waves. I myself started out in mainstream TV, working on prime time on ITV, before going over to Channel 4’s “yoof” output. I was also picked up the the BBC’s disability show One In Four which was reaching the end of a highly successful run, featuring a team of disabled presenters that were minor household names. When the show ended, the BBC created the Disability Programs Unit, which ensured that all disability based TV was made by entirely disabled production staff as well as being fronted by disabled onscreen talent. They made the series From The Edge, which ran for 10 years, and Over The Edge as well as other award winning shows such as Disabled Century. All made by a team of talented disabled people. The other channels also had specialist disability programs too, but the BBC was most committed to ensuring a visible disabled presence within their output.

In The Studio

In The Studio

What is most important about having shows about disabled people being made by disabled people was the representation was fair and truthful. We made sure no one was exploited and that we always covered a story in such a way to empower those involved. Sadly the landscape of the industry changed as the century came to a close and by the year 2000 all disability TV had been canceled. At the BBC all of the onscreen talent were told we would be “integrated” into the mainstream, but what actually happened was we pretty much all ended up on the dole. After that disabled people disappeared from our screens, and so we ended where we are today. With the exception of The Last Leg and ParaSport I would say disabled people are either invisible or the object of “freak TV”. We now hear that the industry wants to increase the numbers of disabled talent on our screens, but will these moves get anywhere near to the level we once had? I doubt it. Even if they slowly do, will this talent have the ability to control what they are expected to do and be involved in shaping the output as not to create exploitative or unrepresentative programs? I hope so, but I would say that if the programming that has been produced in the last ten years is anything to go by my hope may be misplaced.

Recording in the Bag!

Recording in the Bag!

While it is great that disabled people still have somewhere to go to find out about news that impacts on them, thanks to the podcasts of the BBC, Disability Now and Disability Horizons, it is a real shame that these are the only resources. Especially in a media that has now proliferated and grown in a way we could never have imagined way back when. If there had been a real integration of both the disabled talent and the stories that are of interest to the disabled community then I doubt we would be needing yet another big push to increase disabled people in the media. Instead of creating a representative media back in the late 1990s, we were written out of the industry, with only few people like those at BBC Ouch and the ubiquitous BBC Radio 4 presenter Peter White remaining. So we end up where we are today, with the industry acting like they are doing great things by trying to increase the numbers of disabled people in the media, while not admitting that they are only trying to correct mistakes made decades ago. Disabled people can be great on our screens and working behind the action, and anyone of my age will know this to be true. I mean, without blowing my own trumpet, I won an Emmy in 1992 and was voted Children’s TV Presenter of the Year in the same year. Not disabled presenter, just presenter! To think that back then there were so many disabled faces on our screens your needed both hands to count them! We must get back to those days and keep it that way.

Will Disabled Talent Always Be On The Outside?

Will Disabled Talent Always Be On The Outside?

Right, rant over. One last thing…. of you are a media exec looking for disabled talent…. gizza a job! (Shameful I know…. but if you don’t ask, you don’t get!)

The Podcast is available from the BBC Ouch website now!

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Out of Touch?

I regularly run a session of disability awareness training for various companies, and am about to venture into training for media companies. I got the gig after I passed on some comments about language and disability to a TV production company. But before I begin advising them, I must admit I find myself filled with self doubt. You see I wonder if am out of touch with how disabled people feel about the way the world sees them now.

When I began my career in broadcasting, I lived a life where I was always the only disabled person in my social group. There was one other guy with a disability at my high school, but he was year or two younger than me so we didn’t really know each other. Other than that I was always not only the only but the first disabled pupil at all of my schools and colleges. I knew no other disabled people, and knew nothing of disability politics. This did get me in some trouble during the early part of my career. I got in deep doo-doo when I fronted the London area’s coverage of the ITV Telethon in 1992. I had no idea that disabled people were so against charity events like this, and truly thought that I was striking a blow for disabled people by showing that we could give to charity instead of always being the ones who received. This mistake really effected my career, and even today I get people calling me a “traitor” for being involved with Telethon.

This violent response, which included being spat at and physically attacked on occasion, led me on a quest to understand the politics of disability. I tried to get an insight into what was meant by disability politics, and asked my most ardent attackers all about it. I still remember a lift journey with Vicki Waddington that opened my eyes to why everyone was so upset with me. The time I spent working with the BBC’s Disability Programmes Unit was what really educated me about the subject, and allowed me to reassess how actions and words all have political implications when dealing with disability. Well that is actually true of most things, but when you are part of minority it is doubly true.

This was around the same time as the move away from the use of the medical model of disability towards the social one. Gaining an understanding of the differences between the two models made disability politics become clear to me, and I promised myself that from then on I would only be involved with projects that I felt were valid. I feel that I have always kept true to that promise. More than that, I began trying to help the able bodied people I met within the industry to see why there is more to ” doing disability” than just having us on screen.

Anyone who is disabled knows the feelings that comes from watching a program that includes disability, only to find that it also contains one of the stereotypes or clichés of disability too. There’s the “brave” cripple, the “super” cripple, the “tragic” cripple, the “angry” cripple or the “evil” cripple. We’ve seen them all, whether in factual output or dramas and soaps. For the able bodied people involved in making or watching the programs they just see good stories, with loads of all the ingredients that they feel make watch-able TV. But for anyone disabled, we see a continuation of all the attitudes and stereotypes that create the barriers to us being seen as equal. There have been moves to create guidelines for program makers. I was part of the team that created the BBC’s Producer’s Guidelines on Disability way back in the 90’s, but when I spent a period working there in 2008 I was shocked to find they were no longer used. So how can the people in the media be expected to know when they are getting it wrong?

Well this is where I thought I should do something. I found myself having to contact the teams behind any project that I thought had got it wrong. I soon learnt that no one wanted to make TV that portrayed disability negatively or even incorrectly, and it was always done through ignorance. But not always through the ignorance of able bodied people. Many shows had asked the advice and input of disabled people, some well known disabled celebs. But it seemed that they had been fine with the things I had found troublesome. I even found that on the Open University psychology degree that I enrolled in a few years back, that when the course covered the identity of disability it was taught from the medical model, which by the was well out of date. More shocking to me was the audio that came with the course had four well known disabled people discussing their disability and how it effected them medically, with almost no mention of what I thought was the globally accepted social model.

So before I begin advising media companies that they should start being aware that what they shoot, how they shot it and what they say about disability must all fit within a set of rules that strictly adheres to the social model of disability, I must ask you all dear reader, am I right to do so? Do you care if the media has stories of brave disabled soldiers climbing mountains, or TV shows about tragic disabled kids battling their condition, or dramas with angry, or depressed or evil disabled characters? On a purely selfish level, I know that by criticising the industry and what it does I may burn a few bridges, and I will freely admit I don’t want to put the final killing shot into my on screen career by trying to change the way the media portrays disability if most of you feel it isn’t that important. If you would rather just see disabled people on screen, no matter why they were there or what they were saying then I will stop my crusade. I am sure we would all like to see more disabled people in the media, but I think we know that this is coming soon, with the commitment to the 2012 Paralympics. I just wonder if we need to be fighting to make sure they get the chance to be doing and saying the right things too. If any of you have feelings about this topic please add our comments below. It might stop me committing career suicide, or spur me on to fight to make our screens represent the real experiences and desires of disabled viewers and educate the able bodied ones at the same time.

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