Disability & TV – The Mik Scarlet Lecture – Part 3

Before I explore the subject of content, disability and television I feel I must just quickly give my solution of the issue of the title of the C4 show “Freaks of Nature”, that I posed in my last blog. The answer is a question mark. “Freaks of Nature?” not only makes the program’s content make more sense, but also stops the casual viewer or listings reader seeing the show as saying that disabled people, or disabled Paralympians, are freaks of nature. Just a small question mark makes the show a more valid political statement on top of being a fantastic sports program. This really demonstrates how language is so important and must be paid very close attention. Not only when covering disability but at all times.

I’ve covered how to use language on TV but not what to talk about. But why not cover that first? Well, program content can be a case of personal taste and what appeals to one person may make another rush for the remote control, but the language used is vital whatever the show is about. In that case, why even try to explore program content? Because the way that content and individual stories are covered can change the way a program works dramatically.

Let me demonstrate by referring to a program I was involved in again. Sometime ago I went to the BBC with a documentary idea around the decision I had to make about whether to undergo surgery and to try to walk again. It was put into production with brilliant new up and coming deaf producer, Ally Scott. We wanted to make a show that really explored the issue and showed that it wasn’t such a cut and dried problem, as most people thought. The program would revolve entirely around my life, how I lived and we would explore what being able to walk might add to my life, if anything, and what it might cost me in time and commitment. There were plans afoot to film all manner of footage that showed the subject in a glamorous, positive and televisual way. We hit a problem when a misunderstanding between the production team and my surgeon led to the artificial hip being manufactured, at a cost of over £150,000. My surgeon was annoyed, to say the least, when we talked and I explained I felt I would not being going ahead, and he insisted that a new production team was put in charge of the program. This new team changed the direction of the show, and in the end it included three other people, all of whom desperately wanted to walk again. This was done for “balance”. While the show did examine the issue, it did so from a view point that made not wanting to be disabled normal and so reinforced the very attitude I wanted to dispel when I first approached the BBC. The show was well received but I know how massively important the program would have been if it had followed the original direction.

Many times disability makes it onto our TVs with balance as one of the driving forces behind how it is shown, yet that balance is there to reflect many of the attitudes that disabled people wish would change. We want to see our real lives represented, and that should be all of our lives and not just the areas where being disabled might have an impact. Also how one person’s disability impacts their life will differ from anyone else, so it is the elements that might be considered “normality” that ties us all together. For example, I get asked to get involved in many shows about how hard it is to find partners if you have a disability but I always ask are you going to include those people who didn’t find it hard and examine whether it is really that different for able bodied people who are lonely? I explain that I feel to make a show about disability, sex and relationships there needs to be balance (that word again – play them at their own game!) and if a program is going to cover the problems that disabled people might have when looking for sex and love, it must also explore solutions, compare what it is like if you looking for love and able bodied and show the good things, and even the benefits, that being disabled can bring to your love life. (For more details visit my website Mik Scarlet – Wheelie Sexy). Of course by doing this I scare off the production companies, who have a fixed idea of what such a program will contain, and hence no Mik. But at least I have my integrity. Good for the soul, crap for the bank balance.

Many shows portray disabled people as “tragic” or “brave”, even if they don’t use the language itself. Time and time again when we see disability on TV the program is focusing on someone who is sick (tragic) being cared for their by their wonderful children (brave), or a disabled child (tragic) who is fund raising for charity (brave), or a disabled soldier (tragic) who is battling to get up on his false legs so he can walk down the isle (brave) or something similar. But while TV has to have these personal stories running through it, especially in today’s reality obsessed culture, the bigger issues are never even mentioned. Why is the child being expected to care for their sick parent and where is the state provision in that care? Why does this charity exist at all? Why does the soldier see disability as such a negative thing that all of his time is spent trying to be fight it? How can society be shaped to make all of these people’s lives easier and fairer? These types of questions are key to changing how disability is thought of in society and I do not think it would detract from the show’s direction to bring up the deeper issues.

So as the Paralympics and Channel 4’s push to get more disability on TV gets closer, I hope that those involved in creating this output wants to explore those deeper issues. I have always wanted to see a show that goes into why so many newly disabled people turn to sport as an outlet. Mainly as I dived into the world of music and art after I started using a wheelchair, and truly thought “Yippee, no more sport” when I was told I’d never walk again, but also as I want to understand the psychological reasoning behind the choice. It’s the world behind the what we see that TV can help us understand and by doing so it can make a real difference to all of lives. And do it while creating entertaining and enjoyable programs everyone wants to watch. I also really expect some serious documentary programming that delves into how disabled people really live in modern Britain, and not just a load of positive puff pieces about super sports personalities and how great everything is.

Well that’s the end of my exploration of disability and it’s portrayal on our TV screens for now. It’s subject I know I will come back to in the future, especially when I see something that I feel misses the mark. I know that it is a subject that is high on the agenda of many disabled people out there, and I would love to know what you feel about this important subject, so please comment below. I also plan to examine how disability is covered in the print press, magazines and other forms of media in the near future, as well as why we seem to be so poorly represented in industries like music and fashion. Please watch this space.

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Disability & TV – The Mik Scarlet Lecture – Part 2

In my last blog I hope I helped to explain why most disabled people find the use of the words brave and courageous in television output offensive, and why these words can have an effect the the mental health of anyone during the process of readjustment that occurs after coming to a disability or illness. In this blog I want to explore words like tragic and sad.

These two little words pop up all too often when the media cover anything to do with ill health. The main reason is that finding yourself disabled or being diagnosed with an serious illness is pretty tragic, both to anyone not involved, who are watching from the outside and to those going through the process. But how these words are use is massively important. I shall demonstrate this by telling you the story of why I am disabled.

My parents tried to get pregnant for over three years, and where over joyed when they got the news that my Mum was expecting. They spent the next nine months decorating my nursery and buying lovely baby clothes. On the day of my birth, my Dad ran up and down the streets of Luton going up to strangers, giving them cigars and exclaiming “I’m a Father!” and “It’s a boy!”. He even purchased a tiny Luton Town football strip, as he had planned my future career already. Mum always calls it “One of the happiest days of my life”. However in only eight weeks time I was rushed to hospital, as I was having serious trouble breathing, and a huge cancerous tumour was discovered. My parents were told it was pretty definite I was going to die, but there was a new treatment that might give them a few more years with me. So after a massive operation, the next five years were spent ferrying their much wanted little baby around the country to be pumped full of toxic chemicals or shot with massive doses of radiation, with the dream of a little more time together. Then after those five years, when they were told that the treatment had worked and the cancer was totally in remission, my Father suddenly died of a heart attack.

Now I know that is a tragic story. Not only because I lived it and I have a heart, but because I have been giving autobiography to publishers and agents recently and they all say “What a tragic story”. Yet it is my story, and I kind of feel it is much more a story of what people are capable of. Not brave or courageous, but more aren’t we just amazing. I know that if this was being made into a TV documentary, the desire of the production team would be to focus on the tragedy of the situation. Poor sad parents, poor brave little cripple boy, and the tragedy of loosing the Father. Move over Eastenders, this is TV gold. But how ever much it is tragic, it is the events that are sad. Not the fact that I ended up disabled. That was amazing and joyous, as everyone thought I’d be dead by the age of five. Surely everyone who finds themselves disabled, especially after injury or illness, is wonderful… as the alternative is death!

It is a difficult line to tread for the media when covering such a story, but it a very important one. When they make the fact that someone is disabled, or has become disabled the tragedy then they do everyone watching a massive disservice. However much the huge car crash is tragic, the fact that the driver or passenger ends up disabled is much more desirable than a funeral service. Why? Because if the viewing public is continuously told that becoming disabled is a tragedy, then they see it as something sad and worthy of pity. They also find themselves fearing being ill or disabled, and we all know what humans do when confronted by things they fear. So whenever the media tries to cover stories about disability they must ensure that however sad the story is, they word the piece so that it is the events that are sad and not the out come.

I did plan to go on to explore the kind of content that TV goes for when exploring disability and illness, but I really want to cover another word first. That word is Freak. Last night Channel 4 transmitted the sports programme “Freaks of Nature”, which was a re-edited version of the superb “Inside Incredible Athletes”. I thought that C4 had kind of lost the plot a bit when they used the term “Freaks of Nature” to advertise their Paralympic coverage and the Inside documentary, but then to use it to name a shortened version of an already shown program really sets alarm bells ringing. I really hope that someone at C4 starts trying to make sure that everyone involved with making their Paralympic output has an understanding of the correct use of language when covering disability. You see, the word Freak is the same as Cripple and any medical term used as an insult, such as Spastic. We can use them to talk about ourselves, but no one else can. It’s the same as Black people and the “N” word. I have played in bands called Freak Show, and Freak U.K. (although that was more because the initials spelled FUK and we sold a shit load of T-Shirts) and my good friend Mat Fraser has performed a series of theatrical shows using the word Freak. But we can, it’s our word. Unless everyone involved with the C4 program was disabled, they needed to choose a different name. Especially as they had already called the show Inside Incredible Athletes, which was fine. Another reason why FON was such a shite name for the doc, was it just showed that Paralympians aren’t Freak of Nature but are so good because of their commitment. I used to work with Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson in the 90’s and could not believe the amount of dedication it took for her to be such an amazing athlete. It was nothing to do with nature, I can tell you. It was all her. So why not just Incredible Athletes?

I think when it comes to the word Freak, I can explain it best in the following way…

I can call myself a Freak, you can call me Mr. Scarlet!

Next time – Content and Cripples (another word only we can use!)

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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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