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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Whatever next?

I just had to put finger to keypad to express my feelings over a phenomenon that has recently appeared on the nation’s TV screens… adverts featuring disabled people!

During my career in the media, which will enter it’s 25th year in 2013, I have discussed the lack of disabled people in advertising with several ad execs, normally at boozy media parties. They all told me that the industry was all about image and impression. The big worry was that if they used disabled actor or models it might create a subconscious association in the public’s mind between the product being advertised and disability, thus making people feel the product might be sub standard or in some way less. Invalid you might say. Whether it’s true or not, in the advertising world the product’s the thing so anything that might damage the product’s image is a no no. So hence no disabled people.

Occasionally someone in the industry decides to buck this trend and we have popped up in an ad. A big one was the advert for a brand of trainer (I can’t remember which one so that didn’t work eh?) which featured a group of wheelchair racers. Sure it was great to see disabled people in an ad and it was everywhere, but I always felt that the exec who had the idea kind of missed the point. As a wheelchair user I still own shoes and boots I purchased over a decade ago and they look like new. As training shoes are designed to make running easier, safer and more comfortable the idea of using wheelchair users to advertise them just can’t make the viewer focus on these selling points. It was obviously done to gain publicity, which it did very well. Doubt it old more shoes though.

I have even auditioned for parts in adverts myself, but I only ever landed a part in an ad for transmission in France. I have no idea what the ad was for as I don’t speak French. The most recent rejection was for a major department store and instead of a real wheelchair user the part of “father in wheelchair” went to a non-disabled actor who had his leg put in plaster. This clearly demonstrated that the condition the character was in was temporary, was something most people could identify with and so would have no subconscious impact on the advert’s target audience.

So I was stunned to see not one but TWO television adverts that feature disabled people hit our screens in short succession. Just like buses, you wait for ages and then two come along at once. The first is a Barclay’s Bank ad which features a wheelchair using amputee. It makes no mention of his disability and he is just a typical bank customer, which is really refreshing.

Without being too criticial, I am unsure why an amputee who has such a high tech and expensive prosthetic leg would use a wheelchair to visit his bank. I do wonder if someone in a brainstorming session said “we need a wheelchair”, and so any one with a wheelchair would do. The guys chair is obviously a sports chair, so if he was playing basketball in the ad it might makes sense. I do wonder if having the guy walk in on his new robot leg would have made an equal impact. But hey, this might just be soar grapes as I didn’t even hear about the audition. What is my agent doing? Whatever the nuances of the ad, it’s a big step, or wheel, forward.

But the advert that makes me smile every time I see it, and that fills my heart with a feeling of hope, is the superb Dove shampoo ad “Feeling is believing”. This is everything that adverts should be and more. The most amazing thing about the ad is that it uses the featured lady’s disability as a vehicle to demonstrate the USP of the product. She’s blind and so she can’t see her hair but she knows how fantastic her hair looks by the way it feels. This ad uses disability as part of the selling process which is a massive leap forward.

I am sure that some visually impaired people out there might worry that it does play into the stereotype that of you loose your sight your other senses become better, but I don’t know if I would agree. To me this ad marks a change that I hope carries on forever. Maybe we’ll see a wheelchair user advertising hand soap next. Let’s face we always end up with dirty hands with all the filth that is on our streets so if a soap gets my hands clean it really works. It’s that kind of thinking that makes the Dove ad stand out to me and long may it continue.

But why have things changed suddenly, in such a short space of time? Well firstly let’s keep our fingers crossed that it isn’t a flash in the pan. Hopefully we now start seeing disabled people in advertising, both as part of the real world and as models and featured characters. I know that many in the Paralympic movement claim that this year’s games will change the way society thinks about disability and perhaps this is the first sign that they are right. Maybe the advertising industry has just decided the time is right to be more inclusive. Whatever the reason, if we want this to mark a change in the way advertising works then all disabled people can do is go out a buy the products. Actually I should take this opportunity to congratulate the people involved in both of these adverts. Keep up the good work and don’t let anyone in your industry tell you you’ve made a mistake. No one will associate your product with negativity. In fact I am sure that the Dove ad will actually make the product fly off the shelves.

Remember this moment folks. It might be the beginning of a real change and be one we talk about to our grand kids. I’m off to buy some shampoo and I know which product I’ll be purchasing!

Before I go I just had to show you an American ad from Nike that just shows how far ahead they are in the US. Disability, product placement and HUMOUR! And it makes me want to go out and Just Do It!

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The Upload begins….

I am currently at the start of a marathon encoding session, with a pile of old VHS tapes filled with some of the programs I recorded for TV. I thought I’d lost them, but my Mum found them all in the loft of our family home. It’s weird experience watching yourself from over twenty years ago. I never really watched myself when these went out, as it made me cringe with embarrassment, so having to sit and watch hours and hours of TV where a younger version of me smiles out of my TV screen fills me with a myriad of emotions.

The craziest thing, other than how young I look, is the fact the I have so many hours of TV footage with disabled people in it. Think of today’s schedules and we are invisible, unless it’s some kind of stare at the freaks type program (mentioning no names). This series of clips from Beat That really shows how far backwards we have gone. Beat That was a prime time kids series on C4 that got millions of viewers per week, yet it was fronted by a wheelchair user and had a mixture of kids, some disabled, some not. The disabled thing wasn’t really mentioned in the publicity or made a big deal of, and C4 was proud of the fact that their first kids series was fully inclusive without banging on about it. This was the future for TV. Disabled people would just be part of what you saw on your goggle box. They were really ahead of the game… so far ahead that no one has caught up, even today. Not even C4 themselves.

Actually that’s not really true, CBBC regularly has disabled kids on some of their shows and doesn’t make a feature of it. But they are the only ones. The second series of Beat That was transmitted in 1992, so it’s exactly 20 years ago yet there are still very few disabled people disabled people on our TV screens at all. Even if there is a change in the representation of disabled people on our screens in the next few months, with the Paralympic coverage, it will only be catching up to the place we were at two decades ago. Why did the TV industry drop the ball in such a big way? I wish I knew. I do know that for someone who was one of the best known disabled people in the media, I suddenly found it impossible to find work around the year 2000. Now everyone seems obsessed with New Talent, but most of the people that are discovered during the many talent searches that have taken place since Beat That went out ended up being ignored by the industry.

I think it is really important that everyone remembers that not that long ago disabled people were on our screens. I mean between Beat That and the BBC disability show From The Edge I alone was on almost every week. And there were quite few other well known faces too. Whatever does come along in the next few years, we mustn’t forget that we are only playing catch up.

Over the next few days I plan to put up some of my music stuff too, and if you think the TV industry doesn’t like disabled people you wait until I tell you about the horrors I witnessed from music types! Stay Tuned Folks!

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Blonde Ambitions

A few months ago I had a meeting with a BBC exec who works with talent, to see if the BBC might be interested in getting me back on our TV screens. We had a productive chat, and fingers crossed things might happen. One thing that threw me was the comment that my peroxide hair dye job might be stopping me get work. The exec thought it didn’t look right for current tastes and advised me to try for a more natural look. Through out my life people have reacted badly to my alternative image, from before I entered he media and worked in a dole office to my short period as news reporter for BBC News. I never really took much notice, and saw my bleached hair as part of the Mik Scarlet brand. I mean my sign name is the signs for Mouthy with Blonde Spiky Hair, so it is part of who I am.

Or was. You see I really want to get back to work, and decided to give it a go. I mean with the Paralympics coming up and there’s window within the media for disabled broadcasters like me to either get on board or miss out forever. So I went natural, and changed my hair style to something more current and put away my leather trousers.

Now I won’t deny that I don’t miss the hassle of bleaching my hair. Leaning over the sink, with peroxide running in my eyes as I try to wash off the chemicals is not fun. I started dying my hair at the age of 16, and after a period of going from blonde to red to black and red and then black before going back to blonde, I began sticking with peroxide around the age of 23. So that’s exactly half of my life with a blonde spiked hair do. But the spiky thing goes back further. The treatment I had as a baby caused my hair to grow very thick and spiky. Nothing my Mum did would get it to lay down, and so everyone nicknamed me Tufty. This left my hair with a natural need to spike up, and getting it to do anything else is real battle, even today.

But it’s not only that my hair has been punk since the mid 60’s, but being blonde is now so much part of me that I don’t recognise the person I see in the mirror every morning since going natural. If you spend half your life looking one way, and then suddenly dramatically change it’s weird. It’s harder as I didn’t really do it because I felt it was time for a change, but more because someone else did. I broke a rule I set down for myself was a teenager. I changed the way I look for a job. Not even a real job, but the possible promise of one. As I write this I feel such a traitor to myself. Not only to me today, but to the young me. I mean I had real commitment to my beliefs back then that I would never have changed the way I look for anyone or anything. But that’s OK when you’re young and filled with confidence and belief that your generation will change the world.

Now I am an old duffer, and no longer feel that my alternative image is of such importance. I also want to avoid looking like an old git, dressed the way I used to over 20 years ago. But should I have to go so heavily the other way? Is there a middle ground? On top of that question, I am finding that the new natural Mik is not as confident and confidence is key to getting work in the media. I’ll never get the few jobs I get to audition for if I’m not on my A game, and changing my image has made me less “me”.

The most annoying part of all this is that I still have my hair. I always thought I’d be bald by now, with so many years of abusing my hair behind me. Sure it’s receding a little, but it’s pretty good for 46. So what should I do? Do I stick with the natural look and learn to love it, or reach for the peroxide, feel more Mik and maybe loose out on work as I don’t fit with the current ideas of a what a TV presenter looks like? Of course, I never fitted with the stereotype of a TV presenter, or a wheelchair user for that matter. All I can say is watch this space. I promised myself that if I don’t get any work within six months I would say “Sod it” and go back to the old Mik. But I am finding the wait too much to bare.

I ask you dear reader, if you have any thought’s on what I should do, please comment below.

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Ranting Round-Up No.1

Now where to start? As I’ve been crazy busy recently the list of things “Grinding My Gears” is quite long.

The first was C4’s Sainsbury’s Super Saturday. This music and sports show was to celebrate the launch of ticket sales for the Paralympics and was aired over a whole weekend on Channel 4. My issues with the show were many. Why was it only presented by non-disabled talent and why did so many of the pop stars who were interviewed allowed to use such out of date and non PC language to describe Paralymians? Those were the biggies. Surely C4 could have found some disabled presenting talent to work with Rick Edwards and Lisa Snowdon? Yeah they chatted with Paralympic stars but it would have made much more impact if the show had a disabled presenter too. The thing that really drove me mad was the way disabled people were talked about by various pop stars. The Sugarbabes condescendingly describing sport as a method to recover from the trauma of not being able to use your legs, for wheelchair users who were either born disabled or made that way through accident, got me so cross that I felt the steam coming out of my ears. Dappy making incoherent comments about the Paralympics was equally ridiculous. And they were just two of many to use language that seemed out of the 70’s. If C4 is going to be the Paralympic channel for 2012 they must have someone on their staff that ensures all of their output uses language that is currently acceptable and that does not set back the battle for equality for disabled people? I just pray that they clean up their act before the games begin.

Then I attended a meeting of a new charity run by disabled people called Enhance the UK , about a campaign they are planning. ETUK wants to design a campaign that questions the way disabled people are perceived when it comes to attractiveness. I don’t want to give away too much as I think it will be a really important campaign, so watch their website, but while we were all discussing how we could make an impact and what we should we cover, I realised that those of us who have issues of sexual function to deal with on top of the usual ignorance around disability have the journey we have to go on before we feel able to be sexy massively underestimated. Even by other disabled people. I know that I spent years coming to terms with the new me, and how bits of me worked. In a society that equates sex with penetration, to loose the ability to get a stiffy really messes with your head. I was just shocked that as we all sat round a table, discussing confidence, relationships and sexuality, everyone believed that most men who used a wheelchair were lucky as they all seemed to be confident. No one had any understanding that the huge bravado that most male wheelies exude is just a cover for exactly how messed up they are over the loss of what the world tells them makes them a man. I plan to write an article for ETUK’s website on the subject soon, and will point you all there as soon as it’s online.

Then this morning I was watching The Wright Stuff, as I do every morning, and found myself amazed at the discussion on whether Page 3 girls could be feminist role models. The women on the panel seemed to think that Page 3 girls were less damaging to the feminist cause than Size 0 fashion models, and this totally shocked me to the core. Now I can’t say that I haven’t used pornography, or looked at a Page 3 girl, but I can’t imagine that anyone could claim they were role models for young women. Especially compared to fashion models. I shall explain why using my own analogy. I got into the media after I was spotted by a TV producer while performing a gig with a band I fronted. Everyone who booked me to present, act or appear on a TV show always said that one of the reasons they hired me was because I was nothing like the stereotype of a disabled person. With my bleached spiky hair, leather gear and massive motor bike boots I was in fact the antithesis of that stereotype, and so using me made people question their attitudes of what a disabled person was. A lot of disabled people thought I was a bad role model because by being so different from what most disabled people were like I gave a false impression. I understood this view, but as I was just being myself and I spent a large amount of my time using my high profile to raise issues around equality and access, I did not feel I had to change. I also know that if had, the work would have dried up quick time.

So how does this have anything to do with Page 3? Well Page 3 creates a unreachable ideal of a sexualized female that impacts on all women and how men perceive them. They use their sexuality and the way society expects attractive women to be sexually available as a way of making money. Fashion models however, are not playing on sexual availability to further their career. They are playing on how clothes hang on them, and how the fashion industry wants their output to be seen. Sex rarely comes into it. Sexiness maybe, but not sexuality. In the past I have been friends with several fashion models and they are actually very normal women. They aren’t even that thin, just really, really tall. When you meet fashion models the first thing that hits you is how tall, and big they are. They are mostly around six foot tall, and their bodies match their height. They just look thin in photographs.

But I digress. No matter if they are very thin, or just really tall, they have a very different role from Page 3, and they have a very different effect on society. Some people claim that fashion models create an unobtainable ideal for young women and girls, and there is some truth to that. Just as some disabled people claimed that I created an ideal of being disabled that many disabled people could not achieve and that was not representative. But those ideals did not create an atmosphere and perception in society that makes the world less safe. Any ideal that revolves around a false impression of sexual availability damages society, and Page 3 must make the world less safe for women. Fashion models do not. In the same way that I may have had an image that was very far away from what most disabled people were like, but they could have achieved my “look” if they had have wanted to. Just most didn’t! I really feel I never had a damaging effect of the way society thinks of what a disabled person is like. To have the same effect as a Page 3 girl I would have to start claiming that all disabled people were just lazy and were all benefit fraudsters. We all know how damaging that has been to the way society thinks about disabled people as it now seems to be the way the press paints us at every turn. Either that or we’re super humans that are bravely over coming adversity. I can proudly say that I was neither. Just a punky, loud mouthed weirdo that told everyone to be whatever they wanted. I also never got my chest out for money… and I was offered!

So that’s my ranting round up for now. Not sure it all flows the way I’d like, and maybe I should have edited this blog before posting it, but I always feel that blogs are more fun if you use them as a stream of thought affair. I’d love to know what you think on any of the subjects in this blog, dear reader, so comment below.

I will close by saying if anyone at The Wright Stuff is looking for a panellist I am available. It’s been a ritual for me to watch it since the show started and I was even up to appear to the show many years back, but was too ill (with my second broken back!) to do it. It’s always been something I want to do… get paid to get the chance to air my opinions on National TV. Pure bliss.

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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?

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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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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