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.
Wheelchair Dancer says
I care a helluva a lot. And I would even argue that mere representation without the politics damages our chances of being treated equally.
If the media understood disability better, the coverage would be better — and people might understand why things like the DLA matter.
I care fiercely.
I think possibly the single biggest problem with disability as it relates to narrative of any kind is that the vast majority of it focuses upon disability as part of the narrative drive. Because the poor chap’s lost the use of his legs he’s been driven to madness and evil-do and so gives the hero something to fight against. Or a valiant soldier wounded in the red mist of battle overcomes this disability through an equally powerful act.
Especially in modern narrative, the action is everything. Even the news has to have drama and drive because they seem to think it’s the only way to keep attention. But real life, disabled or not, is not drama. It’s not edited.
A non-disabled character is allowed non-dramatic narrative (although there is less of this now and they’re allowed to be a part of something rather than the origin). I think for me the aim would be to have disabled characters and figures who have nothing to do with the narrative drive. In this way, I object somewhat to a cast of disabled presenters for the paralympics because it feels to me like they’re there because of their link to the narrative rather than being the best presenters for the job.
I’d rather see talented disabled and non-disabled presenters working on the same sports programmes covering both disabled and non-disabled sports – does that make sense?
And being classy and highbrow, I’d love to know your opinion of the character of ‘Billy’ in Neighbours at the moment. Not quite evil wheelchair user…possibly ‘weak’…but so little is made of the chair that I’m rather pleased with it. His tragedy narrative happened a while back so all of that’s over and done with and he can now just be a character.
Katie Fraser says
I think disabled characters in television programmes help people to see and be aware of memmbers of our society that disabled people are to treated equally than others. It is happening but we need more on our screens! Oh the days when you were on! LOL!