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The collected opinions of an august and aristocratic personage who, despite her body having succumbed to the ravages of time, yet retains the keen intellect, mordant wit and utter want of tact for which she was so universally lauded in her younger days. Being of a generation unequal to the mysterious demands of the computing device, Lady Bracknell relies on the good offices of her Editor for assistance with the technological aspects of her journal.

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Location: Bracknell Towers

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The BADD entry 2007

I touched briefly last year on the issue of “benevolent discrimination” and how much more difficult it is to prevent than its overtly hostile counterpart. This year, I’ve chosen to expand on that point with detailed reference to a couple of ostensibly-positive representations of disabled people in the media. This is going to take a while, so you may want to get a cup of tea before you start.

A few weeks ago (well, whenever Mothering Sunday was), I discovered - as a result of frantically changing channels to avoid an ad break - that GMTV were running a “Mum Of The Year” competition. The four finalists were featured from Monday to Thursday and then (I imagine) put to the public phone vote.

Now, it just so happens that, in the one I saw accidentally, the mother was disabled. She’d had some sort of blood disorder either when she was pregnant with her second child, or just after he was born (can you tell I wasn’t really paying all that much attention at this point?) which resulted in her having two below-knee amputations. So there was film footage of her doing things like putting her boots on, and walking the older child to school. (I’m relieved to report that they stopped short of the Beyond Boundaries-esque zooming in on her stumps – perhaps they thought that wasn’t the sort of thing people really want to see when they’re eating their cornflakes.)

Once the film footage had been shown, the family came into the studio to be interviewed. Now, ok: I know that the GMTV style of interviewing members of the public verges on the patronising and gushy at the best of times, but I’m damn sure they turned it up a notch for the plucky crip.

As soon as she came in, the mother was told she has the sort of smile which lights up a room. Now, she didn’t appear to have an unusually luminous and radiant smile to me, but I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t in the same room as her. Whatever the truth of the matter is, this comment strikes me as being exactly the kind of thing non-disabled people say to disabled people in the hopes that being complimented on something they still have/can do will make them feel much better about the things they no longer have/can do. Plus, of course, concentrating the conversation on some other aspect of the person’s physicality keeps the non-disabled interviewer free from the risk of (gulp) mentioning the missing legs. Because as long as we don’t mention the hideous deformity/unfortunate medical condition/tendency to dribble while talking, we can pretend it isn’t there. Not that this helps the disabled person at all but then, that's not what talking (down) to a disabled person is about, is it?


But I digress. Having gushed at the woman herself for a few nauseating seconds, they turned to the other members of her family. “What makes your mum the mum of the year?”, they asked the older child. “Well, um”, he said, clearly trying to remember what his father had coached him to say, “she’s been through a lot”.

And that was it. Nothing about her tucking him into bed at night, or throwing him the best birthday parties in the world ever, or always knowing how to make things better. Nothing, in fact, about her mothering skills at all. Just, “she’s been through a lot”. Now, I don’t doubt for a moment that she’s been through a lot. In fact, I have nothing but admiration for her positive attitude to devastating and completely-unexpected surgery. But having been through a lot doesn’t in itself qualify her to be mum of the year. Any more than having had a relatively-measly one leg removed automatically makes our very own Unreliable Witness son of the year. There is simply no connection between the two things.

Oh. Unless, of course, you’re so convinced that someone with a fairly major physical impairment couldn’t possibly be an effective parent that the very fact that the children have clean faces and aren’t dressed in rags just blows you away…. But, er, that would be a very disablist attitude, wouldn’t it?

To make matters worse, when it was the husband’s turn to be interviewed, he expressed astonishment and admiration that his beloved wife manages to be “disabled, but still normal”.

Which really sums up in a nutshell everything you ever needed to know about the average perfectly-pleasant non-disabled person’s attitude towards disabled people. They don’t hate us. They’re not out to get us. They could even get used to having one of us around, given time. But we’re not normal. We’re not like them. There’s something wrong with us, and that makes them feel very, very uncomfortable. And, as the bastions of normality, their comfort takes precedence over ours. Which is why we should stay in the background and not make a fuss and be grateful for all the concessions they’ve already made for us. Ok?

Don’t get me wrong. This was a lovely family; they were doing very well under what must have been trying circumstances, and I have no personal criticism to make of any of them. I’m merely highlighting the insidious disablism which has coloured not only their own thinking, but also that of the journalists involved in making the programme.

Oh, and I nearly forgot: broadcasting tripe of this nature - which suggests that we should win awards for our tremendously brave and inspiring response to our impairments -perpetuates disablist thinking in almost everyone who watches it. It’s not the harmless fluff it appears to be.


Ready for another one?

I was watching the news on Five the other week when they ran an amazing and inspiring story about a young woman who has had a book published. What’s amazing and inspiring about having a book published? Well, nothing if you’re “normal”. But if you’ve got a rare genetic disorder (one which only 80 people in the world have got!!) resulting in your arms and legs being of restricted growth then it’s not only amazing and inspiring, but a clear and unequivocal message to other disabled people that their dreams can come true too, if only they pursue them vigorously enough.

Now, call me a cynical kill-joy if you like, but here are my thoughts on this story:

  • I don’t get it. This young woman has hands: she can type. She isn’t learning-disabled: she can think in coherent sentences. So what exactly is it about her having short arms and legs which makes the fact that she wrote a book so “amazing”?
  • Ok, she’s had a book published. Good for her. She’s chuffed to bits. Hell, I know I would be. But in what way is this fact a message to other disabled people that their dreams can come true? See, what she’s done is that she’s chosen as her own particular dream something which she isn’t prevented from doing by the limitations her impairment imposes on her. Which makes the fact that she’s disabled moderately irrelevant to the fact of that dream having been realised. Things would be a bit different if someone whose dream had always been to be a world class hurdler suddenly found herself in a wheelchair as the result of setting off across the road at precisely the wrong time. Because, frankly, that hypothetical woman’s dreams aren’t going to come true no matter how hard she pursues them.
  • There just isn’t a story here. A young woman has had a book published. Unless everyone who has had a book published gets national news coverage (which, as we know, they don’t), then the only point of this news item is so that we can look at the amazing disabled woman with the incredibly rare condition and be inspired by her tenacity in overcoming her heart-rending and tragic circumstances sufficiently to do something which we assumed only non-disabled people could do.


To make matters even worse, when this news item came to a close, the newsreader invited viewers with "similar amazing stories" to get in touch so that their stories could be broadcast too. For almost as long as I've known him, one of Pop's favourite ways of winding me up is to threaten to submit my own inspiring and amazing story to a television channel. (He's far too sensible to go bungee-jumping, or white water rafting, so goading me is the Pop equivalent of taking part in extreme sports. He reckons the adrenaline rush is just as effective.)

As disabled people, we make good copy. We can be news-worthy because we’re objects of pity, or of horror, or we can be news-worthy because we’ve “overcome our disabilities” (sic) to do something which, in a non-disabled person, really wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. Like passing an exam. Or learning to drive. Or having a job. And Every Bloody Time a disabled person is represented in this way in a newspaper, or in a magazine, or on a television documentary, it helps to drive home the message that

  • pity is an appropriate response to disability
  • if you’re not disabled, you’re very lucky
  • disabled people can’t do the things the rest of us can do
  • all disabled people are chirpy and brave, and they do their very best, bless them
  • disabled people AREN’T normal.



Now, you try telling a journalist (one who probably admires you for having managed to marshal a coherent argument despite your tragic impairment) that he or she is actively contributing to prejudice against disabled people by writing this tosh, and your words simply won’t compute. After all, these are nice stories; they show “the disabled” (pardon me while I wince inwardly) in a good light; they celebrate our amazing achievements. How could anyone possibly be offended by them?

Most people aren’t. I know very few non-disabled people who can see the problem, even once it’s been explained to them. More worryingly, I know that a lot of disabled people regard this sort of coverage as entirely positive.

But I, for one, won’t consent to being presented as being brave, or amazing, or inspiring. My employer’s staff newspaper wanted to publish an article about me getting my MBE. Did I leap at the chance? I did not. Every article that paper has ever published about a disabled member of staff has started with the dreaded “despite” word. I said I’d only agree to being interviewed if I had the final say on how disability was portrayed in the article. After all, I said, I’d got the MBE for years of working towards equality for disabled staff: this was my area of professional expertise, and I wasn’t prepared to have the impact of that work trivialised in an “Honour For Tragically Crippled Woman” piece of lazy journalism. I didn’t get the MBE for being disabled: I got it in recognition of what I had done. But the journo wasn’t having that sort of nonsense. Oh no. “I consider myself to be a professional writer,” he said. “I must have the final say.” So I had the final say: I refused to be interviewed.

We are entirely within our rights to be offended and insulted by the way we’re generally represented in the media. To do so isn’t a snippy and aggressive overreaction to something which is essentially harmless. It’s a recognition that these sorts of easy stories - which are designed to tug at the heart strings of readers or viewers - actively perpetuate disablism. The bottom line is this:

We will never be equal while journalists persist in portraying us as special.

The Editor

32 Comments:

Blogger Sally's Life said...

Would sending this to the Press Association be worthwhile ?

11:50 am  
Blogger marmiteboy said...

I get extremely narked at the patronising way in which disabled people are treated.

Why, for instance, are disabled athletes treated in the way they are. What's so clever about winninmg a running/wheeling race when your opponants are all crips too. Why all the "Aren't they marvellous" talk?

Makes my blood boil.

1:06 pm  
Blogger seahorse said...

So true, every word, and yes I did read to the end. It's so true that disablism can exist within families and be even tolerated by those with disabilities just out of a lack of awareness that there is a more rounded response - ie the Social Model. Which is why I'm so glad I read your blog, and Goldfish and Marmite Boy, Sally, Unreliable and everyone else. I feel positively educated. Just try educating my family and friends, who simply don't have the time or inclination to read such wonderful posts as these. Why should they? They're normal after all.

2:02 pm  
Blogger jennifergg said...

Absolutely true. And excellent examples of people, well-meaning perhaps, failing to see the person behind the diagnosis.

3:23 pm  
Blogger Dave Hingsburger said...

Brilliant! A wonderful way to celebrate Blogging abainst Disablism (I prefer the word disphobia). Great read. I too get tired of being made inspirational, being used for emotional pornography - by others because I've adapted to my disability ... so well. Dave Hingsurger

3:53 pm  
Blogger Kathryn said...

Well said. As an able bodied person raising a disabled child, this does make sense to me. The whole "inspiration, they're so special, they're angels" stuff is really insidious. It leads to things like the Ashlee Treatment. It also does not allow the disabled person to be seen for who they really are. They are in this little bubble with a glow around it. Isolated and boxed in all the same. It's just as bad as overt discrimination. And the pity and assumption that life is wretched because disability is a horrible thing to lay on another as well as another way not to try to understand a different reality.

Great, great post.

4:04 pm  
Blogger Mr Chuckles said...

Abso-BLOODY-lutely!!

6:04 pm  
Blogger David said...

Thank you. Well said.

6:13 pm  
Blogger Never That Easy said...

Another amazing post. This is one of those subjects that, upon reading, you think to yourself: "Well, of course!" Great, great post.

6:46 pm  
Anonymous Dame Honoria Glossop said...

Might one congratulate her Ladyship on producing such a special blog?
(Only joking, honest .....)
Dame Honoria walks with the aid of a rather fetching polka dot stick from Switch Sticks, & always finds it rather disconcerting when people make a great point of holding doors open for her, then watch her walk through, smiling and nodding at her like proud parents watching a toddler wobble round the living room.

7:51 pm  
Blogger Charlesdawson said...

A pat on the head is worth any amount of equal treatment in a journalist's mind, obviously.

8:29 pm  
Anonymous Sara said...

Oh, right on.

10:09 pm  
Anonymous Bobby McGee said...

Wow...that was...really, really good.

I would applaud, but...isn't that ironic?

Heh, you point out the obvious, in a humourous way. I must laugh.

I always hate when people display me as "brave, special, and overcoming his Cerebral Palsy, nerve injury, and visual and hearing impairments." I want to shake them and go "Argh! I am a cripple! ADMIT IT, DAMN YOU!" Heh.

Equally offensive are the cripples that actually endorse this idea, by accepting these awards, taking offence at the word "cripple" used BY cripples, always wanting to be "normal" and "overcoming" their disability. Eww.

Don't get me wrong, I am a teenager and long for being accepted and "normal." But...doesn't everyone? Just because I use a chair doesn't mean I wouldn't have this same crisis if I was able bodied.

I love this post. So much that I am linking you and coming back repeatedly for a laugh and to pester you. Smile.

1:36 am  
Anonymous Shiloh said...

I had to smile and laugh. I liked how you presented the topic. I thank you for telling the truth. For telling people we don't need to be coddled or brown-nosed...that we are normal.

2:51 am  
Blogger imfunnytoo said...

As I said once in a college term paper: "Christ, I don't know which I hate more: My nomination as Sinner of the Year, or my candidacy for sainthood.

They both stink.

The Superb Interviewed Crip in this has been subjected to the Tyranny of Expectation, and now, so will any impaired aquaintances that see that show...

What, you mean you're unable to parent sunnily like the lady I saw on television?

We're people. With flaws.
*Like The Rest of Them!*

3:53 am  
Blogger Jonathan Dresner said...

Fantastic analysis: absolutely true. I've been cringing at these stories for years, and now I actually understand why.

Thank you.

6:32 am  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

My thanks to all who have commented, particularly to those who are new to Lady Bracknell's blog.

Bobby - feel free to pester :-)

Now that I've made my point about disablism in the media, I really ought to draw the attention of UK readers at least to the National Union of Journalists' Hacked Off leaflet.

I'm aware that both Marmite Boy and Boogaloo Dude are in the habit of emailing copies of the leaflet - with snarky covering letters - to the editors of publications which produce this sort of discriminatory drivel.

If this strikes you as being an amusing and worthwhile use of your own time... ;-)

6:32 pm  
Anonymous An Unreliable Limbless said...

An Unreliable Witness is delighted and indeed honoured to be namechecked on the fine blog of Lady Bracknell. However, he would like to respectfully point out that he has had a Very Trying Year and deserves, nay demands, Lots And Lots Of Pitiful Pity.

Please.

It's especially tough for me, as I am not about to receive a multi-million pound divorce settlement from a hugely successful pop star which will keep me in walking sticks and spare prosthetic limbs during my dotage.

*sniff*

10:02 pm  
Anonymous Turtlenic said...

class

sorry my blogger account's buggered but i am Nic, honest.

10:59 pm  
Blogger Elizabeth McClung said...

I am not sure if I was suppose to be laughing during much of the post but you put what I had seen so often in such a glaring light that it became absurd - yesterday on a wheel through the park, a woman talked to me and then said, "You should just know you have a very beautiful...." and then she stopped dead for several seconds before finishing with "smile" (I am pretty sure I am not so hideously ugly that it took her that long to find a feature - I think she wanted to pull a "oh gosh, you are so plucky for being crippled and all" but was trying to be "correct" about it).

Wow - a mother....who has a disabilty but appears normal? Let us all applaud ourself how we have progressed from no longer sterilizing her as soon as she had her disorder. See, tolerance does work....at times.

Sorry, this post is making me delight in it all - something EVEN on the BBC we might notice if they started doing it to the Irish again (though when in Bath, one of the women said the city resisted a public library until late 1950's and ran articles on how the commoners actually didn't leave chunks of food to mark pages) - but how it is still acceptable to make such distinctions regarding someones, particularly physical, disability.

11:23 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Turtlenic,

That would explain why your blog hasn't been updated for so long, then... ;-)

12:04 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Elizabeth,

Laughter is positively encouraged when dealing with such palpable absurdities.

In fact, I find this whole "Whatever you do, don't mention the missing legs!" thing very similar to something to which John Cleese devoted an entire half hour of Fawlty Towers.

I don't know whether Fawlty Towers is as deeply ingrained in the communal subconscious over there as it is over here. So just in case it isn't:

A group of German tourists comes to stay at the Fawlty Towers hotel.

Basil Fawlty, aware of what a dreadful faux pas it would be to mention the war, spends the whole episode desperately trying NOT to mention the war. In the course of which superhuman efforts to avoid mentioning the "elephant in the living room", he mentions all sorts of other, related elephants, and offends his guests so much that they walk out.

The classic line from that episode, which people of my generation all quote at the drop of a hat, is, of course:

"Don't mention the war! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it!"

Ah, they don't make comedy like that any more...

12:34 pm  
Blogger Emily Elizabeth said...

Now that, that was some good readin'. To pity the disabled isn't just socially acceptable, it is a social expectation. "What? You don't feel sorry for them? Why that's not very compassionate of you. After all, would you ever want to live that way?" I can just hear it now...

Your post was no less than perfection itself (hard to find in such an imperfect world, eh?) and one that had my leaping out of my seat yelling "bravo. Bravo. BRAVO!" with each passing paragraph, and provides such an acute assessment I am damn near speechless.

However, the speech I have reamining does leave me questioning how guilty I have been of this in the past. My daughter has a cognitive disability and I know I have rushed to the television or the newspaper every single time I have seen the slightest hint of an story about someone who also has Down syndrome. I have been proud when simple accomplishments have been celebrated...maybe because the world so often assumes that someone with mental retardation could not hold a job, live independently, become Homecoming King, or ever have a reciprocial relationship of any nature with another person..

So, am I encouraging this very same mindset when I do yelp with pride in my community when a person with Down syndrome gets some media exposure?

Maybe it is because I am a mother and I do think everything my daughter does is newsworthy; maybe it's because the world has such low expectations of Emma; maybe it's because this world is still new to me; maybe it's because she does have a beautiful smile...

But it's a fine line between celebrating the progress the T21 community has made and allowing our children and ourselves to become less than human; to fit whatever one dimensional role we are shoved into, even if it is under the guise of support.

6:11 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Emily Elizabeth,

You are welcome back any time if you're going to shower me with compliments like that :-)

Actually, you probably won't believe me now, but I included your own post in the "BADD Top Ten" I sent to two friends who are too busy to read all of them.

I'm certainly not saying that disabled people never do anything which is genuinely news-worthy. Or that all representations of us in the media fall into the awful trap I've illustrated.

I'd like to see a lot more disabled people in the media. Working in it; presenting it; being featured in it.

Just not in a way which encourages the audience to pity them, or to feel superior to them, or to be jolly glad that they themselves aren't disabled.

And I do think there's a risk that children with Downs get picked up by the media because "they're so cute and lovely and everyone says, aw!"

They make for a nice story in a way that the average child with autism or OCD wouldn't.

Which is ok, unless the main (or, God forbid, the only) message of the news item in question is that little kids with Downs are just as cute as kittens, and they cheer up everyone who meets them with their sweet personalities.

If I were in your situation, I think my own rule of thumb might well be:

Is this a story about a cute kid who has Downs, or is this a story about my daughter?

I can forgive a lot if the emphasis is firmly on the person, rather than on the fact that he or she happens to have an impairment.

6:39 pm  
Anonymous JackP said...

Thoroughly enjoyed that, Lady B. Obviously as a non-disabled chappie myself, I'm sure I'm legally obliged to say how special, plucky and brave you are for writing a post of this nature.

*sigh*

How come there's never a sensible middle ground? You know, somewhere in between "quick, lock those cripples away before they offend someone's sensibilities" and "my, aren't you brave and special".

The point is they're both being discriminatory. It's just the second group don't think they are.

You can ignore (dis)ability, ethnic background, religion, sexual preference, and indeed favourite amphibian (axolotl, since you ask), but what it all boils down to is

People = People

No more, no less. We're all just people, trying to make our way in the world...

10:21 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Ho yus. Ever so special, me. Catch me in the right light, and you might just be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of my halo.

And, you know, wot wiv me being a tragic crip and everyfink, my entire life revolves around disability.

No, really. I have no interests beyond the constant battle to mute my unspeakable suffering so as not to distress nice, normal people like yourself, sir. Gawd bless you, sir. Penny for the crippled, sir?


Sorry. Long day. Silliness has evidently now set in... ;-)

10:34 pm  
Anonymous Boogaloo Dude said...

Dear Editor

If I may be ever so bold and make a couple of comments on comments:-

Personally I believe I am brave, plucky and special – but only because I hold down a job with the (I’m sure you’ll agree) notoriously snippy and difficult Lady B and not because of my tragic impairment;

I would not wish my tendency to send snarky comments to journalists to be in any way taken to suggest that I am generally snarky in life. I am patient, kind and good – as described by Saint Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his 1st Epistle to the Corinthians – right up to the point where I am offended by irredeemable arseholes.

Whilst loving all the responses you have received thus far, is it permissible to point out that using the phrase “The Disabled” is analogous to saying “The Blacks” or “The Gays” – i.e. suggesting that “they” are an homogenous* stereotypical group rather than being as diverse a group of people as one might find anywhere?

Loving your work.

Your (occasionally) affectionate colleague

Dude

* The grammar checker so kindly provided by Microsoft on my PC suggests that the correct phrase is “a homogenous … group” rather than “an…”. I personally hold Bill Gates responsible for much of the decline in standards of writ Inglish in resant years,

8:49 am  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

No.

It is most definitely not permissible to criticise anyone who has showered me with compliments.

Kindly reserve your criticisms in future for those who have failed to recognise my genius!

10:14 am  
Blogger Melbamae said...

Hear, hear! A tremendously satisfying read, per usual. Bravo!

The very best part of the article for me was learning about the incredible bravery demonstrated by Mr. Larkin in his pursuit of an adrendilin fix. Goading the formidable Lady Bracknell (or Her Editor for that matter) is a sport few on this earth could possibly muster the courage to participate in! My hat is well and truly off to the man. Well done sir!

8:17 pm  
Anonymous la cubana gringa said...

Found you via Post of the Week. Absolutely fantastically written, eye opening post!

4:23 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Melbamae,

You may call it bravery: I prefer the term "foolhardiness".

We'll see just how brave Pop really is if he continues the goading when he's in the same room as me, rather than at a safe distance of several hundred miles... ;-)

The Editor

7:57 pm  
Blogger Melbamae said...

No distance from the imposing Editor or Her Ladyship could be considered "safe", so long as it is reachable by phone or text message.

Mr. Larkin has earned my deepest respect and admiration.

8:05 am  

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