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.