By Colin Hambrook
Did you watch BBC 2s 'Are you having a laugh? TV and Disability'? It was the BBCs latest attempt to convince viewers that attitudes towards disability have changed massively over the past 50 years. There has been a lot of change. But has change been as enormous and as positive as narrator David Walliams (writer and actor from Little Britain) seemed to be making out?
Where I thought the programme did succeed was in telling the stories of a small group of professional crips. Television actors / presenters Mat Fraser, Kiruna Stamell (Cast Offs), Julie Fernandez (The Office), Cerrie Bernell (CBeebies), TV producer Ash Atalla (IT Crowd, The Office), athlete Tanni-Grey Thompson, editor Ian McCrae and comedians Francesaca Martinez and Laurence Clark were given a platform to share some of their views on where change has happened.
It was interesting hearing Ash Atalla – for instance - talking about the effect of being sent to a special school. He says: “I remember thinking if it meant the only women I was going to meet was going to be other wheelchair-users.” Back in the 1990s there was a lot of debate especially coming from ex-special school students about wanting to be part of the mainstream – and not be stuck in a disability ghetto.
‘Are you having a laugh?’ seemed to be saying that we are living in a brave new world where the mainstream is still flawed – but is generally more accepting of disabled people. But does the kind of humour about disability we see on our screens in programmes like The Office, Extras and Little Britain really mean society is more accepting of disabled people? Or that it has taken on the issues of discrimination and difference that we face?
The Office co-writer Stephen Merchant talked about wanting the character of Brent to be confronted by a wheelchair-user. In the second series Julie Fernandez played an office worker who Brent ingratiates himself with, trying hard to use a connection with her to his own advantage. But isn’t this kind of humour still playing on notions of triumph over tragedy? Doesn't the assumption that she is lucky to be working there still underlie the comic element?
Presenter Cerrie Bernell talked about her experience of presenting on a children’s programme and receiving media attention over the fact some parents complained her stump was giving their kids nightmares. 'Are you having a laugh?' failed to address why the media was so keen to make a big deal of this adverse response.
Some of the other non-crip tv presenters, celebrities and comedians seemed self-conscious and didn’t add anything of particular relevance to the programme. I maybe wrong, but kind of felt that the likes of Arthur Smith, Jimmy Tarbuck and Nicholas Parsons, were making a brave effort - but weren’t really quite sure why they’d been asked to talk about disability.
The documentary moved around a bit aimlessly. It was definitely more about representation than it was about comedy. A handful of stories were thrown in there. It was interesting to hear Ian McCrae, for example, saying that all the letters of complaint he received at Disability Now about Andy – the non-disabled wheelchair-user from Little Britain – were from non-disabled people. However I found this a bit strange having known lots of stories from wheelchair-users who transfer, getting told by strangers that they are ‘faking it.’
I think there is more, rather than less chance of disabled people becoming isolated and marginalised, in the current climate. The programme largely failed to address notions of 'triumph over tragedy' other than in passing. Aren't the expectations placed on us to be the same as everyone else, higher than ever, now?
Sure there were some comments on discriminatory attitudes, patronisation and awkwardness - even sex - but it didn't convince me that society - as reflected through the medium of television - is actually ready to accept disabled people on any other terms than as ‘normals’ with a difference.