DAO Editor Colin Hambrook attended Shape's debate on media representation of disability at the Southbank Centre yesterday.
Predicated on the idea that there is a change happening… and that disabled people are leading in that process, an audience of 150 or so were treated to an afternoon of debate from some key disabled professionals within the world of arts, sports and media.
The main attraction of the afternoon's event was a debate between University lecturer Mike Shamash and self-confessed "bad" media person Will Self. They discussed the ins and outs of identity politics and representation of disability, on the television, in particular.
No matter how much we um and ah over wanting to see our lives presented back to us through the arts and through media (and yes, as Channel 4s Alison Walsh pointed out, there is more incidental casting of disabled people) 'difference' will always have a symbolic function. As Will Self said: "the problem with the media is that television will always have an enormous capacity to masquerade as being sympathetic when in reality it's being voyeuristic. It will always dress one thing up as something else as long as the editor is delivering what the public want.”
He went on to talk about the "unhelpfulness" of Disability Sport; not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with Disability Sports people or people who like watching impairment or non-impairment-related sports; but how it fudges everything in the realms of the "idiocy of identity politics." Talking about celebrities like Tanni Grey Thompson, for example, Self said that within the context of a media appearance, she’s not a disabled person, she’s an elite athlete. The fact is that these kinds of representations of disabled people influence whether we belong to the suburb of "good people with impairments" who are seen as ‘normal’, or the "bad ghetto of disabled people" who are seen as ‘freaks’.
The problem that we have to own up to as artists, producers and commentators working within the disability arts movement is how the striving for integration, at any cost, has lead to this sense that you are either a ‘normal’ or a ‘freak’. To paraphrase Will Self: "we've had 25 years of identity politics being subverted by successive governments who have used the agenda to uphold their political sense of 'fairness in society.'”
In focussing on the idea of integration we've created a template for exposing complexity, but obscuring the bigger picture. And somewhere along the line the media and the tabloids in particular have interpreted a message that a vast majority of us are faking it, especially when asking for access needs or basic living costs, to be met. If we are ‘normal’ then we are not entitled to the ‘perks’. In the current climate many of us who simply struggle daily because of impairment - as well as individuals in need of 24 hour care, or who are weeks away from dying, even - are being told that we are fit for work. And that's the reality.
A parallel discussion about race accompanied the debate with comment on the fact that while we have a rising black middle class in the country, we still have a situation where 50 per cent of young black men are unemployed - and are pushed out because they don't fit.
Lastly the audience were presented with a challenge. WIll Self asked us to imagine a world where prejudice and stigma were suddenly, overnight banished. How would that look? Who or what would you become? How would that impact on your idea of an equal society? One person said – in jest – that they’d be 'a banker'; another said they'd like to see 'a wobbly man icon around town' in appropriate places; another that they’d like to see their life reflected back to them as it is. For me it would mean more in-depth exposure of the challenges that M.E. presents. Will Self invited us to leave comments on his website at will-self.com/.
I’d also like to see the history of the Disability Arts Movement over the last 25 years and more preserved. YOU can play a part by leaving a comment on DAO on the kinds of things you would like to see a National Disability Arts Collection and Archive at http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/support-NDACA
Liz Carr wrote recently in an interview with Richard Downes on DAO that what bothers her is how worked up the media gets with lambasting comics like Ricky Gervais over 'mong gate' when the reality is that nobody gives a shit about the real issues affecting disabled people’s lives.
You can be declared fit for work by Atos just six weeks before you die - and it might just about make the Guardian's letters page!
Nicky Clark has recently written an insightful piece for the New Statesman looking at the hypocrisies of how the media works. Celebrities like Frankie Boyle will ignore disability hate crime for sake of a laugh, and will then appear on Comic Relief bigging up the worthy cause of helping the poor deserving disabled children.
Having grown up through the disability movement of the past 20 years I've learnt to see how media phenomena like Comic Relief are an extension of disabilty hate crime; set up to make the 'normals' feel better about themselves through patronising projects which support charities run by non-disabled people and rarely if ever directly empower disabled people.
Nicky has recently set up The Don't Play Me Pay Me campaign which seeks to actively encourage disabled people to follow their chosen creative career path.
I'd recommend endorsing the campaign which has similar aims to DAO in, amongst other things, providing a forum for all disabled actors to encourage debate and empower them to have their voice heard and listened to. She has taken up the challenge of engaging with the likes of Ofcom and Channel 4 and has received a fair bit of press coverage in her efforts to make her campaign known.
You can add your support by going to to http://www.dontplaymepayme.com