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Colin Hambrook aks 'what price integration?' in response to the Headlining Disability conference / 20 June 2012

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

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


Susan Quick, Artisitc Director, Enabling Radio Drama

20 June 2012

Sorry I couldn't come. I seriously considered it but getting me plus carer from Yorkshire to London and back was really not viable.

I was particularly interested because last year I did an analysis of the representation of disability in the TV soap, which I presented at "Transforming Difference, Disability, Culture and the Academy' at Hope University, Liverpool. In a week of soaps I saw 4 disabled people, 3 of whom had acute mobility problems, one persuaded his partner to kill him. The other guy had just returned from Afghanistan and was in a state of emotional turmoil. Anyone can have an email of either the full paper or a synopsis.

Kristina Veasey

20 June 2012

There is an interesting debate on how sports people are portrayed in the media running through Crippen's blog 'Disability Graffiti', on this site. I have added my view as a paralympian as well.

I enjoyed the event yesterday and was happy to present and be a part of it. So many of us are having these discussions, it's good to have brought them all together under one roof.

Colin Hambrook [ED]

21 June 2012

Susan - we are hoping to gather a range of responses to issues that came up at Headlining Disability - so Id look to have a look at your research. Perhaps you could email?

There was some level of tension amongst the conference speakers /audience around whether television representation that we are getting is doing disabled people a disservice - or whether simply having disabled people on screen is beneficial from the viewpoint that it "keeps disabled people in the spotlight and therefore keeps the conversation going".

Personally I think much representation is exploitative, freak-show telly! The 3 part series The Undateables got a viewing of 33 million, apparently - and Channel 4 are insistent that their feedback from disabled people was positive.

I was rung up recently by a tv researcher wanting assistance as they prepare another helping of this manipulative piece of humiliation tv (okay so there were one or two 'sensitive' bits...) dressed up as issue-based telly for the normals. Deborah Caulfield wrote a review for Disability Horizons at


21 June 2012

Thank you Colin for going to this event and reporting back for those of us who were unable to attend. And to Susan and Kristina for adding to the info here.

Esther Fox

22 June 2012

I felt compelled to write in response to this article as well as the debate on Crippen’s blog – Disability Graffiti. I presented at Headlining Disability as part of the Leading Through Change Network – who, in partnership with SHAPE, helped deliver the event. I had high hopes that this might be an opportunity to do something new, refreshing and progressive. I think there are some key things that have come up over the course of these discussions.

I believe we should have the right to own our identities. Maybe it is naive to think we can, when the media are often the conduit for promoting these identities to a wider audience. However, I believe the more we insist on labelling ourselves the more this perpetuates the labelling by others. I think it is highly unlikely that Tanni Grey Thompson is not seen as a disabled person within the media, this is based on assumptions that are just not a reality. There has been much further discussion about disability sport and how un-helpful this is on the Disability Graffiti section of Crippen’s blog. Maybe this is to be expected on an arts focussed website, however I am not sure how helpful this is for the bigger picture. I highly recommend reading Kristina Veasey’s response to this as she raises so many pertinent issues. I do find it rather disappointing that “Super Crip’s” are targeted. I work with both disabled artists and sports people and it appears to me that like within the “normal” world some people are passionate about sport and some art and in some cases both. Let us not reduce each other to further stereotypes. At the event I attempted to demonstrate two perspectives, that of a disabled sports person and a disabled artist aiming to explore the motivations behind taking part in both activities. I think the crux of much of this “anti-disability sport” feeling is the challenging times in which we live. With benefit cuts and needing to justify “how disabled” we are, there is considerable pressure on all of us, but are we venting our frustrations at the wrong people? Would we maybe provide a stronger voice if we presented a united front showing we represent a myriad of identities but with a common aim of owning these?

Colin Hambrook [ED]

24 June 2012

In response to Esther’s previous comment I don’t doubt that anyone on or off screen would say that Tanni Grey Thompson does not have an impairment. Obviously she has an impairment. Like other celebrity disabled people she’s no doubt fought harder and worked harder than many non-disabled people to get to the position that she has reached.

Will Self mentioned Tanni, specifically, because he’d taken part in an interview with her on television. On camera she represents an elite athlete, in a way that Stephen Hawking, on camera, becomes a scientist. Their personas transcend ‘disability’ as a statement about non-equal or oppressive human relationships.

He was talking about the way that the media reduces everything to a cipher. It is in the nature of the media to do so. As John Berger said: “Publicity is the life of this culture - in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive - and at the same time publicity is its dream.”

Back in the late 1990s Paul Darke warned against the move towards ‘integration’ in his essay ‘Now I Know Why Disability Art Is Drowning in the River Lethe’. At the time he was writing about ‘Normality Theory’ and in the process was deconstructing the way that the media were appropriating social model terminology in order to “manipulate, distort and finally control Disability Arts to fit its own medicalised view of disability as fundamentally about issues of integration or normalised social valorisation. Art culture, and the various elements of broader culture itself, is not about valuing disability as intrinsically valid, in any degree of an absolute form. What it is about is defining for its society, filtering through to the broader culture, what are the parameters of normality and what, and who, are the acceptable faces of otherness (i.e., the normalised other).”

In essence the understanding of disability as oppression – as an oppressive social relationship - and as challenge to the perception of normality, does not exist on television. As Paul Darke says in his Introductory Essay on Normality Theory: “The move away from the domination of the number of a few terrestrial broadcasters to the addition of a plethora of competing channels from satellite, digital and cable channels has meant that the main broadcasters have started to focus more on ratings and the ‘quick fix' of consumerist television. Disability - as a political issue (like many other political issues) - does not fit into such a schedule; except perhaps as a consumerist issue: liberal rights for the few consumer-like and normalised disabled people or the increasing business-like mentality of the large and powerful charities and their political lobby machines.”

These are the issues I was attempting to elucidate in my editorial, that were being highlighted in the talk between Will Self and Mike Shamash.

Lastly, I think the crux of the anti-sport feeling goes back to what Hitler did when he got his hands on the Olympics in 1936 when he used the arena to affirm the hold of his party over the German people. Hitler was the first politician to fully realise the power of publicity as a tool. He tethered, controlled and honed ‘marketing’ as a device. He created the very first political logo and realising the power of its authority very soon established a position - in a time of economic recession – in which no-one could disagree with him and be taken seriously.

The fear now - is that young people and disabled people - following the line of least political resistance, are being used as ciphers of blame to channel peoples’ feeling about what is happening economically. Is the 2012 moment one of celebration or desolation? History will decide. But for those of us who grew up in the wake of rationing and of the effects, socially of the second world war, I think that as much as we may like Sport, there is an underlying feeling of trepidation about the nationalistic and competitive flavour of the Olympics.


27 June 2012

Do we need reminding what we mean by disability and impairment? At the risk of teaching various grand mothers how to suck eggs ...

From a social model perspective, because we are disabled by the barriers in society, therefore our 'disability' could be said to be those barriers.

The adverse or negative interaction between the barriers and our physical, mental or sensory impairments - that is the 'conditions' with which we live - is what disable's us.

'Impairment' is therefore a descriptive word and 'disability' is how we refer to barriers.

Hope this helps