Why we need more disabled people on TV

13 August 2015

Clare Pelhamby Clare Pelham

It’s not often you watch something on television that stays with you for a long time. But, in the same way that the BBC film Cathy Come Home tackled homelessness in the 1960s, the recent disability season on BBC Three, Defying the Label, was a ground-breaking shift in understanding the lives of disabled people. This was clever and thoughtful programming at its best, and we need more.

The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime

I never quite know who the average viewer is, but I suspect that their first reaction to a series like this might be that it’s completely unnecessary. Perhaps even special pleading by a special interest group?

We live in a country where most people accept each other for who we are, and in our infinite variety — don’t we? And perhaps that is why The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime, written and presented by Adam Pearson, was for me the most shocking of the fifteen films.

Adam gently and thoughtfully played with our image of ourselves as accepting and tolerant people. True, only three people out of a handful he interviewed knew the meaning of the word ‘disablism’ compared to universal understanding of ‘racism’. True, it came as a shock to find that the penalty for disability hate crime was a maximum of six months’ imprisonment compared to two years, for example, for racist hate crime. True, only 4% of all recorded hate crime was disability hate crime.

But much worse was that the overriding and painful impression from almost every encounter in the film was of casual, everyday unkindness to disabled people.

The worst of it was that this was not largely bullying and cruelty by a hate-filled minority. Although these horrible stories of disability hate crime showed you that too. This was — and is today — the everyday experience of disabled people at school, on the bus, in the office and in the pub. When Adam sits on the bus, nice people choose not to sit next to, or even near him.

Nice, well brought-up people say and do offensive things. Teachers and other authority figures — including you and me — give tacit permission by not challenging their behaviour or these words. Would you sit down to dinner with a host who made the same remarks about people from a different ethnic background? I very much doubt it.

There are 11 million disabled people in this country and they deserve better. And in the ultimate vindication of the programme Adam showed, even though the sample size was small, the answer was simple. Quite simply, to know him was to accept him for the person that he was.

The Worst Place in the World to be Disabled?

What makes a programme memorable for me is the telling picture or phrase that sticks like a burr. Weeks later, I still can’t dislodge the picture of the roadside bridge in Ghana where disabled babies are routinely drowned.

I pay attention to debates about overseas aid and whether 0.7% is sufficient or too much for a country like ours to give. But never have I felt the pain of that decision so acutely.

In The Worst Place in the World to be Disabled?, writer and presenter Sophie Morgan, herself a wheelchair user, travelled to Ghana. There was effectively minimal medical and other support for disabled people. Traditional beliefs led to disabled children and adults being taken to ‘prayer camps’ of different faiths where they might be shackled and subject to traditional practices, sometimes designed to lift the ‘curse’ which was believed to have resulted in their disability.

Sophie met people who killed disabled babies by ‘returning’ them to the river for a payment. She cried and I cried. The worst part was that the bridge was beside a road, and a gun was fired on every occasion — usually twice a week. It was not a secret. Everyone knew. They looked the other way. And so do we, if now that we all know, we don’t challenge Ghana to do something about it.

Wanted: a Very Personal Assistant

Defying the Label moved from the world stage to the bus in Croydon. And at every step it was memorable and challenging. And in the best sense it was also educational.

Glimpses into the lives of young people are always a learning experience. But glimpses into the lives of young disabled people in Wanted: a Very Personal Assistant showed the telling domestic details of how you live your life if you are reliant on a personal assistant for support with dressing, washing, cooking and going to the pub or on holiday.

How is it possible to be a good employer of a PA in such an intimate role, especially when you are still in your twenties? How do you balance the potential friendship and closeness that may naturally develop, with the need for your employee to be punctual and conscientious?

The answer was: surprisingly well. It gave such hope for the future to see young people respectfully negotiating their way through every intimate issue from washing to sex.

Disabled people still missing from our screens

So, as the Defying the Label season ends, the BBC should be applauded loudly for this season of clever and powerful programming.

Best of all because it was good and insightful in its own right and stands comparison with the best of BBC programming. Not niche. Not Paralympics.

I would like to think that soon we will be able to say this was one of those moments when we began to really understand the shift we needed to make in showing how disabled people are part of the everyday fabric of society.

And they also need to be part of our everyday television viewing. Because disabled people are still missing from our screens. We need to see that disabled people work, travel, strive and love just as we all do.

So we need more of them in every film and every documentary, and we need it now.

Clare Pelham is chief executive of Leonard Cheshire Disability.


Why should PEOPLE with disabilities be consigned to 'seasons' and 'special' t.v. programming? That is not the case with other groups, who are part of the mainstream when it comes to the media and programming, in fact, they are over-represented and highlights the hypocrisy of some people being more 'equal' than others. There are thirteen million PEOPLE with disabilities and the odd programme or 'season' does not detract from the reality that we are still subject to selective discrimination!

I really enjoyed these 'disability' programmes, watched them on my iplayer. YES, there needs to be more disabled people on tv (different disabilities, gender, age, background etc.) - and like another commenter posted, not just during 'disabiity season' - we are not disabled for just one season!; it's our everyday lives and it needs to be part of non-disabled peoples lives so we are more integrated into the fabric of society. And not an oddity which leads to abuse (consciously or not). For disabled people to be more visible in the media means we are also real. Also human. Real people with real lives. I, as a disabled person of 8 years, still far from old-age, felt less alone watching these programmes - their disabilities may not have been exactly mine but it was positive seeing how their strong human spirit enabled them to see through the challenges that come along with being disabled. Although the ones highlighting the prejudices and abuse deeply saddened me; however are equally as important in getting all kinds of people talking. I may wish for my able-body back again (no more chronic severe pain!, no more mobility problems!, and all the rest, especially the poor treatment from others!), but having physical impairments has taught me to be more human. More compassionate, kind.

So, yes, DO bring back more of these kinds of programmes for every day tv.

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