Television lives by the idea that art imitates life. Perhaps more than any other medium, television is the eye revealing our soul. If that’s true we can start to look at it critically to gauge exactly how disabled people are currently thought of and how that’s changed over the years.
From Able Magazine #110 (March/April 2014), Words: Tom Jamison
Generally speaking, television has been slowly becoming more and more diverse since it started, way back in the 1930s. A job in television is no longer the elite preserve of the white male speaking in Received Pronunciation. We can now regularly experience all strands of diversity through television and the trend has been growing stronger over recent years.
Saying all that, television still doesn’t really know what to do with disabled people. The risks of over-exposure are, of course, vilification for being patronising, over-sentimental or plain voyeuristic, although for the moment, the public appears to forgive what some would claim as bullying, under the questionable term ‘reality’. After all, if it’s real, it’s going to happen anyway, so where’s the harm in watching (or more accurately, ‘rubbernecking’).
It’s a slippery subject to deal with, not least because disability is really too broad to be properly defined (which is why television seems to withdraw so frequently into using stereotypes: usually wheelchairs and learning disabilities). Speaking of ‘reality’ there’s also the question of whether disabled characters in drama should be played more frequently by disabled actors.
Two recent television shows written by Ricky Gervais show the benefits of both approaches: “Life’s Too Short” stars Warwick Davies as a specialist dwarf actor and talent agent. Of course, the show is a parody of real life and exaggerates some of the ‘difficulties’ of having a niche ‘act’. In another of Gervais’s creations ‘Derek’ the lead character (in the show of the same name) has learning difficulties and is played by Ricky Gervais himself – who let’s not forget, is a very good comic actor whose superlative sense of timing and feel for relationships adds the necessary tension to what would otherwise be a televisual non-event. It’s safe to say that a person with learning difficulties could not have played the part in the same way and the show might well have lost its spark (and would have been hammered by critics for exploiting a disabled person). Perhaps disabled people are not always the right people to play disabled roles, just as foreign actors are not always used to portray foreign characters on television either.
Following on from the fictionalised depiction of disability, factual programming is certainly ripe for discussion. Channel 4, in particular, seem to have reinvented the freakshow – in the name of science. Again, were it not for the growing interest in somebody else’s reality and their presumed consent to be ever so slightly exploited, this situation would be horrifying. Yet, here we are watching shows like ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ and ‘Bodyshocks’ and so on, that not only focus on the extreme end of disability but also bundle in cases of people with extreme cases of ordinary conditions, such as obesity or hair growth. It’s doubtful that hundreds of biology students are going to be turning over from the Open University scheduling to partake of the learning.
Another semi-reality television show, ‘Undateables’ focuses on disabled people looking for love. The tension and jeopardy again rely on perceptions (or prejudices). Although the programme content is not without warmth it hasn’t been marketed in a particularly sensitive manner. For one thing, the title is quite a brutal statement of expectation in itself, not much better than calling a programme about unemployed people, ‘Failures’. The marketing pointed less to a programme about the challenges that not only disabled people face in finding ‘true love’ and more about is this person too ugly or unusual to have sex with?
No wonder that when Channel 4 won the rights to show the London Paralympics, that there were some voices of suspicion that they’d somehow manage to tread too heavily over what disability sport is all about. Happily, they were wrong and coverage of the Paralympics was universally applauded, not least because of Channel 4’s commitment to showcasing disabled presenting talent – Ade Adepitan in particular being an excellent choice.
Perspectives on Disability
Cynics might argue, however, that Channel 4 still managed to over-egg the coverage in as much as branding Paralympians as ‘Superhumans’. It’s difficult to describe this as anything less than positive but then if anyone really wants to commit to the idea that amputation “looks cool” – go right ahead and cut a limb off.
Running parallel with the Paralympics coverage was ‘The Last Leg’ fronted by another disabled comedian/presenter, Adam Hills. With more than the suggestion of a smirk, Hills appears to bask in his licence, as he presumably sees it, to go too far. Yes, it’s regarded as an admiral trait to be able to laugh at oneself and certainly in the face of adversity but he’s also laughing at every other disabled person, some of whom may have a distinctly different view of their disability. Again it seems like Channel 4 highlight traditionally accepted rules just so that they can showcase how easy it is to break them hiding behind the fact that Hills, is himself, disabled etc, etc.
There are traditionally observed barriers in society that are reflected on television. The question arises concerning whether those barriers are erected in the right places? I might easily suggest that the BBC hasn’t always been good at showcasing disabled people. Yes, there are exceptions: blind political correspondent, Gary O’Donoghue brings us insightful updates from Westminster almost nightly and then there’s Cerrie Burnell, an amputee presenter who fronts CBeebies, as well as children’s show like ‘Something Special’ that feature disabled children and even teach Makaton signing, but why did the BBC not feel that the broadcasting rights for the Paralympic Games were worth winning? Our national broadcaster turned its back on disabled sport at the most crucial time in its history.
It isn’t just how often disabled people are presented on television but also how they are presented. Is it worth in part, sensationalising disability in order to gain more coverage or is it better to have fewer disabled people on television but in more dignified situations? For the moment it does seem that disabled people are still being isolated within programming. Of the factual programming about disability, there seems to be quite a number of standalone ‘specials’ focussing purely on disability. Why can’t ordinary shows have disabled contestants or talking heads among able-bodied people?
Television is a weird lens to watch ourselves through. It distorts not only the numbers of disabled people but also the way they live. Life imitates art but not exactly, and to a certain extent we see (or watch) what we expect to see and thus the misrepresentation of certain communities is perpetuated.
Television is an unreliable source and lends itself easily to exploitation and exaggeration. It isn’t just disabled people that should be wary of this, of course, there is still such an implausible number of ‘good looking’ perfectly presented and proportioned people on television for it to be taken seriously as an accurate reflection of the way we are.