Richard Butchins says this recent season of shows about different aspects of disability was a mishmash of freak show porn and missed opportunities
Having been asked to review the BBC3 season on disability called without any apparent irony “Defying the Label”, I took a list of the 10 programmes and picked five at random. It seemed the fairest way as there was no way I could watch 10 of them.
Watching these programmes from the perspective of a disabled person is, of course, different from that of the intended audience who are not disabled (or even paying attention). TV production has demands of budget and deadlines and often one is presented with a half formed and simplistic look at any given subject, though always presented as authoritative and absolute.
The main thing I drew from watching these programmes is that we have a long way to go until disability isn’t regarded as a freak show for the entertainment of a TV audience.
This factual drama (?) was a mix between an episode of Holby City and Hollyoaks Later. The script was stuffed with exposition and the actors struggled to make something out of the wooden and lifeless words. Ruth Madeley played well with admirable restraint though Adam Long was not as effective. The main problem was this ‘drama’ contained no actual drama. In a situation that must be riven with uncertainties, anxiety and contradictory interests, it just floated along with no tension or emotional resonance. One never felt the processes around deciding if disabled parents can keep their new-born children were interrogated or the shock of becoming a parent revealed. It had a preachy feel reminding me of the ‘educational’ programmes so beloved by the BBC in the 70s and 80s. It could have had far more impact if the disabled couple had the baby removed from them at the end. Mind you, the baby was great, which made me wonder, where do they get TV babies?
Hmmmm…Disabled people made to fear their own lives and then displayed on TV like some kind of Victorian zoo exhibit. The programme is set in a facility that provides young adults with epilepsy with 24-hour supervision and medical investigation run by an organisation called Young Epilepsy. According to the Care Quality Commission the centre can house up to 110 young people. The subjects of the film are not children but adults and should be treated as such. The word patronising is not strong enough to describe this drivel. The people in this film have been infantilised and disenfranchised by our society and then paraded on TV with zero input into their representation. This is “Cripple Porn” at its nadir. The only positive thing I can say about it is that it inadvertently shows the medical model of disability at its worst. One of the featured young women shows obvious frustration at the 24 hour non-stop ‘supervision’ of her life and then goes on to appear to be sentenced to institutional living for the rest of her life. Another 21-year-old woman has not had a seizure in four years and her epilepsy is controlled with medication. So why is she still living in this ‘home’ under 24 hour watch? An obvious question nobody seems willing to ask. She wants to learn to drive and is told the rule is three years seizure free, which is untrue. The rule is 12 months seizure free. And yet another, a young boy of 14 is offered risky brain surgery to ‘cure’ his epilepsy. None of this is questioned or evaluated in any way it’s all presented as if there is no alternative, as if this is the best thing for these ‘unfortunate’ people. How can you ever feel like an independent and worthwhile person when you have a baby monitor in your bedroom at twenty years old and are never allowed to be alone?
Despite the unstoppable tendency to give all TV docs an asinine title this programme was a relief from the relentless ‘we shall overcome’ bravery and hideous cheerful blandness of the previous two offerings. The story of a young woman who achieved a traumatic brain injury whilst snowboarding in the Alps, she goes off to meet the people who saved her. Yep, that old chestnut, however, after a few too many celebratory reunions and ‘who the fuck are you again?’ hugs, the programme takes a subtler, darker turn. It turns out disability isn’t a refreshing breakfast cereal after all. Charlie then goes to meet some other brain injury sufferers (standard technique when the story’s a bit thin) and one of them called Hannah is impressive.Unable to properly communicate or walk she is quietly determined to work to make her life liveable. I would have liked to have seen more of her story. But the best thing in this film is the failure by Charlie to pass an exam to become a snowboarding or ski instructor for disabled people. She tries three times – and it’s great – because for the first time we see one of the most significant things that affects disabled people – failure. We can’t do stuff and it hurts, so let’s deny it and ‘oh no’ that doesn’t work out either. There are some unfortunate and inevitably trite, uplifting pieces to camera at the end, but at least the film wasn’t drenched in sentimentality and it looked good as well.
Oh dear, oh dear. You can almost hear the voices at the editorial meeting trying to decide which developing country they should send a pretty wheelchair bound white girl to in order to show how terribly they treat the disabled. They choose Ghana (perhaps because a lot of people there speak English). Now, there is without doubt a very serious problem in Ghana and across Africa with the way disabled people are treated but sending a naïve paternalistic girl on a two-week holiday to have a bit of a butchers and make a travelogue out of a tragedy is not the way to expose this issue to our tender sensibilities. I don’t doubt Sophie’s sincerity but she is ill equipped to delve with any insight into this subject I don’t blame her for this; it must be a shock for her to wander into a Bakhtian nightmare. This, like the entire season, was another lost opportunity to deal sensitively and directly with the struggles of disabled people. There is no context or analysis around the issue leaving the audience to wonder about how and why this is happening. I’m left with two lingering images – one of a priest who murders disabled babies and who was never properly challenged about his activities, and the face of a three year old girl called Blessing being treated at a Catholic run rehabilitation centre after being saved from her religious parents who wanted to kill her. No irony there then.
The continuing story of some more brave cripples living in yet another institution… We’d best have subtitles in case they are a touch difficult to understand. I’m not sure who BBC3 think are dumber the viewer or the subjects in the films? Perhaps both. Though, in fact, Guy King has managed to make a warm-hearted documentary based at the National Star College, which as far as I can tell is a residential establishment for people with severe disabilities coupled with learning difficulties – again no context or explanation is given. His contributors are funny and the programme is touching. I have the same reservations about the overall message in this film as I have for the entire season but at least the characters manage to transcend the subtext with ease and there is less use of narration to interfere in what is a simple narrative. Largely the contributors are left to speak for themselves and Xenon, the central character, is a perceptive and strong personality, who you warm to immediately and who comes out with the immortal line, “Life is still perfect, beyond the disability,” and he means it.