Hurrah for Clarissa Mullery. If you’re not familiar with Silent Witness, Clarissa Mullery, played by Liz Carr, is a fantastic forensic scientist. She is clever, witty, insightful and very good at her job – oh yes, and she happens to be a wheelchair-user. Thankfully, Clarissa is no stereotype – she is a well-rounded, believable character, and crucially her disability doesn’t drive the narrative. It’s refreshing and it’s important.
Many disabled people feel misunderstood and misrepresented by the media. For diversity to be authentic it is important that the workforce, and particularly the decision-makers, are also drawn from diverse backgrounds. The reality for disabled people is that having an impairment means by definition there are barriers – both physical and social – that prevent full engagement in society. The result is that they often struggle to be heard, or to tell their own stories. Disabled people become defined by others and their view of what they think life is like.
We need a much more sophisticated portrayal of disability, because all too often we fall into one of three categories. The first is the hero. An example of this was when the London 2012 Paralympic Games appeared to create a warm glowaround disability. It was a landmark moment and many disabled people genuinely felt that they were being noticed, acknowledged and accepted.
Then there is the disabled person as a drain on resources – as a useless or even devious benefit-scrounger. We know disability hate crime is on the increase, and last year Scope published some startling and worrying data: 67% of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people, and 24% of disabled people have experienced attitudes or behaviours where other people expected less of them because of their disability.
The third category is the brave victim, triumphing over adversity – disabled people as inspiration. Being told you are amazing “just” because you are disabled makes little sense to most of us, even though it’s the default response for producers and editors when they want a positive portrayal of disability. Unhelpful stereotypes are created, perhaps out of fear, misunderstanding and a feeling of “well, at least I’m not like that”.
This narrative doesn’t truly reflect disabled people’s own identity, or shine a light on the things that most disabled people are concerned with, but it’s a version of disability that many non-disabled people feel good about: one that keeps disabled people removed, distant, an “other” with little hope of breaking through, of having the power to tell their own stories, define themselves and be part of an “us”.
Sophisticated, multi-faceted, authentic portrayal influenced by disabled people will really help to break down barriers and allow disability to become part of the DNA of our society. Yes we need storylines and content focusing on disability, but it has to be much more than that. We need to build a “so-whatness” around portrayal with people all over the output, from weather forecasters to game show hosts, contributors and cast members.
We know it can happen and when it does the impact is immense. CBeebies and CBBC do it effortlessly across their output with people such as actor Sarah Gordy, who has Down’s syndrome, reading Bedtime Stories and Frank in The Dumping Ground, who has cerebral palsy. BBC News has political correspondent Gary O’Donoghue and security correspondent Frank Gardner, while drama has made waves with Silent Witness and Lisa Hammond playing Donna Yates, now a regular in EastEnders.
While it’s good that inroads are being made, the BBC needs to lead the way and expose some of the issues and contradictions that many of us face on a daily basis. Channel 4’s The Last Leg has done this through comedy, but it can be even more effective when it’s not signposted. An episode of Celebrity Apprentice USA featuring Dionne Warwick and deaf actor Marlee Matlin gave a perfect example, when Matlin suggested the character with the solutions to a task (creating a children’s story) could be deaf. Warwick felt that idea was too sad for children. Matlin was furious and, speaking through a sign language interpreter, challenged her assumption that being disabled meant you were unhappy. It was a feisty, fascinating exchange, exposing assumptions we face all the time. Debates of this kind would be great to have playing out in peak-time to mainstream audiences here, and could happen if we had disabled contestants included in reality formats.
The BBC has just made a significant step forward by advertising for a new executive position to oversee the corporation’s disability portrayal. This person will bring their expertise and insight, their networks and contacts into the organisation, getting a multiplicity of voices on air. After all, there is no such thing as a single disability perspective – we all have complex, multiple identities. But we don’t exist merely in the context of the non-disabled world – we don’t want pity, we don’t want admiration. What we do want is to see all our many different manifestations reflected on radio and television as part and parcel of everyday life. Perhaps then people can feel more comfortable around us and we can get on with living our lives as valued and equal members of society.
Tanya Motie and Lady (Tanni) Grey-Thompson are members of the BBC’s Independent Diversity Action Group, chaired by Tony Hall