A tale of two narratives and the contested representation of disabled people

It strikes me that from what I see, hear and read at the moment, that there is a very polarised contest going on in terms of how disabled people are talked about, thought about and represented.  Discussion and debate over the representation of disabled people is in and of itself nothing new.  As I was researching this blog, I found a really interesting book on how disabled people are represented in the media from the early 1990’s.  Many of those representations are still with us today.  What feels different (and I emphasise that this is a feeling rather than I something which I can empirically verify or ‘prove’ as such) is the significance of the challenges that disabled people are facing in current times, coupled with the unparalleled importance of social media channels today.

So for me there is a tale of two narratives which are diametrically opposed.  On the one hand there is a ‘contribution’ narrative, which talks about the positive impact disabled people can make through their approach to life and skills.  An example of this from a few days ago was the parliamentary discussion of the role that disabled people could make to economic growth.  The report from this discussion makes it clear that disabled people have a significant contribution to make in several different ways and is well worth a read.  A further example is a channel 4 publication on the importance of disabled talent in the media industry, which in many ways is an extended testament to the progressive approach taken by this broadcaster.

On the other hand there is the ‘burden’ based narrative, which depicts disabled people must, as Colin Barnes puts it, be ‘cared for’ together with the cost and complexity that this involves.  This can take a range of forms.  There was recent outcry over a BBC Ouch podcast which, it its headline, explicitly discussed whether having a disabled partner was a ‘burden.’  The response to this will also give us clues as to how to combat this narrative, which I will return to later.

I first want to highlight a deeply troubling aspect of this narrative though: the renaissance of the medical model.  Increasingly, it is being left to disabled people to find their own solutions to their impairments.  In an educational context, I have been disturbed at the increasingly contested state of special educational needs provision.  The denial of young disabled people of access to educational opportunity due to increasing amounts of litigation is a worrying development.  Other examples of the return of the medical model include requiring disabled people to contribute to their own social care costs and fund their own wheelchairs.

Whilst I am normally quick to call for and point to a need for nuance, I really can’t see any middle ground between these narratives.   Opposing the burden based narrative in a swift and confident fashion is important.  In the case of the BBC Ouch podcast, thankfully the range and volume of response to the characterisation of disabled people as ‘burdens’ was vast.  This resulted in the offending text being edited and an apology being made.  It could easy for the medical model to ‘creep’ its way back into our default way of thinking, so it is by challenging its expressions that this can be combatted.

The case for the ‘contribution’ based narrative should also continue to be made in an assertive way.  Even allowing for my own bias, it is clear to me that disabled people have a pivotal role to play in contemporary society in so many ways. Make no mistake though that the hard fought advances that we have seen for disabled people can be easily eroded, and constant vigilance against this is required.  Long may the contribution based narrative emerge, and we all have a role to play in ensuring the ‘burden’ based narrative is consigned to the past, never to return.

About the Author

Chris Whitaker was born and grew up in Cheshire, arriving in the world with cerebral palsy after a complex childbirth. Apparently, he was lucky to be here at all and has tried to make the most of life ever since! Chris has worked in the third sector for a few years now and is also a charity trustee. Making a positive difference every day is what drives him and he gets to see the impact the third sector makes. Chris has also been able to use his own lived experience as a disabled person to make an input into his working life.

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