Just Having More Disabled People on TV Is Not Enough

For as long as I can remember, one of the complaints from all corners I have heard is that there is not enough disabled people on television. While this can often feel the case, the reality is television has always included and portrayed people with a range of impairments, it is however just not in the way we may like.

Television and literature is full of disabled characters, although we may not obviously relate to them as disabled people, and includes people like Captain Hook, Tiny Tim, Ironside, many James Bond villains and the list goes on. The problem with these characters is that their impairment is used as symbolism for traits like helplessness and vengeance. They reinforce the notion disability is either something to pity, or a reason to dislike the world and take revenge, especially in terms of being a supervillain.

As disabled people become more included in society, having a great range of social roles and participating in more areas as equal citizens, without being a form of literacy symbolism, we call upon television, as a mirror of our society, to reflect this new level of inclusion. This means we wish to see disabled people play a larger range of characters with deeply multi-dimensional back stories and plots. We also wish to see more disabled people working as equals in television, in front and behind the screen, to bring the idea disabled people are a part of everyday society.

I was proud to be a founding cast member of I’m Spazticus, which was certainly not disabled people as part of everyday society just yet. This was instead an in your face challenge to the general public to see disabled people and their experiences in unusual and bizarre situations. The primary aim was to make people laugh and understand it is okay to laugh with and at disabled people, if they are offered the permission to do so. In doing this, the series tried to challenge the notion of what disabled people could do and bring impairment related culture to the mainstream.

Even ten years after the broadcast of its original pilot, I think the show is still ahead of its time, and challenges the views of many disabled people, as well as the general public. While the LGBTQ community has successfully used pride and in your face ‘I am what I am’ rebelliousness to claim their status in society, the disability community, if there is such a thing, currently seems to be focused on complaining and demanding, with a mixture of self-pity and politically correct drum banging, as opposed to celebrating who we are as people who are different.

This was brought home to me just yesterday when I ended up in an argument with another disabled person on whether it was right to call a bib for adults a bib or an apron! I would never force anyone to use a term they were uncomfortable with, but at the same time, I will not let anyone prevent me from using the terms I am comfortable with. While some people may think saying bib portrays me as infantile, I use the term because firstly it is a bib, and secondly to stick two fingers at those who are uncomfortable with my appearance in society by being proud about it.

The current problem any disabled person has being on TV is that as opposed to being allowed to be themselves, they can find themselves with a massive cultural responsibility to represent all disabled people, even when that is extremely impossible. But by seeing more disabled people on TV in an ever increasing range of roles and stories, we may break the public perception that we are a single group and that we are as diverse as anyone else and no disabled person can represent all disabled people. Some of us are able and willing to celebrate our diversity provocatively, and others are happy to be in the shadows, maybe unsure of who they are.

Television still has a role to play in mirroring the complexity and diversity of disability, even if we do not always see it, and it is a battle still to be won.

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Being Normal Has Never Appealed to Me

Normality has been a concept I have wrestled with most of my life, and it was the topic and title of a play I wrote in 1991 about my experiences of being a disabled pupil at an all-boys mainstream school within a very different era. I believe Normality can be seen in two very distinct ways, both of which I can strongly relate to.

The first way to see Normality is in terms of social conformity. The term normal relates to being average and therefore fitting in to what society expects of us. I think during my teens I try to conform in terms of trying to have a normal lifestyle. Each New Year, I resolved to eat with a knife and fork as opposed to a spoon, even if the novelty only lasted a few weeks. It was not a case of wanting to fit in, but more not knowing who I was, very similar to the ugly duckling who never seen their swan peers.

During my 20s, I realised my speech impairment and drooling made me a ‘freak’, which I regard as a positive term, and therefore there was little point conforming if it was not helping me. This realisation gave me the freedom to try bibs, helmets, nappies, cups and other devices that could help me have a comfortable lifestyle, especially in an era when these were not as acceptable as today.

My confidence to buck conformity, doing stuff even if I was the only person to do so, also gave me the ability to think for myself, and say what I actually think, and not what others want me to say, even if they do not understand their own conformity. I think Goths, anti-capitalist activists and so on often do not understand they are conforming to the role society asked of them as much as anybody else. A truly independent thinker is neither predictable or a stereotype of themselves, and so my often ‘lone voice’ often confuses people immensely.

The other side of Normality, is how we feel about ourselves. I was born with most of my impairments, and therefore I have no understanding of what life is like without them, and so these make them normal to me. In this way we can see normality have something only we can define for ourselves. Life is about periods of change that creates periods of normality. Each change we face can cause stress or distress while we embrace the change, or perhaps not. Normality is generated when we accept the change, especially if it is a part of about our inner story and journey. Not all change is good, and our response may be to turn the situation around, such as when we have lost a job, and immediately look for a new one.

Normality can therefore be defined as our comfort zone, even if our idea of normal is very different to what is expected from us and ‘being normal’. Thiss duality has always fascinated me and shows how powerful the concept of normality is. I have no desire to become normal, and always assumed it to be something boring, but at the same time I am normal and I am proud of that fact.

I think by understanding what we see as normal to ourselves, we can better understand who we are and how we relate to others, which is probably a normal thing to do.

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Disability in 2020

The surprising general election result has left many disability campaigners and activists in shock, with immediate welfare based allegations of all round doom and gloom in what they see as an unfair result. But the nation voted and in England at least, their welfare based desire to exclude disabled people in the name of fairness and compassion failed.

While this Conservative government has a bumpy 5 years ahead, and there is much for everyone to be weary about, in terms of policies specifically relating to disabled people, the core legislation is in place, and now it is a matter of letting this bed in. The new welfare reforms are not clear cuts, but a redistribution of limited resources to better support those who need it the most. This story is rarely told as the activists and media has portrayed anyone with any kind of impairment, however minor, as helpless and vulnerable.

The austerity rhetoric failed to capture voters in this election, and if the message is used again in 2020, when the economy is likely to be stronger, it will fail again. Within 5 years, the conversation on disability issues by disabled people, charities, professionals and politicians must be very different to the last 5 years. The lives of 12 million disabled people, with a complex range of needs and desires, can not be hold to ransom by cheap welfare based headlines that use people’s fear of disability to win a moral argument.

More importantly, the rising and future leaders within disability issues, to which I cautiously hold my hand up to being, need to understand and embrace the fact that the government should not be relied upon to come up with all the solutions, like a bird feeding its chicks. It is time disabled people, in a wide range of groupings and forums, come up with their own self-sufficient solutions to meet their own needs and desires.

By this I am not referring in any way to a reduction of the support individuals receive from government. I am however saying that it is maybe not the government’s responsibility to ‘give’ a disabled person a job, as that will rarely be a proper job. Instead it is time disabled people set up ‘for profit’ socially motivated enterprises like recruitment agencies that enables and empowers disabled people’s talents to be uncovered, and sold as the top of the crème to prospective employers.

I believe the charity model of so-called ‘user-led organisations’ no longer has a place and that these organisations do very little for all but a few disabled people as they endlessly chase statutory funding regardless of how far it moves them from why they were originally set up. Their dependency of maintaining the status quo has hindered any development in disabled people’s engagement on many levels.

I further believe the answer to their replacement is simply not a new set of charity based organisations using new blood, if there is indeed new blood, but rather something which is far more organic, and something no one can currently predict. Twitter was a campaigning revolution which has its advantages, as well as disadvantages, namely to fact it has enabled disabled people to interact with each other in a manner previously impossible. We will have no idea what will be the key technology in 2020 or the impact that will have.

People from all backgrounds should be working in their own way, some together and some individually, to ensure that the life opportunities and experiences for disabled people in 2020 is better than they are now. This has to be more than just the amount of money they receive from government but about every aspect of their life. The focus should not be just on those who fit into the classic stereotype of being sick, miserable and not coping financially. It is important we meet what all disabled people, from all walks of life, individually require to be contributing members of society.

I very much hope that the issue of disability in 2020 is in a stronger position than it is now, and that it shakes off the image of just being a welfare issue. Achieving this is not about what the government is going to do for disabled people, but what will disabled people do for themselves?

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Which Political Party Is Good for Disabled People?

This election has been a confusing yet dull election. What was 5 years ago a traditional two and a half horse race has now exploded into a rainbow of parties, although they all seem to be fighting in their own ways for the middle ground, promising to be safe rather than bold.

When it comes to what political party is good for disabled people, the short answer is I have no idea. While I have done some research, this article is merely my feelings as opposed to attempting to be a definitive guide on the parties. The problem for me is that all the parties are framing disability as a welfare issue, and making social care a ‘carers’ issue as oppose to promoting meaningful independent living, which is more than throwing money at those disabled people who shout the loudest.

Labour is traditionally the best friend of disabled people, but compared to five years ago, it has lost so much of its deep understanding of disability within the concept of the social model. It is like they have had a bonfire of policies and replaced them with more fashionable medical model welfarism as desired by the new short-term sick and disabled people’s movement, born out of the welfare reforms. Like a lot of the parties, they are catering for the tip of the iceberg, the disabled people and carers happy with their exclusion from society, leaving the issues of a majority of disabled people to fester for another generation to solve.

Labour’s social care pledges concern me and if you join the dots, they are proposing a nationalised service that is more about ticking boxes to keep people alive, rather than any meaningful social interaction. Like so many parties, they propose ending the misunderstood ’15 minute’ calls, replacing ‘time limited calls’ with ‘task orientated calls’, which in reality means 8 minute calls, painted as ‘fairer’!

The Greens and SNP seem to be promising the often trade union supported disability groups whatever they want, where money is no object. I however believe more welfare, paying people to sit to home as oppose to unlocking their inner potential, will lead to more exclusion and simply makes a better case for the assisting dying and wider eugenics agenda in a manner that is too slow to ever be realised.

Then we have the Tories. I was never a Tory but over the last 5 years, I have been verbally abused on social media endlessly by other activists for looking Tory. But I have always just been interested in disabled people reaching their full potential as opposed to be written off from birth in the name of ‘fairness and compassion’. For me, the call to end Sanctions towards disabled people, and so denying them social responsibility, is a first step to pushing disabled people out of society.

I do not see the cuts in the way other activists have demanded I should. This coalition government has put in the foundations to move disabled people from a dependency culture and the social death many other parties wish to defend, assuming we lack potential. I fear the desires and bigotries of other parties, who patronise disabled people as ‘vulnerable’, more than what this government has done, which I acknowledge has been far from perfect.
The LibDems are okay but again, they have no interest in meaningful independent living, but rather to be the best friend of ‘carers’, assuming disabled people who require social care have no voice in their own lives. But no party is interested in ‘independent living’, especially free of control from the gravy train of ‘user led organisations’ talking about ‘human rights’, as oppose to delivering action on the ground.

What is ironic is that the party I feel I have the biggest opportunity to develop their disability policy with in the long term, as a critical friend of government, is UKIP, who has a disabled spokesperson who is actually disabled, approachable, and independent from any set thinking. Clearly, many of their other policies mean I am unlikely to ever vote for them, but if they were in power, it could be the best opportunity for disabled people who desire inclusion in the long term.

The election is certainly about voting for the best of a bad bunch. None of the parties have any real understanding of the complex issues within the realm of disability, and like most successful disability policy in the past, change will come from grassroots society as opposed to the ‘bright ideas’ of government.

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