The BBC Radio 4 Feedback programme today featured an attempt by a disabled broadcaster to talk about how disabled people and the issues they face are handled on the BBC’s various radio channels. The particular prompt for this was the 50th birthday of Radio 4′s flagship programme concerned with disability, In Touch. The presenter at one stage said something that seemed to me to sum up the dilemma that faces not only broadcasters, but society at large when it tries to deal with the issues of disability. Commenting on the paralympics, she wondered what coverage is given to disability sports when the country isn’t preparing to host the Olympics. And responding to one channel’s statement that they were about to feature the “heroic” struggles of some young disabled people via awards at some sort of young person of the year event, she reflected that “disabled people are not all heroically overcoming insuperable odds, but merely trying to get on with their lives.” Exactly so.
This dilemma is not restricted to disabled people alone, of course, but it is perhaps particularly acute in that context. Should there be special programming by and for disabled people that concentrates on disability almost as a subject in itself, either because the issues that disabled people face, or because disabled people are the actors (not, to be clear, actors in the sense of drama, but actors in the sense of being active) in something not specifically about disability, are the programme’s focus and raison d’être? Or should there be programmes in which disabled people happen to take part, merely because some people happen to be disabled?
I am not disabled, either in my own eyes or in terms of any official definition. I do not listen to In Touch. When I catch it, or similar programmes, by accident I generally (not without a vague sense of guilt) tune to something else or switch off. It is, I think, indisputable that special programmes for disabled people contribute to the “ghetto-isation” of the subject matter and the people. Insofar as those programmes can be seen as catering for a community of interest this may not matter. After all, I don’t listen to Gardeners’ Question Time either and feel no sense of guilt about that. But insofar as I should be concerned about my fellow citizens who are frequently subjected to all sorts of social dis-benefits quite irrelevant to those problems that flow unavoidably from their disabilities, this compartmentalisation is a bad thing. It creates a sort of moral choice about whether or not to be interested in disability when in fact I should be confronted with those matters routinely in the BBC’s output whether I like it or not.
I’m particularly talking here about current affairs, news, documentaries, and other such programming rather than entertainment or drama. Shoe-horning worthy disabled plot lines awkwardly into programmes like The Archers is usually excruciating for all concerned. It’s in no-one’s interests to provide an open goal to the “political correctness gone mad” lobby by quotas, or monitoring content with some kind of target in mind. But it is vitally important that disabled people who are “merely trying to get on with their lives” appear just like anyone else in “normal” situations, or delivering “normal” news or social insight. Sometimes this does happen, but it’s rare, and usually because something exceptional has occurred. I’m thinking of, for example, Frank Gardner appearing in his wheelchair as he recovered from his injuries in the course of duty. I wonder if he’d have been the BBC’s security correspondent if he’d had some kind of congenital or pre-existing disability. Disabled reporters generally seem as rare as hen’s teeth. Unless it’s a programme about disability, of course.
I’m not arguing against some specialist programming on this topic. But I am bewailing the corralling into some kind of quarantined space a rag-bag of disability issues labelled variously as heroic, or victimised, or simply bizarre. Of course this does a great disservice to disabled citizens. Of perhaps even greater importance though, is the way it allows the rest of us to avoid both the specific difficulties disabled people face, and the sheer normality of the fact that some people are disabled. Not that you’d know this from a cursory glance at the schedules.