I’m one of an estimated 11 million people in the UK who are disabled. We make up about a fifth of the population. But despite this it’s very rare to see or hear issues that affect me as a disabled person reflected in the media. It’s even rarer for this to be done well, in a way that doesn’t draw on or reinforce entrenched stereotypes.
I’ve just listened to something on the radio that will have significantly improved the statistics about informed discussion about disability on current affairs programmes (if anyone’s actually keeping track). The show in question was Radio 4’s Today Programme, and yesterday Baroness Jane Campbell, a peer and disability rights campaigner, was Guest Editor.
In this one episode we got information about the history of the disability rights movement, assisted suicide, the impact of cuts on public services, personal assistants, disability comedy, and the importance of challenging stereotypes. It was brilliant!
I find the assumptions and stereotypes that exist around disability incredibly frustrating. But those most at risk from these misconceptions are people who are currently not disabled. Anyone who believes the description of disability, as viewed through a limited and generally ‘tragic’ lens, is accurate, will have very little to draw on to help them adjust should their circumstances change and they themselves become disabled.
There was one part of the show in particular that reminded me of this. It was a conversation between Baroness Campbell and journalist Matthew Parris on the subject of assisted suicide. Like many disability rights campaigners Baroness Campbell strongly opposed the recent ‘assisted dying bill’, while Matthew Parris wrote staunchly in support of it in a recent article.
What struck me most about the conversation were the many assumptions Matthew Paris made about life as a disabled person. He frequently seemed to relate disability to being not ‘useful’, to being not able to enjoy life, and to being an expensive ‘burden’ on non-disabled people. Listening to him I was reminded of something Crip-activist Stella Young said in her 2014 TEDx talk:
“I am here to tell you that we have been lied to about disability. We’ve been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing… and to live with disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a bad thing and it doesn’t make you exceptional.”
Programmes like the one Baroness Campbell edited yesterday – which you can listen to here – are absolutely crucial to blowing the lid off this lie, to deepening our understanding of each other and to building a more inclusive society. I’m ending this post as the programme did with a message from Baroness Campbell:
“There are 11 million disabled people in this country and our lives are still very much misunderstood – there are some very strong stereotypes about our expense, our dependency… I truly believe if you invest in disability the gains will pay for themselves.”