A recent article in the Guardian drew attention to the BBC’s current efforts to increase the numbers of disabled people on and off-screen. Tania Motie and Tanni Grey-Thompson argued that there are three stereotypes applied to disabled people - we are heroes, scroungers or brave victims. The BBC, they wrote, has a role in challenging this, and that:
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.
This reminded me of how, 23 years ago, in 1992 - which like 2015 was also a general election year - the BBC launched a series of programmes made with and about disabled people, together with a booklet and poster advertising. The series and the booklet were called Disabled Lives: we wanted to call it Disabling Society but Channel 4 had got there first with their own series that same year. The initiative resulted from an Advisory Group made up of disabled people brought together by the BBC to help them develop programmes which challenged the stereotypical and unrealistic ways in which disabled people’s lives were portrayed.
It sounds familiar doesn’t it? But there were some differences.
The key difference is that, in 1992, disability was increasingly being identified as a civil rights issue, whereas today public debate is dominated by arguments and counter-arguments about whether we are ‘scroungers’ or ‘vulnerable’.
The 1992 booklet said that it, and the BBC series of programmes, was about:
one of the most exciting civil rights issues of our times, the right of disabled people to participate equally and fully in the communities in which we live….Today, there is a growing movement of disabled people who insist that our lives have value and that we want to be treated as equal citizens with equal rights.
This was before the Disability Discrimination Act which was finally passed in 1995 after many years of campaigning. The programmes and the publicity gave a voice to this demand for an end to discrimination, but also emphasised the importance of changing the dominant cultural representations of disabled people, arguing - as Elspeth Morrison (one of the Advisory Group’s members) put it:
If we have no representation of ourselves other than those images used in charities’ advertising, crippled witches in children’s books, brave and tragic media stuff, theatre and film’s metaphorical use of disability as social inadequacy, social decay - if there is no expression of life as we live, it, how do we begin to validate ourselves and learn about each other?
One of the photographs (taken by David Hevey) used in the booklet and in the posters - was of the Direct Action Network holding up a bus in Manchester. No buses were wheelchair accessible at that time and access to public transport was an important part of the campaign for anti-discrimination legislation.
Independent living (having choice and control) was also a key focus, for people with the whole range of impairments and across all ages. The Independent Living Fund had been established in 1988 and more and more people with high levels of support needs were accessing it and starting to live the kind of lives their non-disabled peers took for granted. In general, more disabled people were demanding, and getting, their entitlements to support to enable them to go about their daily lives.
Organisations of disabled people (as opposed to the charities speaking for disabled people) were increasing in number and influence in the early 1990s, reflected in the fact that the people on the BBC’s Advisory Group were mainly from organisations of disabled people. The initiative encompassed Deaf people, people with physical and/or sensory impairments, people with non-evident impairments and health conditions, people with learning difficulties, mental health service users and older disabled people. As People First (the organisation of people with learning difficulties) said:
We are for difference
For respecting difference
For allowing difference
Doesn’t matter anymore.
In the early 1990s, the most influential stereotype of disabled people was of us as objects of pity, as tragic victims who, at best, could be admired for ‘overcoming’ against all odds, at worst were considered to have lives not worth living. The response of a government Minister to one of the petitions calling for anti-discrimination legislation was to say that he didn’t believe employers discriminated against us, rather they felt sorry for us.
Nevertheless, in 1992 things were shifting. In the run-up to the general election, the Conservative Party (in government since 1979) devoted a specific section in its Manifesto to commitments to disabled people, celebrating that:
Under the Conservatives, more disabled people than ever before are getting the help they need and deserve. Since 1979, the number receiving Attendance Allowance has more than trebled; the number receiving Mobility Allowance has risen six fold; the number receiving Invalid Care Allowance has risen 25-fold. Today we spend some £12,000 million a year on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people. Even after allowing for inflation, that is 2½ times as much as Labour spent in the 1970s.
The Tories promised to introduce “new disability benefits [Disability Living Allowance and Disability Working Allowance] which will, in the next Parliament, bring extra help to at least 300,000 people. By 1993-94 these and other improvements will mean that we will be directing an extra £300 million a year to long-term sick and disabled people.”
They were proud of the “great success” of the Independent Living Fund and gave a manifesto commitment to maintaining it.
The Labour Party had very little to say about disabled people in their 1992 manifesto. There was a nod to ‘training’ opportunities, to health services for people with long-term conditions and to better community services for people using mental health services and for people with learning difficulties. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto had more, committing them to introduce a Citizen’s Income with a specific disability component, human rights legalisation (to include disability) and a Charter of Rights for disabled people.
In those days, very few people argued that too much was spent on disability benefits. Very few people thought that disabled and sick people were making false claims for out of work or disability benefits.
In fact, in 1992 the Conservative government felt that not enough disabled people were being helped and introduced new benefits for which more people were eligible. Today the Coalition government argues that too many people are receiving help with the additional costs associated with impairment and disability. The Disability Living Allowance - which the Conservative government of the early 1990s was proud to introduce - has been abolished and replaced with Personal Independence Payment with the aim of reducing the budget by 20% and accompanied by such long delays in responding to claims that a Judicial Review has been granted of the process.
In 1992, the government were proud of the Independent Living Fund and vowed to keep it. Today, they have abolished it and many people with high support needs are at risk of losing the ability that ILF funding gave them to live ‘ordinary lives’.
In 1992, disability was a civil rights issue and we were on our way to getting the Disability Discrimination Act, enacted by the Conservative government in 1995. Today, access to justice under the legislation has been severely undermined by cuts in legal aid, and the introduction of fees for taking a case to an Employment Tribunal.
In 1992, public debate was about whether disabled people were to be pitied as the objects of charity and needed to be ‘looked after’, or whether we should have equal rights to access education, employment, independent living. Today, public debate is about whether we are avoiding our responsibilities to seek employment and need conditions and sanctions to get us ‘off benefits’, or whether we are ‘vulnerable’. Instead of recognising the additional support, and the removal of barriers, which are required in order for us to access the same opportunities as others, we are - in order to avoid being labelled as ‘scroungers’ - once again forced into the role of tragic victims, where the legitimacy of our requirements is to be measured by how ‘vulnerable’, ill and/or impaired we are.
So if we are to avoid being identified as ‘scroungers’, we have to prove how ‘vulnerable’ we are made by our impairments, illness and/or age. Yet ’vulnerability’ is created by the society in which we live - by lack of appropriate support, and by prejudicial attitudes. ‘Vulnerability’ is created, for example, by removing benefits from someone because they failed to fulfil conditions which illness, impairment and/or poverty made difficult for them to do. ‘Vulnerability’ is created by threatening to stop providing support to enable someone to go to the toilet when they need to. ‘Vulnerability’ is created by a lack of suitable, affordable housing for a family affected by illness and disability.
Tackling discrimination, removing barriers, providing appropriate support which gives us choice and control in our lives - none of these are on the agenda for public and policy debate anymore. Instead, our social worth is to be measured by whether we are ‘hard-working’, which means engaged in productive labour. Other important social roles - looking after others, bringing up children, contributing to our friends, families and communities - are not deemed worthy of support or celebration.
The BBC’s current initiative - all these years after the 1992 initiative - to increase the numbers of visible, ‘happen to be’ disabled people on screen and to increase their employment off screen is laudable. But we also need to change the language of public discourse about sick and disabled people.
In particular, we need politicians, and all those participating in public debate in the run up to the election in May, to change the way they talk about disabled people. We need to revisit the language and images the disability movement tried so hard (with some considerable success) to promote during the 1980s and 1990s - language which returns to some of the hopes reflected in the BBC’s booklet all those years ago:
Disabled people are fighting for a society which celebrates difference, a society which does not react to physical, sensory or intellectual impairments, or emotional distress,, with fear and prejudice. We want a society that recognises the difficulties we face, but which also values us for what we are.
Our hopes for the future are based on the justice of our wish for control over our lives, the strength of our demands for equal participation, the passion of our belief in the value of our contribution to the communities in which we live.