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.