Thursday, 20 September 2007

Why Bogle ain't going green

Being Green and Disabled is hard.

I would like to declare that I do not make a great effort to save the earth. Why are we bothering to increase humans’ time on the planet anyway? So we can continue to kill and abuse one and other? ‘It’s better to burn out than fade away’. I know what I have just said, in the current political climate (all puns intended), is comparable to admitting I eat babies for breakfast, but come on, most of the frenzy is a cynical attempt to get the public more engaged with politics.

However, when you are Disabled and are lucky enough to have a car, you are seduced into driving everywhere. Disabled parking spaces are on the rise, reduced costs on the M6 Toll and more options than ever for adapted vehicles.

Public transport has improved to for the Disabled traveling public but it can still be a major ordeal. Often the attitude of public transport workers do not live up to the shiny new ramps that are now being attached to the buses and taxis.

The little local shops with their nice local produce and their extremely low food miles, are often inaccessible. While the big evil dolphin-killing supermarkets are easy to get around and often provide wheelchair friendly trolleys and disabled loos. Shop assistants will even go round with people who require the service.

Also if you are anything like me its more than laziness that makes you leave your electrical items on standby. Its essential if I’m to float around my flat independently enjoying my leisure. Are we really meant to get up at 4am to turn off our charging powerchairs? Methinks not.

So I say let David Cameron and his unconvincing pedaling legs take the strain and to hell with this disabling planet of ours.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

The Disabled Everyman

Is there a Disabled everyman?

When I think of the ‘Disabled community’ my thoughts turn to the internet. Shadowy notions of people, with impairments and therefore disabilities, hiding behind usernames. I know some by their tales of the daily gruel of well-meaning fools asking foolish questions; some by their hatred of non-disabled actors playing Disabled roles and others by their over-chipper surreal take on their life as a Disabled person. We thrash out issues which concern us with an opt-in system, picking and choosing the internet topic headings of interest. Often the debate reverts back to who we are and how we are defined by society.

In fact to hear Disabled people you would think we all spent a hour every morning staring in the mirror trying to remember what life was connected to the face we see before us.

My Disabled friends, who over-dominate my social circle like hairdressing salons on a high street of a middle class area, I don’t see as ‘The Community’. Of course they are members, but there is something about the concept of a community that oddly makes you conceptually exclude anybody you know very well.

Disabled people are united under the social model by the black cloud of non-disabled oppression. However, with a food hall full of impairments out there it is hard for us as a group to be generalised. In fact it is hard-wired into us as a community not to be clumped together because it is seen as echoing institutions of the wider world.

If I was into physics I would now make an analogy about equal forces pulling us in opposite directions, but I’m not into physics. However, the pressure to be individuals does conflict with the pressure to put on an united front.

So what for the Disabled everyman?

‘The everyman character, however, is written so that the reader or audience can imagine himself or herself in the same situation without having to possess knowledge, skills, and abilities outside his or her everyday experience. Such characters react realistically in situations that are often taken for granted with traditional heroes’ From Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia

Maybe we as Disabled people are still too freaky / exotic to be considered to be the everyman yet by the outside world. Equally maybe our desire to live our lives on our own terms stops us accepting the notion of an everyman within the Disabled community.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Super-Crips, Disabled Anti-Heroes and The Women Who Care for Them

In this essay I will explore the representation of both disabled male identity and non-disabled female identity, in relation to one and other. I will focus on the film My Left Foot (Sheridan, 1989) and Inside I’m dancing (O’Donell, 2004), suggesting the two identities have an ambiguous power relationship, as they identify with each other while also competing for dominance. I will show how these films present the difficulties inherent in establishing masculine identity for the disabled man. I will propose these films offer the solution to the problematic nature of establishing this identity, is gained through the oppression of women.

When discussing different female identities within feminism, Testaferri (1995:xiv) states, ‘The question is how to claim an identity in a society that creates a hierarchy of oppression’. The same question is applicable to the representation of disabled men in relation to non-disabled women.

My Left Foot and Inside I’m Dancing portray women characters caring for the disabled, taking the form of many roles including mother, nurse, personal assistant, family friend. These depictions reinforce cultural ‘..assumptions that caring is a natural or essential attribute of those born female’ (Hallam, 2000:14). This is demonstrated by Siobhan’s quick adaptation, despite no experience, into the provider of personal care; domestic help; and to some extent emotional support for the two disabled male protagonists in Inside I’m Dancing. The prominence of so many females fulfilling a caring role, and the absence of any substantial suggestion that they might want to do something esle, within these texts both shows and reinforces an operation of hegemony, ‘..a relation, not of domination by means of force, but of consent by means of political and ideological leadership. It is the organisation of consent’ (Simon, 1982:22).

My Left Foot and Inside I’m Dancing present the disabled masculine identity as problematic in terms of expression. The disabled man is seen to struggle against society, without the tools afforded to his non-disabled counterparts, to assert his masculinity. The uneasy relationship between disabled masculinity and non-disabled masculinity is directly portrayed in a conflict which Rory has in the pub with a non-disabled male (Inside I’m Dancing, O’Donell, 2004 ). The man says to Rory ‘If I was in a wheelchair pal, I wouldn’t be looking for trouble’. This implies that male conflict is normally resolved through entering into physical confrontation. The disabled man’s inability to do so, therefore lessens the sense of his own masculinity.

The social definition of masculinity is inextricably bound up with a celebration of strength, of perfect bodies. At the same time, to be masculine is to be not vulnerable (Morris, 1997:22).

A similar scene in My Left Foot raises the same issue when Christy’s father squares up to him, fist poised, in response to what he suspects was disrespectful comments from his son.

As well as highlighting a supposed frustration of the disabled protagonists in not being able to express their masculinity through physical violence, these scenes also produce a representation of non-disabled men being unable to relate to the concept of disabled masculinity. Indeed, Morris (1997:24) proposes that representation of disabled masculinity within films act as a metaphor for general male weakness, suggesting it is ‘..the safest way for men to explore their vulnerability’.

Mr Brown’s and the priest’s doubt of Christy’s intelligence (My Left Foot, 1989) ; Michael’s father’s denial/neglect of his son and Rory’s father’s inability to provide personal care (Inside I’m Dancing, 2004 ), all add to the sense of alienation between the non-disabled man and disabled males.

In various ways the disabled male protagonist are portrayed as identifying with the oppression felt by non-disabled women. In the exposition of My Left Foot the two female characters, Mother and Sheila are presented as having empathy for Christy. Both suspect his intelligence, before it’s proven and are seen to be encouraging figures. The concept of the oppression of the disabled being a similar experience to the one of female’s, is connoted in a scene where Sheila asks her father about her homework. She asks her father for confirmation that you can divide a quarter by a quarter, but he dismisses the notion as impossible. Both the father’s denial of Christy’s possible literacy and his dismissal of the mathematical question highlights the union of the oppressed minorities.

In a scene where a priest tells Mother that he doesn’t think Christy is ready to attend church, the camera work emphasises the relation between organised religion and the disabled individual ( My Left Foot, 1989). The priest appears in a medium shot with his upper body filling the vertical axis of the frame. He looks down on the juvenile disabled figure of Christy, seen in the next shot, whose upper body only fills half of the frame’s vertical axis. The priest sits upright while he addresses Christy, compared to the disabled boy awkwardly leaning back in his chariot. The mise-en-scene of this sequence adds to the sense of the unequal distribution of power, as we see a china tea cup placed by the side of the priest connoting the respect the Brown family has for the church. This is in contrast to the rough wood that Christy’s chariot is constructed of connoting the Browns’ poverty.

When the priest tells Christy, ‘You can get out of purgatory but you can never get out of hell’, the most obvious reading of this is a warning of the consequences of bad behaviour as a pornographic magazine was found in the boy’s chariot. However, the statement can also be read as the priest telling Christy he cannot challenge the hegemonic power of the non-disabled. In this reading the ‘hell’ referred to is seen as the combined forces of poverty and disability.

The patriarchal hegemonic power which is exerted over women is demonstrated in a scene where Christy lies awake and is disturbed by the sound of his parents having sexual intercourse. Shots of his “spastic” body thrashing around, agitated, are cut together with shots of artistic depictions of The Passion of Christ which hang on the walls of his bedroom. A high pitched pulse provides a non-diegetic soundtrack which is designed to add to the sense of anxiety in the scene. This is complimented by the diegetic sound of Mr Brown aggressively grunting, from the other side of the wall, in rhythm with his expression of masculinity. This scene highlights the oppression caused by the obligation of women to fulfil conjugal duties. The cuts-away to the religious paintings highlights the Catholic Church’s foreboding of contraception, and relates to mother’s near constant pregnant state throughout the film

In both scenes poverty is connected with both the oppression of Christy and Mother. The chariot which the Brown’s have constructed themselves does not provide the disabled boy with enough physical support to sit upright and look the priest straight in the eye. While the reasons why the Brown family retired early to bed, just prior to the scene where Christy is disturbed, is due to lack of coal.

The oppression of both Christy and his mother by the patriarchal non-disabled system is due to the physical state. While the priest judges Christy’s intelligence via his physical response to his lecture about hell and purgatory, Mrs Brown’s submission to her husband wishes can be attributed to the status of women within Irish Catholicism at this time. ‘Anatomy is destiny only if the concept of destiny is recognized for what it really is: a concept proper to fiction’ (Doane, 1988: 223). Indeed Christy’s oppression is coded as being due to his physical disability, ascribing to the medical model of disability. This is demonstrated by the emphasis placed on the communication barriers that Christy faces in expressing his intellect. This is also highlighted by the fact that the key figure who encourages his artistic talents is Eileen, a medical doctor, who also provided physical therapy. Therefore, at this point in My Left Foot anatomy seems to determine the fate and status of the characters.

The oppression felt by Rory and Michael in Inside I’m Dancing is coded as being due to society. The regime at Carrigmore is seen to be restrictive of the independence and self-expression of the two male protagonists. This is demonstrated by a scene where a female carer is getting Rory ready in the morning. She refuses to style his hair in the punk-like fashion that he appears with at the beginning of the film. The carer says “we haven’t got the time to tease your spikes everyday”. This refusal by the carer to help Rory create the signifier of his rebellious identity, his hairstyle, is presented as a sign of institutionalisation. Rory’s identity is in direct conflict with the identity of the other disabled residents at Carrigmore. He challenges the medical model directly when he introduces himself in the exposition of the film, “Rory O’Shea Duchene Muscular Dystrophy”. This statement is in contradiction to the mise-en-scene of the scene, Rory’s hair, leather jacket, chain-necklace, which all suggest that he defines himself as more than just his disability.

The fact that Rory, in Inside I’m Dancing, and Christy, in My Left Foot, challenge their low status within society presents non-disabled dominance as not being hegemonic. However there is a sense that Rory and Christy are the exceptions and that most disabled people accept their role, this is explicitly shown in Inside I’m Dancing by the other residents mindlessly watching Bagpuss.

Ideas of liberation for the disabled protagonists, in both films, are strongly linked to their relationship with the female characters. As well as the similarities of oppression that are drawn, non-disabled females are also seen as a conduit for the expression and fulfilment of disabled masculinity. This is presented on the simplest level by the fact that sex/love/romance with a non-disabled female is represented as the ultimate goal for the disabled male. Sex is shown as the signifier of liberation from disability, it therefore functions as

..the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power. (Foucault, 1990: 106).

This is seen in My Left Foot with Christy’s series of female objects of affection the culmination of which is his date with nurse Mary, which is presented as an achievement greater than any of his artistic endeavours. In Inside I’m Dancing being with a woman is also presented as the ultimate goal demonstrated by both Michael’s and Rory’s desire for Siobhan. The fact that it is female characters that provide care for disabled males enabling them to express either their artistic potential or independence is another way in which females act as a conduit. However, the representation of disabled male relationships with women is problematic in both films.

In Inside I’m Dancing the denotation of the objectification of women is presented as connoting liberation for the disabled male. Rory is seen as an anti-hero, akin to McMurphy (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Forman, 1975), defying the rules and the matriarchal figure which enforces them. However, one of the central signifiers of his liberation is freedom to objectify women. This is demonstrated by the mise-en-scene when Michael explores Rory’s room shortly after his arrival. A poster declaring “Warning: Keep Out, Unless You Have Big Boobs”, is on the wall next to a poster bearing an anarchy symbol; a poster of Che Guevera; and a Cuban flag. Here we see signifiers of revolution, the liberation of people, aside a comical but sexist statement. Therefore seeing these two signifiers together suggests that the objectification of women is akin to the political mobilisation of an oppressed group.

This concept is more than just the typical commoditisation of the female body that occurs within film, ‘..historically articulated its stories through a conflation of its central axis of seeing/being seen with the opposition male/female.’ (Doane, 1988:216). The representation of women as sexual objects, in Inside I’m Dancing, is so naturalised that in this case it is not a site of struggle, rather just a cultural signifier of what it is to be a well adjusted male. Michael’s emergence into mainstream society is constructed through contact with and objectification of young non-disabled women.

In My Left Foot the sacrifice that Mother undertakes for Christy is demonstrated in scenes when she carries him upstairs while pregnant and later begins to lay the bricks in the building of his new room. There is a sense that through Christy she herself can be fulfilled, which is implied explicitly when she says ‘Sometimes I think you are my heart’ to her son and then goes on to say if she could give him her legs she would. Eileen Cole is also seen to have a vested interest in Christy, she has devoted her career to the disabled. In a scene where the disabled artist is depressed she tells him ‘You know I don’t want to be a failure either.’ This statement could be read as her saying that nobody wants to fail but it could also mean that to some extent she is reliant on Christy’s success for furthering her own career. In this way we see a negotiation between the two oppressed groups to defeat dominant ideologies,

Thus hegemony has a national-popular dimension as well as a class dimension. It requires the unification of a variety of different social forces into a broad alliance expressing a national-popular collective will, such that each of these forces preserves its own autonomy and makes its own contribution in the advance towards socialism. It is this strategy of building up a broad bloc of varied social forces, unified by a common conception of the world, that Gramsci called a war of position. (Simon, 1982:25)

However, Christy’s liberation does not seem to bring much freedom for the women involved with the process. Eileen is still seen to be frightened of Christy’s artistic temperament as My Left Foot draws to its resolution. Indeed Christy’s final liberation comes through the resolution of an Oedipal complex with his father when he is able to provide his mother with money, earned from writing, for the upkeep of the family. While after seducing nurse Mary with his intelligence via her reading the autobiography he asks her whether she loves the man that she plans to meet after her time with Christy. There is a sense that he has a better grasp of emotional reality than Mary and therefore should trust in his faith in their future.

The character of Siobhan can be seen as another conduit of the disabled male, as she is vital in empowering Rory and Michael in their independent living. However there is less of a sense of women’s oppression is similar to that of the disabled, in Inside I’m Dancing, with the identification with sexist practices of patriarchal society occurring earlier than in My Left Foot. Sex and personal care are linked throughout the film with Rory replying, ‘You’ve got the best qualifications we’ve seen in a long time’, to Siobhan stating she has no experience.

However, although the objectification of women is presented in Inside I’m Dancing as a liberating force, it is ambiguous whether this is really the case. The conflict between the disabled male and the non-disabled female is explicitly shown in the scene where Rory tries to establish Siobhan’s role. Rory says ‘It’s not you job to make the rules, your jobs to do exactly what we tell you to do’. Here we see him establishing his dominance over Siobhan both as an employer and as a man. He then goes on to list her duties which consist of domestic tasks that the patriarchal system defines as women’s work. However as he is doing this Siobhan moves her tongue about in her mouth as to suggest that she is considering what is being said, but this is also a flirtation actions. As she approaches him slowly he says ‘You are our servant our skivvy, our slave’. Here Siobhan empowering role as personal assistant is turned into a sexual one by Rory’s usage of the word ‘slave’. However power relations are reversed when she says ‘Are you gonna shut up or am I gonna have to make you?’. Siobhan then utilises her sexual power to challenge Rory’s attempt of patriarchal dominance. She then places her hand over his mouth to make him shut up, as she removes her hand a single finger brushes against his lips and momentarily enters his mouth. Siobhan exposes Rory’s vulnerability both in terms of his physical impairment, he is unable to remove her hand, and sexually as she is aware of Rory’s desire for her.

This therefore makes this strategy of liberation through the oppression of women have more ambiguous effects than we see in My Left Foot. The fact that the revolution of Inside I’m Dancing sees Michael refusing Siobhan’s offer of help is a sign that liberation in this film is derived from self reliance.

So as I have shown when two oppressed groups are represented within film, there is an element of identification between minorities who live under the same hegemonic dominance. In the case of My Left Foot and Inside I’m Dancing the dominant power is a non disabled patriarchal system. The oppression of women is portrayed as truly hegemonic because it is never really challenged within the narrative of the two films. The oppression of the disabled however is not depicted as hegemony because the narrative drive of both plots is the attempt of emancipation of the disabled protagonist. The strategy of the oppression of women that is utilised by the disabled male characters has differing effects in the two narratives. However there is a theme that in order for an oppressed group, the disabled, to gain freedom they must mimic their oppressor, non-disabled men, by controlling other minorities, non-disabled women.


Doane, M A. (1988) ‘Woman’s Stake; Filming the Female Body’ in eds. Constance Penley Feminism and Film Theory, London:BFI Publishing,

Forman, M. (1975) ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Foucault, M. (1990) ‘The Deployment of Sexuality’ in The History of Sexuality vol.1, London : Penguin

Hallam, J. (2000) Nursing the Image : Media, Culture and Professional Identity

Morris, J. (1997) ‘A Feminist Perspective’ in eds. Davies, C. and Pointon, A. Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media, London : BFI

O’Donell. D. (2004) Inside I’m Dancing

Sheridan, J. (1989) My Left Foot

Simon, R. (1991) Gramsci’s Political Thought : An Introduction, London : Lawrence & Wishart

Testaferri, A.(1995)’Introduction’ in Feminisms in the cinema, eds. Pietropaolo, L. and Testaferri, A. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

The Social Construction of Disability: Struggles For Definitions Of The Victims Of Language

In this essay I will examine how disability is socially constructed in modern society. I will draw on theories of social constructionism that propose knowledge is produced within culture, linguistically rather than directly reflecting the material world. I will be exploring how these constructed discourses affect the identities of the disabled. I will take the prominent models of disability, medical and social, and analyse the language that establishes the reality in public consciousness. I will consider how the privilege discourse of medicine lends authority to the medical model of disability. I will also look specifically at how the conceptualisation of the self places notions of ability as the acme of existence. The ways in which this ideology operates through linguistic expression establishes it as objective truth. I will explore various terms that seek to reverse the process of the medicalization of disability. These include official terms sanctioned by disability movement and the reclamation of abusive terminology by the disabled community. I will propose that the attempts of the social model to redefine disability are severely hampered due to social constructions of ability that are present in our conceptions of the self.

Before studying the construction of disability I would like to first outline some of the basic principles of post-structuralism and social constructionism that I will draw on later in my analysis. Social constructionism shares much of its theoretical basis with post-structuralism. Both theories seem dissatisfied with the structuralists’ acceptance that the world is constructed through language (Barry, 1995). Post-structuralists do not doubt the power of semiotics in the creation of meaning, but seek to go further than structuralism by questioning the whole concept of objective truth,

It distrusts the very notion of reason, and the idea of the human being as an independent entity, preferring the notion of the 'dissolved' or 'constructed' subject, whereby what we may think of as the individual is really a product of social and linguistic forces. (Barry, 1995:66)

The questioning of notions of objective truth and the individual’s capability for independent thought is central to social constructionism. It proposes that western philosophy values the individual and therefore the notion of individual thought,

The very idea of democracy - each individual endowed with the right to vote - derives from Enlightenment presumptions. Public education also owes its existence to the same investments. (Gegren 1999:07)

The importance that society attributes to the individual determines how we view the self. However the value we instil in the individual is itself socially constructed originating from the erosion of traditional concepts of religious and feudal power. Modernity brought about the idea that people could influence their own destiny. Accompanying this sense of self determination was the notion that people were free to gain knowledge of the world solely through their own experience. Social constructionists dispute this claiming that our experiences only inform us about the world via a set of discourses which pre-exist in culture through language. Knowledge is therefore seen more as a process than a stable structure,

It objectifies this world through language and the cognitive apparatus based on language, that is, it orders it into objects to be apprehended as reality. It is internalized again as objectively valid truth in the course of socialization. (Berger and Luckman, 1966:82-83).

In this way the words we use not only act as signifiers to connote the signified object or concept, but acts to create them in the shared consciousness of the culture. In other words meanings are created through a semiotic process via language and then internalized by a culture which results in the creation of reality, ‘... language is a major ingredient of our worlds of action; it constitutes social life itself.’ (Gregen, 1999:49).

The way we talk about our inner selves using metaphors affects how we perceive emotion. Although we like to believe when we are discussing our emotions we gain our expressions independently from the society we live in, Gregen (1999) proposes that this is not the case, ‘. .the moment we begin to speak we are already "spoken" by a pre-existing structure’ (Gregen, 1999:64). Our internal selves are constructed in various ways using language appropriated from our descriptions of the external word. Gregen (1999) discusses how we conceptualise emotion through metaphor.

There are several basic metaphors that guide much of what we can intelligibly say about our emotions. Because we believe that emotions represent the animal in us, we can say, "he bellowed in anger," or "her feathers were ruffled." (Gregen, 1999:68)

The metaphors deployed to describe inner states often presume a non-disabled self Swain et al (2003) points out that we often conceptualised progress using language of physical motion. These metaphors often describe emotional well-being and self control:

The medical model reflects wider cultural assumptions around individuality, personal autonomy and self-determination within a society in which great value is placed upon 'standing on your own two feet', 'staying one step ahead', 'standing up for yourself', 'walking tall' and 'making great strides' (Swain et al, 2003:22)

The use of these metaphors establishes a link, within society’s collective consciousness. The linguistic habit of terming positive emotional states in this way highlights, but more importantly reinforces, the importance that is placed on physical ability in western society. Instilling an idea never truly vocalised that somehow people who physically stand or walk are emotionally stable. Therefore demonstrating that, ‘Language provides the fundamental superimposition of logic on the objectivated social world.’ (Luckman and Berger, 1966:82)

I will now introduce two models of disability which help explain the creation of disabled identities in contemporary culture. The medical model of disability describes the conceptualisation of physical impairment that has been dominant, academically and culturally, in Western society up until the 1980’s. It views the physical condition of a disabled person as the primary restricting factor in their lives.

..the medicalization of disability casts human variation as deviance from the norm, as pathological condition, as deficit, and, significantly, as an individual burden personal tragedy. Society, in agreeing to assign medical meaning to disability, colludes to keep the issue within the purview of the medical establishment. (Linton,1998:11).

The emphasis of this model is to facilitate change in the disabled person in order for them to be assimilated into normal society.

The social model however which was defined by The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (1976) set a distinction between the term impairment and disability. In the social model the definition of impairment is what the medical model traditionally terms as disability, which is the actual bodily difference that marks the person out as a deviant from the norm. While the term disability connotes:

..the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities. (UPIAS, 1976, quoted in Swain et al 2003: 23).

The two models are not only different in the ideologies that they promote they also drastically differ in their conception. The social model has been constructed as a counter-narrative to oppose an oppression felt by the disabled community. The medical model is a societal discourse that has developed through the centuries and is therefore interlocked with several other discourses.

We value education as a process which instils objective truth about the world into individuals, we therefore value the opinions of the educated over the uneducated. Of all the academic fields, science is seen to produce the most objective knowledge. Therefore things that fall under the authority of scientists, have their definitions firmly fixed in society’s collective consciousness. However, academic knowledge gained through the formal process of education is no more objective than the beliefs about the world we gain through linguistic relationships.

Scientists seldom carry out research for no reason; typically they have investments in some vision of the good, some benefit that will derive from their work. These investments enter into the research at every point, from the words selected to frame the problem to the description of the subjects' actions. It is disingenuous to cloak these investments in the language of neutrality. (Gregen, 1999:91).

The medicalization of disability is therefore lent authority from the established objectivity of the scientific discourse. The medical model positions disabled people as different to the norm and therefore sets-up a binary, which is inherent in the linguistic construction of reality.

Consider, for example, the disciplines of medicine, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, education, and the like. These disciplinary regimes, as Foucault called them, generate languages of description and explanation - classifications of selves as healthy or unhealthy, normal or abnormal, upper or lower class, intelligent or unintelligent - along with explanations as to why they are so. (Gregen, 1999:39).

Foucault claimed that society organises people in terms of categories, via such disciplinary regimes that are mentioned above. He suggested that inherent to this system of categorization was the establishing of power relationships. This relates to Derrida’s view of language as ‘as a system of differences’ (Gregen, 1999:27), according to this theory a word only has meaning in relation to the word with the opposite meaning. Gregen (1999) uses the example of the term ‘non-white’ in the description of race. The term only has relevance to a culture that is presupposed to what is signified by the term white. ‘That is, the distinctiveness of words depends on a simple split between "the word" and "not the word."’ (Gregen, 1999) The result of the linguistic oppositions is that it creates semantic oppositions with the word ‘non-white’ totally deriving meaning from the concept of not being ‘white’. When these kinds of words are used to describe groups of people, the power relationships which Foucault describes are created, with the group that is labelled as ‘not’ the subject positioned as inferior.

Before I discuss various ways that society addresses the disabled, and reactions from the community to readdress the negative consequences of these actions, I will first examine the terms ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’. For the purposes of this analysis I will presume the medical model’s definition of disability. The linguistic construction of the words disabled/disability has interesting consequences for a post-structuralist. Linton (1998) proposes the prefix ‘dis’ has connotations of lack of, separation from, or opposition to, whatever term it precedes. In every day usage the prefix is present in words such as: disinterest, disloyal, disfranchise, disingenuous. All these words have negative connotations and, as deconstructionalists would suggest, rely solely on their opposite to be defined. Therefore the notions of disability are dependant on contextualised notions of ability. ‘The prefix creates a barrier, cleaving in two, ability and its absence, it’s opposite. Disability is the "not" condition, the repudiation of ability’ (Linton, 1998:30) The way society makes the distinction between these groups of people positions the one termed disabled has inferior.

However the dichotomy of ability/disability is unequally balanced, not just in the sense of Foucualt’s power relationship. I would suggest the semiotics of disability and ability do not relate directly as a binary. Ability can connote the capability of a vast range of forms to an almost infinite number of subjects and objects. The physical or mental power or skill needed to do something.’ (, 21/03/2005). This definition does not restrict ‘ability’ to describe power in a certain field. The term can be used to describe the sense of power in explanations: how the mechanics of a plane enable flight; how international law enables world leaders to form resolutions within the United Nations Security Council; or how people are able to conceive worlds that do not exist.

While disability is defined as, an illness, injury or condition that makes it difficult for someone to do the things that other people do.’ (, 21/03/2005). Here we see a definition of disability that follows the ideology of the medical rather than social model. The noun connotes an impairment, that when present holds people back when doing ‘the things that other people do’ (, 21/03/2005). When compared to the definition of ability, disability seems to connote a much narrower concept. If disability derives its meaning solely from being the opposite of ability, as deconstructionists would suggest, the resulting connotations are of ultimate unworthiness considering the all-embracing definition of the latter term.

The result of the way we construct disability through language ultimately reinforces the legitimacy of the medical model. This process results in the ‘reciprocal typification of habitualized actions’ (Luckman and Berger, 1966:72) in the actual ways disabled people behave and the ways society reacts to them. There is often a lot of input from health professionals in to a disabled person’s life especially in their formative years. Emphasis is loaded on the idea of treatment of the medical disability in order to correct the deviant feature (Linton,1998) . As the process of treatment is carried out on the disabled, traditional concepts of illness are adopted. These concepts are of course articulated and therefore constructed linguistically. ‘The language of professionals and social policy ('sufferers', 'carers', 'special needs', 'patients') reinforce the notion that disabled people are helpless and tragic’. (Swain et al, 2003:80) This helps to establish the role of the patient within the identity of the disabled child. The notion of suffering is acceptable when applied to a temporary illness. This is because it describes the endurance of a bodily impairment that is not normally felt by the healthy person. However, when applied to disability the implication is that the disabled are enduring a permanent state of illness. This divorces the notions of health from the disabled person. Swain et al (2003) apply Davis’ notion that the medical establishment have a vested interest in positioning the disabled in this manner. ‘..professionals are dependent on disabled people for their careers, their status and their livelihoods and that many vested interests operate to maintain disabled people in their present situation.’(80).

Suffering when applied to disability in this way presumes an ablest point of view. The disabled person’s physical or medical condition would maybe quite rightly be termed as suffering if suddenly experienced by a non-disabled person. This attributed suffering is therefore conceptualised from the viewpoint of the non-disabled majority. As well as affecting the way society conceptualises disability this linguistic construction of the unhealthy can lead to inappropriate actions in order to correct such imperfection,

Some disabled people describe how they were subjected to numerous painful surgeries and medical procedures when they were young not so much, they believe, to increase their comfort and ease of mobility as to fulfil their families' wish to make them appear "more normal." (Linton, 1998:20).

The term victim, in relation to disability, acts to separate the physical condition from the disabled individual, Linton (1998) suggests. The use of victim-hood to negotiate the relationship between a person and their impairment objectifies the latter as an alien invasive force. This conception is born from the linguistic construction of the virus within medical discourse.

The use of the term victim, a word typically used in the context of criminal acts, evokes the relationship between perpetrator and victim. Using this language attributes life, power, and intention to the condition and disempowers the person with the disability, rendering him or her helpless and passive. (Linton, 1998:25).

So, both the terms ‘suffering’ and ‘victim’ place the disabled in a weakened position within society. However, as theorists such as Luckman and Berger (1966) suggest the cultural representation of people affect their notions of self, in an internalising process.

As demonstrated in examples above, society is founded on presumptions that the world is only inhabited by the non-disabled. There have been moves within the disabled rights movement and within disability studies to name this phenomenon, ‘. . .the terms ableist and ableism, which can be used to organize ideas about the centring and domination of the non-disabled experience and point of view’. (Linton, 1998:08). Although these terms appear in some dictionaries, they are by no means in common usage, indeed as I write this the terms are underlined in red by Microsoft Word to indicate misspelling. However, the creation of these terms demonstrates the significance that disability studies academics assign to post-structuralist concepts. By labelling the oppression their aim is to eventually establish it within the public’s consciousness,

Currently, there is increased attention to the privileged points on the continua of race, gender, and sexual orientation. […] Similarly, it is important to examine the nondisabled position and its privilege and power. (Linton, 1998:36)

It is therefore hoped that one day the term is as familiar as sexism and racism within society.

Social constructionists offer a way to challenge the privilege discourses of knowledge which influence the way culture constructs reality. They propose the only way to open up knowledge to new forms of discourse is through the use of linguistics.

Thus, if we wish to change patterns of action one significant means of doing so is through altering forms of discourse - the way events are described, explained or interpreted. (Gregen, 1999:115).

In naming ableism, activists and academics have no desire to destroy the disabled/non-disabled binary. Even if it was possible to make society no longer recognise disability as different this would have a negative effect on the movement’s quest for human rights,

To fight against the invasive influence of power, is to hold out a promise that we might one day become free - no one controlling or containing us with an alien knowledge. Yet, freedom from the ordering effects of language, from forms of life, from all traditions or conventions is not freedom: it is essentially a step into insignificance - a space where there is no freedom because there are no distinctions, and thus no choices. (Gregen, 1999:40).

Rather the disabled rights movement wish to alter the in-built power relationship of this distinction. The social model then tries to drastically change perceptions of the disabled by attempting to redefine both signifiers and the signified, in the labelling of the social group. Political correctness has created several terms that are meant to avoid the negativity which is associated with the prefix ‘dis’. Terms such as ‘physically challenged’ have entered the public’s vocabulary. This was once seen as progressive by some but now is rejected by the disabled community. Swain et al (2003), suggest this term:

…gives rise to images of disabled people keenly and happily struggling against adversity within a disabling society, while being admired for doing so. It reinforces the notion that society is fixed and that disabled people must 'overcome' what are viewed as 'their' problems if they are ever to become valid members of it. (13-14).

Here we see the term is criticised for essentially its ableist viewpoint. It places the disabled in competition with the non-disabled competing in a social world where physical ability is constructed to be of paramount value.

The terms ‘disability’/ ‘disabled’ has been accepted by disability studies and the disabled rights movement as acceptable terminology to describe an ever increasing social group. This is despite the deconstructionist’s opposition with notions of ability. However, the term ‘non-disabled’ is preferred in favour of ‘able bodied’. This has the effect of centring disability as the norm (Linton, 1998). Adding the prefix ‘non’ to the word ‘disabled’ here is designed to reverse the ableist ethos inherent in our traditional linguistic expression. Taking the deconstructionist view then, the definition of ‘non-disabled’ can only derive meaning from notions of disability. At this point we return to the models of disability and the struggles over definitions. The extent of how progressive the term non-disabled is depends on which model you turn to for a definition of ‘disability’.

Although terms such as ‘physically challenged’ and ‘differently-abled’ promote an ableist viewpoint, the latter presuming ability of the non-disabled as normal, they do offer alternative signifiers to aid in the redefinition.

The social model seeks to retain the signifier ‘disabled’ while changing the signified.

When disability is redefined as a social/political category, people with a variety of conditions are identified as people with disabilities or disabled people, a group bound by common social and political experience. These designations, as reclaimed by the community, are used to identify us as a constituency, to serve our needs for unity and identity, and to function as a basis for political activism. (Linton, 1998:12)

However, if identity is constructed through language, a relational process (Gregen, 1999) the redefinition of words by political activists is limited in its effect. As the dictionary definition of disability, I quoted earlier, suggests the medical model is still very dominant in society. As a disabled person myself when I refer to ‘my disability’, I am referring to my diagnosed physical condition which the privileged discourse of medicine categorises as deviant. When I refer to my ‘physical condition’ in this way am I subscribing to my own oppression, or using a signifier, which is culturally recognisable, to express the signified that I wish to convey? The answer is probably both, but largely insignificant to my point. The very fact that the construction of the world through language is relational hampers the disability movements’ quest for redefinitions. understanding is not a matter of penetrating the privacy of the other's subjectivity. If it were, we could never understand. Rather, understanding is a relational achievement; it depends on coordinating actions - and most frequently, coordination as specified within a tradition. (Gregen,1999)

The term ‘disability’ has got an established meaning in society that is used by non-disabled and disabled alike. The social model asks people to adopt new meanings for the same word despite the connotations of its linguistic form, implications of the prefix ‘dis’ and societal notions of ability. Due to the dominance of the medical model, even when the term is used in a situation where the social model’s definition is intended, the interpretation of the term is likely to presume the medical model.

Considering this, the attempt to centre disability (Linton, 1998) with the use of the term ‘non-disabled’, has mixed results. Engineers of the social model would hope, even insist, that the term signifies someone who is not affected by an under resourced society which, due to an ableist ideology, inhibits others in their daily life. While most people would define a ‘non-disabled’ person as someone without a physical or mental disability, as assigned by the medical model. Adding the prefix ‘non’ before the prefix ‘dis’ to the contextualised notion of ability can be seen as still working within a deconstructionist frame work. We are still leaning towards the traditional linguistic tendency to create oppositions. Social constructionists propose a more radical change in the way we conceptualise the world, ‘If we attempt to use the traditional binaries for purposes of cultural change, reinscribing the world or persons in their terms, transformation is only superficial.’(Gregen, 1999:116). I propose that to totally redefine disability new signifiers would need to be put in place that didn’t rely on binary scale of physical and mental capacity. However, in order to do this we would need to re-evaluate the whole of language. As I have shown above to a large extent society conceptualises itself through physical ability. This attains to the way we describe emotional wellbeing as well as our actual physical prowess. In order to view disability in a more positive light or to reposition it as a social category rather than a medical one society would need to disregard a lot of its central beliefs. The idea that you can redefine a word that is linguistically interwoven into the culture is naïve.

My criticism of the redefinition of the term ‘disability’ is not to deny the fact that society does, in effect, disable people through inaccessibility. But I very much doubt the effectiveness of the linguistic acrobatics which seem to be invested with so much significance.

The issue of reclamation of terms does not only pertain to the word ‘disability’, it is generally accepted by disability studies and the disabled rights movement that words such as ‘cripple’ and ‘spastic’ are now acceptable within the community. That is to say they are empowering terms when used to describe oneself if one is disabled.

In reclaiming 'cripple,' disabled people are taking the thing in their identity that scares the outside world the most and making it a cause to revel in with militant self-pride. (Linton, 1998:17).

The problem I have with this goes back to the concept of language being a relational process (Gregen, 1999). The term ‘cripple’ has got a negative history in the description of the disabled. I would suggest that the negativity that is associated with the word can be attributed to the time when the word was an acceptable description of the disabled in mainstream culture. This is to say the term ‘cripple’ is no more inherently negative than the word ‘disabled’, but the fact that conditions were considerably worse at a time when disabled people were acceptably termed ‘cripples’, infuses the term with negative connotations. The negative status of the term ‘cripple’ is demonstrated by other uses of the word to describe a variation of things that are inactive or severely ineffective. For example a ‘crippled economy’ signifies an economy that is on the brink of collapse. This application of the term ‘cripple’ and its derivatives are in the acceptable vocabulary of today’s public. So, when a disabled person refers to themselves or others in the social group as ‘cripples’, it battles against negative usage that is still considered valid when used in different contexts. When used to connote a disabled person the term is only empowering when used by an insider of the social group. This in effect gives minority communities a privileged discourse of terms to describe themselves that mainstream society are forbidden from using. This may not trouble disabled activists who consider this rebalance in privileged discourses long overdue, but doesn’t this reinforce boundaries and create antagonism between groups? The alienating effects of binaries created through language works both ways, ‘..whenever we declare what is the case or what is good, we use words that privilege certain existents while thrusting the absent and the contrary to the margins’. (Gregen, 1999:148). I propose that by alienating the non-disabled community through the use of this reclamation we only reinforce difference. I as a disabled student can term myself a cripple in the presence of non-disabled peers, who if in turn referred to me in the same way could be officially reprimanded. I question also the empowering effect such usage has. Is the disabled community obliged to call themselves every term, once deemed acceptable later denounced as oppressive, in an act of liberation? The presumption that this language spoken in a post-modern world is progressive is naïve. Further still it is a presumption, from my observations that goes unquestioned by disability studies and indeed mainstream society.

Another example of struggles over definitions concerns the term ‘spastic’. This defines the medical condition of the muscles of someone who has cerebral palsy. A charity was set-up to represent the interests of people with cerebral palsy in 1952 called The Spastics Society. In the proceeding years the term ‘spastic’ was an acceptable word to describe someone with cerebral palsy however the term soon developed abusive connotations. If a non-disabled person was deemed to be physically or mentally inferior the term was used, this usage was especially prominent in the playground setting. As a response to this, The Spastics Society changed its name to Scope. The idea was that the charity would rid negative connotations of the word ‘spastic’ from the organisation and therefore distance this negativity from people with cerebral palsy. The word ‘scope’ while interestingly retaining a phonetic echo of the original name implies opportunity and ability. However, the word ‘scope’ soon acquired negative connotations, ‘A new slang word of abuse, scopey, started to appear’ (, 21/03/2005). This shows that the negativity associated with disability extends further than the effect of individual words.

In this essay I have outlined how the medical model of disability socially constructs it as a negative phenomenon. I have suggested the ways in which linguistics assist in this process setting up binaries between the definitions of disabled and non-disabled. I have used deconstructionist theory to explore how these binaries are an inevitable affect of language. The social model tries to readdress the balance by redefining the term ‘disability’. I propose although, the negativity attached to the disabled is constructed through language, this occurs as a result of how society conceptualises ability in terms of physicality. I therefore suggest that in order to change perceptions of disability through language society has to change more than the labels that pertain to the disabled and reconstruct notions of ability.


Barry, P (1995) Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Machester: Manchester University Press

Berger PL, Luckmann T, (1966) The social construction of reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London Penguin 21/03/2005

Gergen, KJ (1999) An Invitation To Social Construction. London Sage

Linton, S (1998) Claiming Disability. New York: New York University Press

Swain, French and Cameron (2003) Controversial Issues In A Disabling Society. Buckingham Open University Press. 21/03/2005

‘Coming to terms’ with an impairment and ‘coming out’ as a Disabled person.

‘Coming to terms’ with an impairment and ‘coming out’ as a Disabled person.
Interrogation of the discourses of denial and acceptance

Andrew Bogle 302CMC


My dissertation will focus on the representation of disabled people in contemporary British television. I will also make small reference to American and British film to highlight some of the possible origins of the cultural discourses I will be examining. I will be drawing from theories established within disability studies and will also use work from cultural theorists concerned with the creation and progression of discourses within culture. The research is book-based and the cultural products analysed, the television programmes, were recorded from British terrestrial broadcast between March 2004 and April 2006.

My research will identify two discourses in particular that I believe to be dominant within the texts that are the basis of my study. Both discourses have been identified and labeled for the purpose of this piece of work. However, Chapters 1 and 2 aim to explain the origins of these discourses and establish their roots within a wider cultural setting than their existence within the cultural products analysed.

The first discourse that will be discussed is what I will call the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse. This is the most dominant of the two and is unapologetic in following traditional societal attitudes towards disability. That is to say it views the impairment as the problem and treats disabled people very much as victims. The discourse reinforces the medical model of disability identified by disability studies.

The second discourse that will be discussed is what I will call the ‘coming out as a disabled person’ discourse. This makes assumptions about disabled people’s attitudes to themselves and is supported by a lot of theorists in the disabled studies field. It presumes a state of denial that disabled people have about their sense of self, and talks of a cathartic process which takes place when the disabled individual identifies itself with the group and becomes politically aware.

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It will be suggested that the former discourse is very widespread in, not only television texts, but also in wider culture. The latter discourse is presented as a positive, progressive representation that furthers the standing of disabled people in society. However, I will suggest that the two discourses share essential features and position the disabled subject always on a journey from isolation to acceptance. The discourses place disabled people in a slightly different ideological context, but they both see them battling their bodies or their psyche for a distant goal. Where either of these discourses are present there is a distinct lack of room for other narratives to be told. It is my contention that texts where these discourses represent the reality of disabled peoples’ lives limit the actual complexities that are afforded to representations of non-disabled people.

The ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse, which will sometimes in this dissertation be shortened to the ‘coming to terms’ discourse, finds its ideological basis in the medical model of disability. The ‘coming out as a disabled person’ discourse, sometimes referred to here as the ‘coming out’ discourse, finds its grounding in the social model of disability. For simple definitions of both the medical and social model of disability please see Appendix 1. It is very important to note that the two discourses central to the analysis of this dissertation, despite drawing from and interacting with the two models of disability, are distinct from the approaches they originate from.

When disability, in this dissertation, is discussed the language that is deemed appropriate by the social model of disability will be used (See Appendix 1). However, considering that central to the debates that will be discussed is society's approach to disability, it is important to note that the majority of the texts analysed do not show the same awareness of disability equality as this research will. Also important to note, when disability or impairment is used here, for the vast majority of the time it can be presumed the terms refer to physical disability. I do not wish to reinforce a general narrow view of disability, common in society, but suggest the discourses analysed commonly exist where physical disability is represented.

Andrew Bogle 302CMC

Chapter 1

Origins of the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse.

The narratives that draw from the ‘coming to terms’ discourse have their foundations firmly rooted in wider culture. The fact that society values the normate and measures deviances from it means that impairment is traditionally seen as a problem. terms of a disability discourse, the social identities of those who consider themselves to be normal (or non-disabled or able-bodied) are secured only through a process which involves the systematic social exclusion and marginalization of others 'the disabled', who are identified in terms of their deviance from an imagined ideal (Swain and Cameron, 1999: 75).

This contributes to impairment being seen as an individual problem for people to overcome instead of disability being a symptom of an unequal society that needs negotiating. The physicality of disabled people is seen as the problem and therefore the onus is on the individual to come to terms with their deviancy.

Foucault (1990) highlighted that institutions such as the medical profession categorise people in terms of how far they stray from what is considered to be normal behaviour. He said that power was:

.. centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body (139)

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The inability of disabled people to fit in to an economic system designed for non-disabled people presents a problem. Traditionally a person’s usefulness is heavily tied in to ideas of physical strength and self reliance.

Traditional television representations act to reinforce disabled people’s status as deviant from the normate. There are several negative stereotypes that embody this deviancy including: the connotations of evil connected with physical impairment; the angry bitter person who wants to take their pain out on others; and the placid asexual cripple who is to be pitied.

People with disabilities are courageous or longsuffering; we're invited to praise or pity them. They're applauded in 'aren't they wonderful' stories for triumphing over their disability, and for performing tasks as proficiently as the able-bodied (Karpf, 1997: 79).

Although all three of the stereotypes add to the sense that being disabled is a undesirable state to be, the latter of the three is most relevant to the ‘coming to terms’ discourse. This is because in a sense what Karpf (1997:79) describes is the supposed end product of this journey of acceptance. The disabled person needs to accept that they can not achieve as much as they could of if in other circumstances their bodies were less physically restricted. This is obviously a view that follows the schema of the medical model’s approach to disability. This approach is still dominant, and therefore sets up an environment where the representation of a state of denial can be seen as a credible standard for the disabled self.

This is why the ‘coming to terms’ discourse, where acquired impairments are concerned, heavily focuses on the quest of disabled people to regain as much physical ability as possible. Acceptance of an impairment is only shown after a narrative has been told

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about how the disabled person and medical professionals have determinedly battled to regain movement in legs, for example. The long term effects of the impairment are

always weighed against how much progress has been made physically since an initial injury. The ‘coming to terms’ discourse naturally inhabits the milieu of the hospital as this is where physical steps are made back towards normality. This approach to telling stories about disability conforms very much to the medical model view of disabled people as tragic. However, I would suggest that often it is not just presented as personally tragic, but for the reasons stated by Foucault (1990:139) tragic for society’s progression as a whole.

In television and film disabled people are frequently shown denying that their impaired physical state is a permanent feature of their identity. The disabled patient is often represented as believing they will make a full recovery. This is the case in Born on the Fourth of July (Stone, 1989) where disability is presented as tragedy. Denial is shown when Ron Kovic is dragging his motionless legs on the floor while on crutches, in Bronx Veterans Hospital. This is even after the doctors have told him that he will never walk again. The scenes of Ron defying his impairment end when he falls over, breaking a bone in his leg, that punctures his skin. In a later scene where he seems to have accepted that he will never walk again he says:

I think Timmy I’d give everything I believe in, everything I’ve got, all my values just to have my body back again, just to be whole again. But I’m not whole I never will be and that’s the way it is, isn’t it. (Stone, 1989).

Although Ron changes his political attitude to the Vietnam War through the course of the film, in terms of disability there is no political awakening. His impairment is always seen as the ultimate sacrifice he paid when betrayed by his government into fighting an unjust war.

Andrew Bogle 302CMC

When the focus of the ‘coming to terms’ discourse is a person with a congenital impairment the narrative is often told in a hospital setting. However the nature of these impairments means that the subject of the discourse, the disabled person, is a child.

Parents play an important role in these narratives, as will be shown in chapter 3, and the notions of normal family life are often questioned.

An essential feature of the ‘coming to terms’ discourse is the notion that a disabled person’s life is less fulfilling than a non-disabled life. The acceptance that disabled people arrive at is an acceptance of being a second class citizen. They accept that it is their impaired bodies that cause the problems that they face and that it is their responsibility to negotiate the restrictions. This is a view that is totally rejected by the social model of disability which puts the responsibility on society to negotiate the problems that disabled people face. The ‘coming out as a disabled person’ discourse, discussed in the following chapter, can therefore be seen as a direct response to the ‘coming to terms’ discourse.

Andrew Bogle 302CMC

Chapter 2

The long drive away from denial we are all on? The disability studies/rights theory of ‘coming out as a disabled person’.

The discourse of ‘coming out as a disabled person’, evident in progressive television representations of disabled people, stems from a theory within disabled studies / the disabled rights movement. The theory is heavily tied into the social model of disability as it urges disabled people to re-conceptualise their sense of self. This is equivalent to the social model's request to society to redefine disability.

The ‘coming out’ theory works on the concept that the self is defined in relation to the normate (Swain & Cameron, 1999:76). The invalidation, and isolation caused by society’s medical model approach, causes many disabled people to disassociate themselves from the label and/or concepts of disability. The theory is that because ‘..disabled people may experience the isolation of being different from other family members’ (Shakespeare et al, 1996:50) psychologically individuals do not identify themselves as disabled. The negative stereotypes connected to disability, discussed in Chapter 1, are not recognised by many disabled people as being relevant in the formation of their individual identities.

Disability theorists liken this denial of identity to the experience of the gay community (Shakespeare et al, 1996:50. Swain & Cameron, 1999:68. Campbell & Oliver, 1997: 106). The fact that heterosexuality and non-disability are presumed the norm by society, groups that deviate from this can feel invalid. However, unlike gay people, although some disabled people have impairments that are not visibly obvious, many disabled people cannot pass in society as the normate. Even for these disabled people the denial of identity is still very relevant because disability studies sees this denial in cultural terms and demonstrated by a rejection of group identity.

Andrew Bogle 302CMC

This denial is seen to have many damaging effects both psychologically to the individual and culturally to the specific minority. It is suggested that the only way to rectify this negative behaviour is to positively claim an identity that deviates from the norm.

Coming out, then, for disabled people, is a process of redefinition of one's personal identity through rejecting the tyranny of the normate, positive recognition of impairment and embracing disability as a valid social identity. (Swain & Cameron, 1999:76)

This process is seen as the deployment of the social model of disability within a disabled person’s life. Identification with the label, and the group identity, of disabled people leads to greater contact with the disabled community and therefore can facilitate a greater understanding of the self.

..‘coming out’ for our respondents involved redefining disability as a political oppression; identifying collectively with other disabled people and with disability culture; overcoming the internalized oppression [….]. It therefore has personal and psychological benefits, as well as social and political value. (Shakespeare et al, 1996:58)

The change in the disabled self once “outed” and recognised as a member of the specific group seems to carry with it a certain obligation to politically promote the social model of disability. Activity in the breaking down of negative stereotypes and active political campaigning is the natural progression of an individual who has been through the coming out process, according to Swain & Cameron (1999:76). Therefore if the coming out process is the redefinition of disability in the individual’s life, there seems to be another redefinition inherent, one of redefining the disabled person as the disabled activist. No doubt political activism is necessary in order to extend the rights of disabled people. However within any oppressed group there will be people that are more politically

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engaged with emancipation than others. The theory of ‘coming out as a disabled person’ seems to leave no room for the less politically engaged members of the group. Swain & Cameron (1999:78) say, ‘ be “otherwise stated” is to be personally and politically committed’.

However, the presumption that self worth attained from a disabled person coming out will lead to a predilection for involvement in the disability rights movement is a gross generalization. Bury (1996:35) suggests that a similar presumption is made within disability studies research, one that values the disabled researcher over their non-disabled counterparts.

A political imperative for the disabled rights movement, and disability studies, is to create a sense of cohesion between a diverse group of people with varying impairments. The social model’s redefinition of disability, from medical tragedy to social discrimination, is no doubt a positive political tool. However:

Critics have argued that the sense of political commonality often associated with the social model has been contested as an over-simplification of the complexity and diversity in disabled people's lived experience. (Watson, 2004:103)

The way that the conventional disability studies expresses the ‘coming out’ theory, in such universal terms, is therefore an act of reductionism. For the sake of a united group experience they have neglected to take into account other factors that might effect disabled people’s formation of their own sense of identity. It is presumed that all disabled children are exposed to the same level of medical model rhetoric and have no positive disabled role models until later in life, when the ‘coming out’ process is meant to occur. Indeed Pinder (1996) suggests that the tendency to group all disabled people with one collective voice is risking, ‘…re-producing the very inflexibility of a wider ablist society’ (139).

Andrew Bogle 302CMC

Chapter 3

Coming to terms with representations of disability on

British television. Contemporary manifestations of the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse.

Contemporary British television reinforces the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse when it seeks to explore the disabled self. The discourse presumes a state of denial concerning the physical restrictions which result from impairment. This denial is manifest in a number of different forms within the programmes analysed. Sometimes we see a straightforward denial of impairment, a refusal to accept that physical restrictions are part of a permanent impairment, reminiscent of the denial of Ron in Born On The Fourth Of July. However, the search for a cure to correct congenital impairment, although similar, represents a different manifestation of denial within the same discourse. While they both are medicalised, the former treats impairment almost as a temporary illness that can be overcome by the patients’ hard work, while the latter looks more to the miracle of science to defeat nature’s cruelty.

The denial is justified within the cultural text because disability on television generally has extremely negative connotations. Ross (2003) says :

The orthodox view of disability as aberrant and abnormal is played out continuously by the framing of disability as alternately tragic, dependent, and helpless (and sometimes brave), or else bitter and twisted (and sometimes evil). (30)

It is with these cultural presumptions circulated by television representations, that impairment is presented as something that any reasonable person would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid.

Andrew Bogle 302CMC

Retrospective talk of possible terminations of pregnancy, ‘if they had known’, also represents another manifestation of denial within the programmes conforming to the ‘coming to terms’ discourse. The acceptance on offer for the disabled selves, involved in programmes that follow the ‘coming to terms’ discourse, means accepting they have an inferior existence.

A straightforward telling of a narrative, following the lines of the ‘coming to terms’ discourse, can be seen in an episode of Tonight With Trevor McDonald (ITV1, April 24th 2006). The episode focuses on Martine Wright’s story, a survivor of the 7/7 bombings, who became a double leg amputee as a result of injuries sustained from the terrorist attack. The narrative of the half hour documentary is driven by the progression of her physical rehabilitation. Early on in the programme we see the very first time she tries on her new prosthetic legs. Great emphasis is placed on how quickly Martine is going through her rehab and this is repeatedly attributed to her personality. Trevor MacDonald says, ‘..since that day her courage and determination have been tested as never before’ (ITV1, April 24th 2006).

This is a common theme in the ‘coming to terms’ discourse, as the idea is espoused that determination can defeat much of the limitations that are caused by the impairment. However, as again in Born On The Fourth Of July we see in this narrative that this determination to limit the restrictions can turn into a denial of the impairment. This is shown when, close to her completing her rehabilitation, Martine risks further injury by ignoring the pain of a torn muscle in order not to delay her return home. This type of denial is seen as justified within the programmes analysed because it goes hand-in-hand with the determination of disabled people that is much revered.

Within the discourse of the programme impairment is seen as a terrible price to pay that has been meted out to Martine by the chaos of chance. The cause of the impairment is described by Trevor MacDonald as ‘appalling injuries’ (ITV, April 24th 2006) and the

Andrew Bogle 302CMC

sense of the injustice is highlighted when Martine says that she still questions why it happened to her. Indeed the recklessness of terrorism is here presented in the same way as the recklessness of the Vietnam War is presented in Born On The Fourth Of July.

The fact that Martine has regained so much physical ability from the initial injury is presented as the thing that ultimately brings her acceptance. This acceptance seems to involve recognising that people with impairments have inferior lives. Near the end of both the documentary and her rehabilitation she is walking, on crutches, side-by-side with Trevor MacDonald and says that it is good to ‘ away as well and not be down there in my chair. You know it feels fantastic’(ITV, April 24th 2006) . The fact that she sees being in a wheelchair as an inferior position, suggests that she does not identify herself with other disabled people. This therefore is the final confirmation that the road to acceptance, that is shown in the documentary, is an acceptance of her physical restrictions and not of the status of a politically aware disabled person.

The search for a cure for impairment is very prominent within the ‘coming to terms’ discourse. It tends to be a traditional focus of investigation into the subject: ‘Medicine offers them the possibility of a cure, or helps them function more 'normally' by supplying increasingly sophisticated technological aides..’ (Karpf, 1997:79). Indeed several of the programmes analysed follow narratives that look to the medical profession for cures. New Face New Life (BBC1, 8th February 2005) follows several children as they embark on a quest to gain surgical correction for facial disfigurements caused by Aperts Syndrome. While the main focus of the narratives included in the series Born To Be Different (Channel 4, August 2005) are concerning the disabled children and their parents going through surgery and other therapies to correct impairments as much as possible.

Within these narratives the ‘coming to terms’ discourse has a strong presence. Several of the parents featured in New Face New Life insist that they love their children regardless of how they look. Haley’s dad says ‘the surgery was there to make it more acceptable’

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(BBC1, 8th February 2005). He explains that he sees society as discriminating against people with facial disfigurements and therefore feels the surgery to be necessary, even though he does not care about Haley’s appearance himself. The mother of Honey, a baby with Aperts Syndrome, expresses similar sentiments: ‘The thing that runs this society is how you look and if you don’t look right your life is absolutely buggered, you won’t have the same opportunities’ (BBC1, 8th February 2005). Here the parents recognise society’s role in discriminating against disabled people, however the connotations of their comments are still medical model based. This is because in their view, which is justified by the programme makers who never suggest a non-surgical solution, is that to stop this discrimination you correct the impairment of people instead of changing society’s attitude. The limitation of impairment through medical intervention is again seen as a precursor to the acceptance of disability. However this type of representation sees the children purely in terms of their impairment:

Disabled audience members were insistent that their disabilities were but one part of themselves; they were not necessarily the primary signifiers for their lives, but simply facts of them; the media's fascination in focusing on this one aspect therefore seemed to be inappropriate and lazy to them. (Ross, 2003:29).

In Panorama: Special Babies Grow Up (BBC 1, 22nd September 2004) we see parents alternate between acceptance, in the form of love for their children, and denial in terms of conversations about terminations of life support. In this programme scenes of a severely disabled child called Bright, being bathed, are shown alongside pieces to camera where his father debates if he had another disabled child whether he would withdraw life support or not. In this episode of Panorama there is an open discussion with medical experts about whether they should offer intensive care for babies born before 24 weeks. Therefore denial, in this manifestation of the discourse, is more extreme because it calls into question the value of a disabled person’s life in the most drastic way. This is contrasted within the same programme by a woman who has disabled twins and says that

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‘…they beat the odds before birth, so there is no question of them going anywhere’ (BBC 1, 22nd September 2004). The brief moments of this mother's total acceptance of her children's impairments does not impact greatly on the programme's serious questioning of the value of a disabled person's life. It does however show parents at varying stages of the coming to terms process.

In Born to be Different again we see parent and child at various stages of therapy and miracle surgery through the narrative of the documentary. Varying different attitudes to disability / impairment are on display as we see different families’ stories. In a scene where a mother gets frustrated with her daughters reluctance to cooperate with treatment she says to her toddler; ‘Chuck it all away, fair enough, Zoë end up in a wheelchair’ (Channel 4, August 2005). This particular parent seems very intent on limiting the impairment of her daughter. Sometimes we see her lose her temper and act in a way that some of the audience may find inappropriate. However, the documentary never comments via voiceover or interviewer on this type of behaviour negatively. There is a message therefore that a near obsession to normalise your disabled offspring is understandable. Necessary in telling the ‘coming to terms’ discourse is showing people at different stages of the process. In contrast to the attitude of Zoë’s mum, Hamish’s dad seems to have accepted his son’s impairment. He says ‘he is just as likely to be exceptional like any other child, just in a slightly more restrictive field’ (Channel 4, August 2005). It is often a feature of both discourses that the story of an individual’s journey from denial to acceptance cannot be told, so we see people at different stages of the acceptance process within the same programme instead.

An example of someone who seems to have reached the total acceptance within the ‘coming to terms’ process, is Jonny Kennedy, in The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off (Channel 4, 26th March 2004). This documentary follows Jonny’s last three months of life as he makes preparations for his own funeral. The cameras are present when the horrific job of changing Jonny’s bandages is performed by his mother. This makes the audience well

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aware of the very real physical discomfort that he has to go through. He seems to make sense of his life through his work for the charity that supports people with the same impairment that he has got. He also draws strength from being involved in the Spiritualist community. Much of the content within the programme is considered with acceptance of death. This has the effect of sharpening the question concerned with coming to terms with his impairment.

Again the issue of the value of a disabled child's life is a topic of conversation. Jonny Kennedy says:

I was asked one time whether I would carry on with the birth knowing that an EB child would be born and I said no I would terminate, it’s not just a disabled child that is being born it is disabling a whole family’ (Channel 4, 26th March 2004).

The fact that this question arises quite frequently within documentaries concerning disability validates the concept of aborting disabled children. It therefore has the effect of making a life as a disabled person seem invalid. Jonny’s attitude to himself is further demonstrated when he is talking about having romantic relationships:

… but once things get too heavy in that I just backed off and let other people move in and get on. I don’t think it’s fair on the other person to have to cope with all I have to cope with, which is what they would do’ (Channel 4, 26th March 2004).

Jonny obviously sees himself and his impairment very much in line with the medical model view of disability. His life has been hard and he seems to accept that this is due to his inferior physical state. He rationalises this by saying, ‘… I feel that I came down to understand what it’s like to be in discomfort all your life. To learn about frustration and possibly overcome that’ (Channel 4, 26th March 2004). There is a sense of karma around his ideas about why he is disabled. The fact that he says that he was sent to learn about

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frustration and discomfort again reinforces the inferior view of a disabled life which is essential in telling the ‘coming to terms’ discourse.

Jonny makes the clearest statement of acceptance, which conforms to the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse, of all the programmes analysed. He says:

I feel I have learnt my lessons, I feel I have come to terms with it and come to terms with people around me like my father, people when I’m out in the street. I don’t get frustrated when they say “What’s wrong with you?..” (Channel 4, 26th March 2004).

He states that he has accepted people’s adverse reaction to his impairment including his own father’s inability to deal with it. Instead of working to change attitudes towards disability Jonny chooses to accept that he is inferior and changes his life in accordance.

Haunting all of the narrative of the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse is the possibility of total cure. Jonny Kennedy is committed to charity work concerned with medical research (Channel 4, 26th March 2004) while nearly all of the other disabled protagonists of the discourse are engaged in lessening their impairment medically. The acceptance that is portrayed within these programmes is a resignation that despite their best efforts the person involved still remains disabled.

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Chapter 4

Coming out with it - Discussions of self-denial and acceptance of the

disabled self on British television

In response to the traditional medical model representations of disability, shown on British television, progressive writers have responded with more positive images. The ‘coming out’ discourse when presented in its purest form, as I am about to discuss, borrows heavily from the disability studies theory of ‘coming out’.

In the drama Every Time You Look At Me (BBC 2, 14th March 2004) Chris and Nicki are two disabled people successful in their jobs. Both characters are seen as successfully integrated into mainstream society by the fact that one works as a teacher and the other as a hairdresser. They are also presented in the exposition of the drama as socialising with non-disabled people in mainstream environments. However, as the narrative progresses the fact that they fit in so well is presented as a negative, it being the by product of their denial of their disabled status. ‘Self-representations are, therefore, the basis for ideologies, and for this reason their investigation is of primary importance for an understanding of the constitution and functioning of social groups’ (De Fina, 2006:356).

Their denial is symbolised within the exposition by the social awkwardness when they are around each other. Early on in the drama this is shown in the scene shortly after they have met and are eating lunch with mutual acquaintances. There is a close up shot, from the point of view of Chris, on Nicki’s necklace which consists of silver letters that spell out the words ‘Great Tits’ (BBC 2, 14th March 2004). The next shot is of Chris looking uncomfortable and averting his eyes. The use of the mise-en-scene of the necklace challenges a stereotype of traditional concepts of disabled people as asexual. It also challenges the view that disabled people hate their bodies.

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In Happy Birthday Thalidomide (Channel 4, 1st April 2004) the issue of disabled self denial is more explicitly stated. The presenter of the programme Mat Fraser (who also plays Chris in Every Time You Look At Me) meets two young disabled Brazilian people and asks them about their social and sex lives. Hercules has no problems with taking a disabled lover. Fraser says

…it took me a long time until I was about 30 years old before I could accept other disabled people as lovers or as partners, which is bad because it means I didn’t respect myself (Channel 4, 1st April 2004).

In both Every Time You Look At Me and Happy Birthday Thalidomide issues of disabled people being in self denial are mediated through the initiation, or refusal of, sexual relations with another disabled person.

Part of the ‘coming out’ discourse says that in romantic/sexual relationships, where one partner is disabled and one non-disabled, there are ulterior motives involved. In Every Time You Look At Me Nicki says to Chris ‘…like your so superior just cause you’ve got the degree in the able bodied girlfriend you still haven’t got any arms’ (BBC 2, 14th April 2004). In the later scene she implies that Chris’s girlfriend Michelle is with him because she is very insecure and ‘…walk in the door with a crip and you’re bound to get noticed’ (BBC 2, 14th April 2004). This sentiment is validated by the narrative of the drama when Chris leaves Michelle, claiming that he doesn’t love her, for Nicki. At no point is Nicki’s analysis of her lover and his girlfriend’s relationship questioned, this conveys to the audience that relationships between disabled and non-disabled partners are suspect. There is a very strong crossover here with the ‘coming to terms’ discourse, where these kinds of relationship are also seen as problematic. A common arc of narratives is that the angry recently impaired man rejects his non-disabled girlfriend because he thinks he “can’t love her like a man should” and that she is just pitying him.

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The idea that the medical model view of disability is so oppressive and all-encompassing that it will condemn disabled people to self-loathing, is also a central thread of the ‘coming out’ discourse. This is evident in Happy Birthday Thalidomide when Mat Fraser tells of the reaction when the first Thalidomide survivors were born. He mentions a case in Belgium where a woman conspired to kill her Thalidomide affected baby rather than bring him up. In the ‘coming out’ discourse the non-disabled world is often presented as totally unsympathetic to the issues of disability. The attitude of society often expressed in representation of a patriarchal figure failing to empathise with his disabled son, as in My Left Foot (Sheridan, 1989), is seen to drive disabled people into a state of denial. .

Essential to a fully told ‘coming out’ narrative is the moment of realisation when the disabled protagonist claims a positive disabled identity. However, sometimes the narrative of the television programme ends before the disabled protagonists have reached their destination of acceptance.

It can be said that the moment of realisation in Every Time You Look At Me is evident in the scene where Nicki is locked in the toilet cubicle. The character overhears some of Chris’s pupils talking about how much they like him but also doubting his and Nicki’s relationship. Chris eventually finds Nicki who is locked in the cubicle but is too embarrassed to call for help. Nicki expresses concerns about the relationship that do not revolve around the issue of disability. Chris reassures Nicki through the cubicle door, this is the first time we sense his commitment to the relationship. This is an interesting scene because it shows that the insecurities have stopped revolving around the issue of disability, moving onto more recognisable worries that all couples face. The fact that she is locked in a cubicle, not designed to meet her needs, can be seen as a metaphor that society does not meet the needs of disabled people and it is this that causes disability and not peoples' bodies.

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The resolution of the ‘coming out’ narrative contained within Happy Birthday Thalidomide is a little bit more complex. This is because the discourse is narrated through Fraser retelling his own experience, so in a sense he is at the destination of acceptance from the very beginning of the programme. However, he repeatedly talks of a time when he was in denial, letting the audience know how important ‘coming out’ was to him. When we see him exasperated by Jacqueline’s family misuse of her pension, we see the political activist persona of Fraser. The fact that he gets so upset about the injustice of another disabled person’s life shows the audience that he is a fully outed disabled person and prepared to accept the role as the disabled studies/rights lobby would assign to such a person.

It is common, in these kinds of progressive programmes containing the ‘coming out’ discourse, for more aware disabled people to get involved in advising what are presented as less empowered disabled people about their lives . This can be seen when Zupan introduces Keith to wheelchair rugby in Murderball (Rubin & Shapiro, 2005).

It can also be seen when the participants of Beyond Boundaries (BBC 2, October 2005) are having group discussions about disabled identity. In a conversation around the camp fire Lorraine reassures Sophie that she will one day feel comfortable with her body in romantic relationships and sexual situations. Here we see Lorraine, who has been a disabled woman for longer than recently ‘injured’ Sophie, passing on her advice. This also links the denial process into issues of sexual activity as Sophie is continuously represented as someone who hasn’t, come to terms with their impairment or come out as disabled. In the same camp fire scene Glen says:

Before we all met up, I can put my hands up and say I just closed myself off with anybody with the same condition or even anybody in the disabled family at all, cos I didn’t want to label myself like it but now I’ve spent so much time with a bunch of crips…… (BBC 2, October 2005)

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Here Glen admits to what disability studies would label a classic case of denial and he eludes that in the course of the making of the programme the coming out process has begun within him.

The discussions around the camp fire in Beyond Boundaries, and the way Mat Fraser tells Hercules of his past denial in Happy Birthday Thalidomide, mirrors the manner ‘coming out’ is talked about in disability studies. Swain & Cameron (1999), Shakespeare et al (1996) and Campbell & Oliver (1997) all contain personal anecdotes from disabled people.

It was only when I moved down into south London and met other disabled people, and disabled people in another context other than in hospital or the medical world, when I actually met activists, definitely people who were much more politically aware, much more supportive, and much more sharing, that I began to realize that a lot of the anger I was feeling was not me, but was because of society. Therefore I began to sort of feel proud of saying I was a disabled woman, because I no longer felt ashamed, I no longer felt apologetic, it was OK that I was disabled. (“Jenny” cited in Shakespeare et al, 1996:56)

Here the type of evidence that disability studies calls upon to support the ‘coming out’ theory is very similar to the discussions which take place in Beyond Boundaries and Happy Birthday Thalidomide. An awful lot of first hand accounts, included in these academic texts, of experience of denial and ‘coming out’ are from older people looking back on their youth. This mirrors Mat Fraser’s conversation with Hercules and the older participants of Beyond Boundaries counseling of Sophie. This strong characteristic of older disabled people telling younger disabled people of their previous struggles with their sense of identity as a way of help is central to the discourse. ‘These modes are (likely to be) highly developed - with an awareness by members of that culture of their grammar-like organisation’ (Kress, 2001:56). The participants in Beyond Boundaries

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seem to know the ways in which the subject of claiming a disabled identity should be talked about. The camp fire conversation, that I referred to earlier, soon turns into a debate about appropriate language used to label impairment and disability, with Toby saying ‘I prefer the term differently abled’ (BBC 2, October 2005). There is always great debate within disability studies, disability arts and the wider disabled community about the reclaiming of negative language and what is the latest politically correct label. It is very interesting in the context of examining the emergence of the ‘coming out’ discourse within progressive television that certain conversations take place. The Beyond Boundaries participants followed similar topics, discussed in a similar way, that disability studies concern themselves with. ‘..modes become shaped in response to discourse, where discourse itself is the effect of the socially shaped design practices’ (Kress, 2001:56). The fact that disabled people who are not academics are debating these issues on television results in an ever changing discourse. Toby’s preference for the term ‘differently abled’ (BBC 2, October 2005) is not in line with the official terminology of British disability studies, disability and impairment, but his opinion is seen as valid.

It is true that ‘the burden of representation’ discussed by Mercer (1994) applies to any representation of disabled people, as it does to Black art and artists. If a group of people get under-represented in mainstream media the few pieces that emerge are going to be under scrutiny by audiences within and on the outside of the specific minority. People involved in these pieces whether writers, producers or participants in documentaries, are going to feel the burden of responsibility to make that representation accurate, or positive (Mercer, 1994:237).

Not only does this affect how the piece is received by audiences and critics it also affects the content and the direction of its discourse. This is demonstrated by the self consciousness about the issue of disabled people being under represented and misrepresented in mainstream media. This can be seen in Mat Fraser’s attempts to highlight international inequalities that exist concerning disabled peoples lives (Channel

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4, 1st April 2004). It is also demonstrated by the repeated message within Beyond Boundaries that the participants are there to prove a number of things, one of them being that they are resourceful in a team. The voice over at the beginning of every episode says, as the title sequence begins, ‘Individually they would never be able to cross such unforgiving terrain but if they work together they might just have a chance’ (BBC 2, October 2005). The participants throughout the series repeatedly say to camera that they are there to prove something to themselves, their families or to wider society. Whenever the ‘coming out’ discourse is told there are two political actions that occur; the first being the actual claiming of a positive disabled identity; the second being the broadcasting of the discourse and the resulting furthering of the social model of disability.

Issues of under-representation of the disabled and the burden of representation (Mercer, 1994) become a key element in the ‘coming out’ discourse. The fact that disabled people have been betrayed by inaccurate depictions is blamed for many denying their disabled identity. The obligation to political activism promoted by the disability studies theory is felt within the realms of progressive media, putting the onus on disabled people to provide positive and accurate representation.

However, I will argue that the proposed concept of "populist modernism" paradoxically participates in a similar process of reductionism that it otherwise challenges, namely a tendency whereby black arts criticism comes to be reduced to a system for making value judgments that are ultimately moral, rather than aesthetic, in character. (Mercer, 1994:239).

A similar process that Mercer describes above can be applied to the reception of representations of disabled people. If these cultural texts are only judged by what model of disability they promote their ability to cross over to the mainstream is limited.

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There is eagerness within disabled cultural producers who are eventually finding a way to make their voices heard, to readdress the wrongs of years of poor representation. The repetition of the ‘coming out’ discourse can be seen as part of this process and aims to change the way society sees disability but also the way disabled people see themselves. However, if the ‘coming out’ discourse becomes too dominant it will block other narratives concerning disabled people, and therefore be as unhelpful as the dominance of the medical model’s ‘coming to terms’ discourse.

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Chapter 5

Contradictions and similarities of discourse. The journey to acceptance.

Both the discourses that have been discussed share similar features, in this chapter I will look how within the same texts elements of the two can coexist. I will also suggest how many audiences may not appreciate the subtleties of the two separate discourses.

Beyond Boundaries is a series in which such contradictions exist, within the multi narrative structure of the documentary. Initially the issue of impairment seems to be dramatised as detailed medical accounts follow soon after the introduction of each participant in the programme. The very physical nature of the challenge that is undertaken within the programme also makes the audience, and indeed the participants, focus heavily on various mobility restrictions. Sophie explains how she acquired her impairment by saying:

I don’t know what happened, I just lost control of the car, I was just driving really fast, arguing about music and fighting and being silly and I lost control of the car. (BBC 2, October 2005).

This anecdote is typical of the participant’s retelling of incidents that eventually led to impairment. There is a very real sense that impairment is caused by the reckless actions of youth. This idea is also dominant in Murderball where the wheelchair rugby athletes acquired their impairments include incidents involving a fist fight, car accidents and a motor cross accident. Yet again the belief that impairment is caused by the recklessness of youth reminds us of Born On The Fourth Of July. The acquired injuries explained in Beyond Boundaries and Murderball are presented as resulting from irresponsible activities connected with youth. There is a sense of quasi–karma created when these narratives are told.

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The prominence of acquired impairment is noticeable within the programmes analysed. The narrative of disabled people gaining acceptance whether ‘coming out’ or ‘coming to terms’ is seen to fit with the personal stories of those people injured in accidents rather than those people with congenital impairment. The incident that causes the impairment can be seen as the act of disruption of the status quo of the non-disabled person’s life, ‘A story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character’ (McKee, 1999: 34). As in fiction a narrative is best understood when a clear change has happened. In the programmes analysed there is a lot of people with acquired spinal injury this maybe because a non-disabled audience is thought to be able to empathise with this kind of impairment. Sutherland (1981) suggests that people relate to visual impairment in the same way:

If so, the difference probably lies in the fear that many able bodied people have of blindness as something they can imagine happening to them, which is not an attitude they have towards, for example, cerebral palsy or polio. (14)

Even in programmes where there is a wide range of impairments the acquired injuries get more dramatic attention. Editing means that Sophie’s experience in Beyond Boundaries is a memorable section of the series. The spinal injury narrative of a reckless action followed by an angry paralysed person that ends with some kind of acceptance is sometimes told unnecessarily. This can be seen within Murderball where the story of Keith returning home from rehab is told even though he has nothing to do with the Paralympics wheelchair rugby team, which is the focus of the documentary. This only further proves the need society has for hearing the journey of disabled people from isolation to acceptance.

The situation is made more dramatic in Beyond Boundaries by the repeated showing of gory pictures of the participants when they were in hospital shortly after their accidents.

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The medical aspect of the impairment is also made dominant in Murderball by the use of captions. In the exposition of the documentary athletes are introduced in a scene where they are moving around in their wheelchairs at a training session. The frame freezes on each of the athletes individually and a caption appears, saying: their name; the nature of the incident when they acquired the injury; and how long they have had the resulting impairment for. This not only dramatically emphasises their impairment as a key feature of their identity but the inclusion of details of the length of time also firmly establishes how far along the journey to acceptance each athlete may be.

In the early stages of both programmes it is not yet clear which discourse; ‘coming out as a disabled person’ or ‘coming to terms with impairment’ the journey to acceptance narrative will follow. Indeed as the programmes progress there are elements of both discourses contained within the narrative of both documentaries. These contradictions lead to more discourses being created,

New ensembles of discourses ensure that the resultant material semiotic object, whether 'textual' or other, is always new in some significant respect. The appearance of the discursive ensemble and its materialisation as text or other object has its effect on each of the co-present discourses. In the compromise of accommodation to each of the co-present discourses, each discourse is transformed. (Kress, 2001:64).

Alongside the repeated reinforcement that disability is a medical tragedy there is also some quite apparent stories that conform to the ‘coming out’ discourse, within Beyond Boundaries. An example of this is Glenn’s camp fire admission of past denial of group that I quoted in the chapter previous. There is also heavy focus on the personal narrative of Sophie who also partially becomes more politically aware about her disability during the course of the journey through the jungle. However, Sophie’s journey is one of confusion, for both herself and for the audience. There are repeated scenes throughout

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the series of her retelling the story of the incident when she acquired her impairment. Also reinforced, by the fact that the piece to camera scenes are repeated, is the fact of how much an ordeal her impairment is:

I don’t know whether they really understand, I have no balance, I have no feeling, I have no movement in my whole body all I have is my boobs and my arms and my head. I want people to understand exactly what is wrong with me. I don’t mind people knowing about my problems with how I have to go to the loo, that I have to use a catheter to pee and that I have to put a fucking finger up my arse to go to the loo, but I want people to know how hard my life is and how hard it has become since my accident. (BBC 2, October 2005).

Here Sophie very much medicalises her own impairment and does not appear to have ‘come to terms’ with the restrictions that it brings. She invested a lot of her identity into her physical ability or newfound lack. Throughout the series she talks of ‘losing everything I ever loved’ and ‘more sadness and loss and grief and just unfairness in my life than is right, it just shouldn’t happen’ (BBC 2, October 2005).

The trek involved in Beyond Boundaries creates an interesting dichotomy between the physical and emotional. The producers try to create an external challenge that requires the participants to face internal challenges in order to work together. This is demonstrated by two scenes intercut: the first is where the participants are navigating canoes down a jungle river; the second features Lorraine doing a piece to the camera and images of her doing her housework. Over all the scenes Lorraine’s voice over is present:

I don’t want people to see my leg because I’m probably just vain. Where before my accident I’d be in little skimpy shorts with little cheeks hanging out and stuff and I don’t really want people to see what I’m really like under my trousers. But I’m prepared to get over it; I’m going to get over it. (BBC 2, October 2005).

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Here Lorraine talks of a denial which can be argued fits into the ‘coming out’ discourse, her pledge ‘to get over it’ can be seen as adopting the positive self image of a disabled person. This personal journey is directly compared to the trip down the river that the audience sees alongside her story. In this way the trek is presented as a metaphor for the challenges that the participants face in everyday life as disabled people. However, the fact that the trek is reliant on immense physical exertion, any real commitment to the ‘coming out’ discourse, explicitly or implicitly, is fundamentally undermined.

Throughout Beyond Boundaries there are repeated denials of disability or impairment from the majority of the participants. Jane a double amputee first comment was concerning how her doctor colleagues treat her, she reports them saying: ‘…but you don’t count. You don’t count as one of them’. She goes on to say ‘I’ve never sort of, I’ve never really felt disabled’ (BBC 2, October 2005).

Denial is an important part of the ‘coming out’ discourse however when stated in Beyond Boundaries there is often a sense of ambivalence to the participants not accepting they are disabled. In Every Time You Look At Me acceptance, of Nicki and Chris, by non-disabled people is presented as having down sides where as in Beyond Boundaries it is sometimes presented as a completely positive thing. Amar says: ‘My disability isn’t really at the forefront of my mind, I listen to music, do drama, I’m in a team of finance people and by the way you know I’m blind’ (BBC 2, October 2005). Here his impairment is compared to the leisure activities he enjoys, as he makes the valid point that his identity is defined by more than just his impairment. However valid this point is in making it he is setting his impairment against the fact that he is a rounded person. This has the effect of creating a statement about the disabled self which, at best can be considered as ambiguous and at worst implies that most disabled people do not have full lives.

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The 'New ensembles of discourses' (Kress, 2001:64), have increasingly simplified conclusions because the more complex elements of the discourses clash and therefore in effect cancel each other out. Lorraine’s and Glen’s commitment to adopt a more positive disabled identity, to ‘come out’, is contrasted with ambivalent denials of disabled identities from other participants of Beyond Boundaries.

What results is an overcrowded and chaotic narrative which inevitably tends to simplify what it seeks to describe and explain precisely because it is impossible to condense and contain such a rich and complex history in one brief burst of discourse. Mercer, 1994:234)

This leaves the more basic common strands to become dominant and the audience of the programmes referring to their knowledge of other cultural discourse to make sense of what they are watching.

The key point, however, remains this: meaning does not only reside in discourse and design, it also resides in production. It results from human engagement with the world, and the resources we use in articulating and interpreting meaning comprise both semiotic modes and semiotic media. (Kress, 2001:68).

Even the more explicit expressions of the ‘coming out’ discourse, like Every Time You Look At Me, can not escape the fact that the majority of the audience will relate to disability through the dominant medical model schema.

Even though the concept that is being denied is different, one being the medical impairment and the other being the political identity of a disabled person, the processes shown in the two discourses are similar. In both, a personal internal struggle is fought by the disabled individual where denial is presumed to be prevalent and understandable. Both discourses involve a moment of realisation where angry youth turns into a mature

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self acceptance. To some extent this means that the ‘coming out’ discourse even though heavily tied in to the social model takes an individualist approach to disability, more often connected with the medical model.

Ultimately the similarities between the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse and the ‘coming out as a disabled person’ discourse creates a confused and diluted message. The result positions disabled people as being involved in an eternal quest for acceptance.

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It is the fact that disability has such negative connotations within wider culture that makes a state of denial seem credible. There are many negative stereotypes connected with disability and impairment that mean that society sees disabled people as leading inferior lives. The negativity surrounding disability is reinforced by the majority of representations of disabled people in the media. Television representations contribute to certain stereotypes which code the identity of a disabled person as invalid.

When this is the case a state of denial is not only represented as common for people dealing with impairment, but is justified as a reasonable reaction by representations with such negative views of disability. This dissertation has identified a discourse that uses this denial as a starting point, and has been termed the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse. It has been shown that in contemporary British television this discourse is dominant. One of the main features of this discourse is that before disabled people can move from denial to acceptance, limitation of their impairment has to take place. Therefore narratives that conform to this discourse often take place in a medical setting and often focus on the disabled person’s steps back towards physical “normality”. The acceptance, on offer within the discourse of ‘coming to terms’, is an acceptance that a disabled person's life will be less fulfilling and productive than a non-disabled person’s life.

In response to the very medicalised discourse that is ‘coming to terms with an impairment’ there is a more progressive set of narratives that follow the ‘coming out as a disabled person’ discourse. This dissertation has highlighted the origins of this new discourse in theories of disability studies. The claiming of a positive disabled identity and finding a commitment to political activism is presumed to be a very cathartic experience for all disabled people. The political aspect of the discourse is manifest in progressive television programmes that are self-consciously addressing issues of past misrepresentation and debate the issue explicitly or implicitly within the text. Often these programmes also feature the telling of personal anecdotes where disabled people initially deny a collective identity before having an epiphany and ‘come out’. The analysis shows how the grammars of the discourse are similar both in its forms as academic theory and in its incarnation within progressive programming. Older disabled people who have been through the cathartic process are commonly seen imparting their knowledge on a younger, angrier group of disabled people.

The fact that both discourses share similar features and are often present within a television programme simultaneously, raises problems for the effectiveness of the ‘coming out’ discourse. Due to the fluid nature of the creation and dissemination of discourse (Kress, 2001) it is hard for these new narratives that explore the formation of the disabled self to escape the grip of more medicalised schemas.

Both discourses encourage narratives that take disabled people on individualized journeys from a state of denial and isolation to a state of acceptance. However, as discussed in Chapter 5 these discourses are not always told within clear guidelines and indeed elements of both are often expressed within the same text. This means that audiences familiar with the much more dominant medicalised discourse of ‘coming to terms with an impairment’ will not appreciate the subtleties of the new progressive ‘coming out as a disabled person’ discourse. This results in a fluid homogenous discourse that places disabled people on a seemingly never ending quest for acceptance.

Both forms of denial stem from the negative assertions that surround the disabled self. However, as the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse accept the inferior status of disabled people the ‘coming out as a disabled person’ discourse makes a claim of positive action and a group commitment to emancipation.

Andrew Bogle 302CMC

Even though the denial expressed by both discourses are different from each other the fact that disabled people suffer some kind of denial seems absolute. There is a presumption that all disabled people encounter negative responses from their environments and so initially have a low self esteem. For the case of the ‘coming to terms with impairment’ discourse this reinforces stereotypes, of the embittered cripple angry at the world. For the ‘coming out as a disabled person’ discourse this creates a presumption that all disabled people have the same problems forming their identity, reinforces the idea of a collective oppression. Acceptance again has different connotations within the different discourses, however the significance of this goal when achieved is unchallenged in both. This creates little room for other narratives to be told about disabled people as these transformative stories of self seem to be the only narratives being told. This is demonstrated by the fact, that within the programmes analysed: a trek across South America; an illicit love affair and the preparation for the Paralympics of a team of athletes; all include transformative stories of the disabled self at their centre. It seems impossible for narratives concerning disabled people to be told on television that do not conform to either of the discourses that have been discussed. This creates a very limited view of the reality of disabled people’s lives.

Andrew Bogle 302CMC


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Andrew Bogle 302CMC

Appendix 1

The medical model acts to

..the medicalization of disability casts human variation as deviance from the norm, as pathological condition, as deficit, and, significantly, as an individual burden personal tragedy. Society, in agreeing to assign medical meaning to disability, colludes to keep the issue within the purview of the medical establishment. (Linton,1998:11).

The Social Model defines disability as

..the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities. (UPIAS, 1976, quoted in Swain et al 2003: 23).

And impairment as

.. lacking part of or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body. (UPIAS, 1976, quoted in Swain et al 2003: 23).

Linton, S (1998) Claiming Disability. New York: New York University Press

Swain, French and Cameron (2003) Controversial Issues In A Disabling Society. Buckingham Open University Press.