I recently attended a thought-provoking event on Reframing Disability organised by the Media Trust. The focus of the event was about representation in news, film and advertising, and also hiring and employment practices in those sectors.
I appreciate the organisers of the event for bringing a lot of people into the room with different experiences, which allowed us to have thoughtful discussions and workshops.
However, since then I’ve been reflecting on how the postive work towards representation and accessibility, can de-politicise disability, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.
A broad church
One point that was raised over and over again was about how disability, is such a “broad church” that specific differences in experiences can be lost within that umbrella term.
Essentially, there are very varied long-term health conditions and disabilities that fall under this overarching word: ADHD, visual impairment, epilepsy, dyslexia, ME, cystic fibrosis, autism, mobility needs, etc.
The event was focused on representation in media, news and advertising. Clearly including someone visually impaired in your film doesn’t mean you can claim you’ve done “disability representation.”
When it comes to media representation, it can never be one size fits all.
This is true for “accessibility” too. It’s all well and good to say you have an “accessible” venue — but the presence of a lift doesn’t actually mean a lot for someone whose needs are for a BSL interpreter at the event.
In the same vein a challenge was made about symbolism, and how the diversity of disability is diminished by just one picture used over and over again. For example, an image of a wheelchair user is the sign on accessible toilet doors — but they are not the only people who use it. This restricted symbolism can translate into restricted access and understanding. Personally, I struggle with stairs, but twice in the last few months have been told that “the lift is for wheelchair-users only”.
Intersectionality is also incredibly relevant here when we talk about “different experiences”. Despite all this talk of diversity of experiences, it is still mostly white middle-class disabled people who are the representatives in the media, and even who attended the workshop. Our social understanding of who can be disabled is incredibly narrow.
Too broad to use?
Then this question emerged: is the term disability so broad as to be useless? If everyone has different health needs, symbolism, and access needs, if we cannot be represented by each other, than what good is the word?
One person went as far to wonder, why talk about disability at all, when accessibility is the thing we all need? In later life hearing, eyesight, mobility will be reduced for most people. We may become injured temporarily, need to use crutches, or have other short-term access needs. If we can all be disabled, then perhaps none of us are disabled? He went on to say, we should focus the conversation on ‘access’ over ‘disability’.
I had to stop and reflect on why that didn’t sit well for me. There was something there that felt missing, and I realised that disabled as a political status wasn’t present in the discussions.
Yes disability isn’t one thing — but is there an experience in common? One tweet I saw recently also reminded me that most of the characteristics upon which oppression is based are socially constructed. Even if the concept of disabled or not is socially constructed, and the definition constantly changing, the discrimination is very real.
At the Global Equality and Diversity conference two weeks before Atif Choudhury, CEO of Diversity and Ability, had a conversation with me about the terminology we use around mental health. I have said some qualms about neurodiverse/ neurotypical emerging as a new binary, which I find overly simplistic. He replied that, “we may all be neurodiverse, but we are not all marginalised by our experiences of neurodiversity”. That line has been ringing in my head ever since.
And so by the end of the day, I felt what was missing was the word oppression. Disability is political. There is power and solidarity in using the name. Saying we all have accessibility challenges may be true — but is everyone actually marginalised or oppressed because of their access needs? It is disabled people who are hated on by the Daily Mail and by the government. Sue from Disability Rights UK mentioned the 30% rise in hate crime targeted at disabled people.
A few years ago a government minister said disabled people don’t deserve to be paid a living wage. The government’s system of PIP payments, where they try and deny as many people as possible support, ignoring medical testimony is killing people, harming their health, and traumatising many.
The answer to saying there are differences within a group, is not saying that the umbrella term is unnecessary. Personally, I think it makes it all the more useful. For a parallel example, LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, but there are also terms like demisexual, pansexual, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and many others which express something beyond that 4-letter acronym. And that’s why adding the Q at the end for Queer is powerful to me — it’s a political statement, it’s a broad identity, and it’s something that brings people together in power. And where people don’t like that Q they often actually want to limit who can be part of a movement (I’m talking about biphobes and terfs here).
So yes, specifics are really useful to talk about difference experiences. It is totally valid to recognise that those are going to have different challenges, need different representation, and different access needs. But if we normalise too far, I fear it runs the risk of weakening solidarity in a movement where it is still absolutely necessary.
For thoughtful conversations on topics like this, check out the podcast I co-host on technology and feminism , The Intersection of Things.