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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Where Have All the Disabled People Gone?

I really miss the Paralympics. I used to love turning on the television and seeing all kinds of disabled people doing all kinds of impressive things. Disability was not just the new Normal, it was the new Cool. For those magical two weeks I was so proud to be seen out and about with my white cane. I looked at my non-disabled friends with an odd kind of pity: they suddenly seemed woefully unfashionable because their bodies were just so damn ordinary.

But the nation's enthusiasm for disability seems to have quickly waned. I was really hoping that the popularity of the Paralympics would lead to increased disability visibility on television. But it seems that the media is still obsessed with out-dated notions of the Normal.

Last night I went to see the majestic Francesca Martinez in her new stand-up show 'What the F*** is Normal?'. Inexplicably, I had only heard of Francesca earlier this year when she appeared on BBC Radio 4's 'News Quiz'. I was delighted and amazed to hear someone with a speech impediment on the radio. I instantly liked her witty and subversive take on current affairs. And I was pleased to hear Radio 4 fighting the nation's ingrained prejudices against difference by featuring a disabled comedian in one of its most popular programmes. Of course, my need to comment on this remarkable turn of events demonstrates how unusual it is. We still have a long long way to go before disability stops being marginalised.

If Francesca Martinez is funny enough to appear on the News Quiz (and she is), why have I not seen her on one of the BBC's many panel shows? Last night she suggested that the BBC thinks that she is too frightening to appear on TV. She might scare away the viewers, apparently. Now, what the BBC means by this is not that Francesca herself is frightening (she isn't), but that disability is frightening. And why is disability frightening? Because people do not understand it. And why do people not understand it? Because they have never been exposed to it: most people have never met a physically disabled person, much less had a conversation with them. So, if we follow the BBC's own logic, the only way to get Francesca on TV is to expose more people to disability. And a sure fire way of exposing  more people to disability is to get Francesca on TV.

The Paralympics made disability visible. Now the nation's broadcasters have a responsibility to enhance that visibility. It is only by seeking out disabled comedians, presenters, newscasters and writers that they will help position disability firmly in the mainstream.

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