"No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp": We need programs that follow the late Stella Young's spirit and actually challenge attitudes about living with disability instead of just reinforcing stereotypes, says Jacki Brown.
"Attitude is everything." Or so claims Attitude, a new series currently screening on the ABC. It's a nice idea. Unfortunately, it's patently false. When it comes to disability, attitude is not everything. To quote the late and great Stella Young, "No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp."
'Attitude' is a loaded term when it comes to disability. It assumes that all a disabled person needs to do to eradicate the disadvantages and hardships they face is to adopt the 'right' attitude, which will invariably be a positive and upbeat one. But attitudes surrounding disability are shaped by the society in which we live, where it is usually assumed that to live with a disability is either a terrible tragedy or conversely a triumph over adversity. Rather than challenging this assumption, the Attitude series simply perpetuates the misguided view of disability that Stella and other disability activists have long been fighting to change. Is this series really changing attitudes? Or is it merely reinforcing them?
I would argue the latter.
When I heard Graeme Innes speak of this new series at Stella's memorial, I was hopeful that I would see something in line with her personal politics. Stella subscribed to the social model of disability, or the idea that "disabled people are not wrong for the world we live in, but that the world is simply not yet right for us".
When I sat down to watch Attitude, I was hopeful that I would get see people with disabilities who were fiery and unapologetic; nuanced human beings, whose disabilities were an important and valuable part of their identity. I was sure the first episode would contain a hefty dose of disability pride, which was something Stella had in spades.
Alas, I was disappointed.
Before I continue, time for some personal disclosure. I have a vested interest in seeing depictions of disability in the media which show people leading interesting and complex lives, depictions which steer clear of presenting disability simply as tragedy or inspirational triumphing over adversity. See, I am a wheelchair user and an out and proud crip, as well as a lesbian.
So I was really excited to see that in episode three there was a same-sex couple with two children, with the documentary tracking Amanda and her journey through the initial 12-weeks post-spinal cord injury in a rehabilitation centre. This was a story of grief and loss, of struggling to come to terms with and manage a changed body, which would be a very difficult transition for anyone.
But Amanda's is not the only story of disability. By showing only acquired disability and doing so to a national audience, the majority of whom are not disabled, it reinforces the idea that to live with a disability is a tragedy. Telling only stories of people who have recently become disabled allows the non-disabled viewer to identify with the tragedy on screen, to enter into thinking 'This could happen to me too, and all I would want would be to be normal again'. This positions disability as an experience that is relatable only in terms of how tragedy forces one to 'overcome adversity'.
Sure, it's understandable that in cases where disability is recently acquired, those individuals would voice their desire to be 'normal' again. After all, they're coming to terms to a changed body. However, it would be particularly interesting to see how their attitudes towards their disability may change in the future. For instance, what happens when they get home? What kind of processes do they go through when they realise this is life now? Do they find disability mentors once they leave rehab, people they can connect with who share their experiences? How do their friends and loved ones deal with the changes this has brought into their lives?
There is do denying that there does indeed need to be a representation of the acquired disability experience, but as disability activist Kath Duncan says, "These episodes are not in my opinion about attitudes or changing attitudes; they are, rather, out of context snapshots of some traumatised people's lives."
We need to see a range of disabilities which include people who have lived with their disabilities all their lives, who have learnt to incorporate it into their identity in a positive way and, importantly, are knowledgeable in the social model of disability and are engaged and active in the disability community. Those people - people like me - bring a very different and valuable perspective on what it means to live in a non-normative body. Disability needs to be portrayed as the experience of bodily disadvantages that arise not out of tragedy or accident, but from a society that fails to provide access and inclusion for 20% of the population.
Pride in our differences and unique ways of moving through and seeing the world needs to be depicted so that those living with a disability, as well as those who may acquire one, have an alternative way of understanding this important part of who they are.
We need to see media depictions which capture and celebrate a diversity of disabilities and promote a much deeper understanding of what it is actually like to live in a non-normative body. Such representations would actually challenge and change attitudes instead of just reinforcing stereotypes. Programs that really do achieve and promote this change in attitude would surely have made Stella Young proud.
Come on, ABC and Graeme Innes; we can do better than this.