Extraordinary Television?

by Laurence Clark

BBC Ouch 24th February 2007


In recent years, documentaries about individual disabled people have become something of a phenomenon. The TV schedules are now packed with programmes focusing on every type of impairment imaginable – a digital freak show for the 21st century that can be visited without leaving your living room.

Whereas other social issues get the in-depth investigation of a “Panorama”, or a “Tonight with Trevor McDonald”, the public’s grasp of disability issues is typically informed by documentaries focusing on an individual disabled person who, more often than not, could not be said to be very representative of the rest of us. Moreover, an unfortunate fact of life is that the sort of documentaries we would want to see – ones where disabled people aren’t ‘extraordinary’ but competent, capable and in control – do not make as sensational, entertaining viewing as the ones we’re now used to watching.

During these programmes I often find myself screaming at the TV: “Where the hell do they find these people?!” I suspect that someone somewhere has set up an agency called Rent-a-Freak, specifically to supply the most bizarre, eccentric disabled people they can find to budding documentary makers. But unlike today’s documentary subjects, the freaks of old were at least paid to take part – and had some say over their performances.

A few weeks ago the Ouch Weblog reported a mighty clash of two documentary series on Monday nights at 9 o’clock, with Channel 4 screening “Extraordinary Children” opposite Channel 5’s “Extraordinary People”. One programme in the Channel 4 series, “Aged 12 And Looking After the Family” (shown 5 February), generated a huge furore amongst disabled people. It focused primarily on the lives of two ‘young carers’ who were filmed performing a number of household tasks for their visually impaired parents.

As a disabled parent myself, I’ve always had a problem with this idea of ‘young carers’. To me, it conjures up visions of the comedy Absolutely Fabulous, which featured Edina’s reversed mother/daughter relationship with her teenager Saffron. Disabled people find it hard enough to be taken seriously as parents without similar assumptions that our children are somehow responsible for us.

After the documentary was shown, listeners of Radio 4’s “In Touch” programme complained that it was “a terrible slant on blind parents” and “will only make the general public’s perceptions of what blind people can do even worse.”

Paul, the visually impaired father featured in the documentary, spoke to In Touch about how he was now “frightened to go out” because of the amount of hate e-mail he and his wife had received. Not surprising really, since my cursory Google search found a number of message boards containing demands that his children be taken away from him. He went on to say that he’d have never done the documentary if he’d known how his family would be portrayed.

This really struck a chord with me as, about a year ago, my wife and I spoke to a production company about the possibility of taking part in a documentary about disability and parenting. The title of the programme was to have been…

…go on, have a guess…

…yes, you’ve got it – “Extraordinary Mums“!

We were filmed for an afternoon in our home, playing with our son Tom and talking about being parents. Tom is quite a boisterous child and enjoys being bounced around. With hindsight, I shudder to think how footage such as Tom jumping off our sofa onto my knee could have been used. A subtle bit of editing… a severe camera angle… some mournful violin music… and all of a sudden a happy, playful scene becomes that little bit more sinister.

The problems arose when we talked about our input into the finished programme. We both had fears of being portrayed as the stereotypically tragic, brave parents struggling to bring up a child against a cruel act of fate which left us disabled. And if someone was going to broadcast an intimate portrait of our family life on national television then it seemed reasonable to want a say in how it turned out. Well, wouldn’t you?

But it soon became clear that we would not be allowed the level of control that we wanted, so we backed out. Indeed, with hindsight, I think it’s a mistake to view these documentaries as simply presenting people’s life stories, as is so often thought. As with any other piece of art, the outlook of the creator will inevitably shape the finished piece.

So if any Ouch readers are approached to take part in an ‘extraordinary’ documentary, my advice would be to think long and hard first. Give the production team a thorough grilling to make sure you understand and agree with what they are trying to show in their programme.

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