It is difficult for me to understand the point of anti-discrimination legislation to protect disabled people when the media seem exempt from it. Public bodies are now expected to promote positive attitudes towards disabled people, but every day on the television millions of people are subjected to the most biased and prejudiced portrayals of disabled people and we can do nothing about it.
Last week, for instance, I forced myself to watch the Channel 4 documentary Aged 12 and Looking after the Family. The title and the trailers had been bad enough, but my optimistic nature led me to hope there would be some balance, some hope, some recognition of the oppression disabled people face when they take on the job of caring for others. No chance. The disapproval of the programme makers towards the parents in question was flashing in huge neon lights throughout.
“What kind of childhood should our young people be able to expect?” they asked. Not the ones these children were having, they implied. These children had to do chores around the house and look after younger children. They were not free to do exactly what they liked while their parents waited on them.
I have watched a raft of programmes aimed at helping so called “normal” families learn parenting skills. One component of the expectations of these families is that the children did take more responsibility for household chores. This was seen as the parents regaining control, taking responsibility. But if you are disabled, it seems, this is evidence only of your irresponsibility.
The irresponsible parents were filmed lighting cigarettes and pouring out beer. Their children were asked whether they minded doing the housework. “No, we love it!” yell all children from normal families. Do they ever fight and argue? “No, we are nice to each other all the time!” There was nothing they could say that didn’t confirm the prejudices of the film-makers, or looked like bravado for the sake of protecting their family.
There was no celebration of the family of seven children who were calm, secure, skilled, loved, doing well at school. There was no admiration of the innovative ways the parents had developed to do the things they needed to. There was no comparison with other working-class families of nine and how they function only because they learn to behave like a small community. There was no wonder shown when the father recounted his story of becoming disabled at the hands of his violent (“normal”) father at the age of nine months and how residential school had been a refuge for him. Or that despite never knowing the gentleness of a father’s affection he had managed to be a kind and caring father to seven living children and one dead, but never forgotten, child 24 hours a day.
Likewise, there was no celebration of the second family of two, a caring mother and son, struggling against a painful and debilitating illness, in which the son refused to be labelled as a young carer and worried how his mother would manage when he went to university.
This programme confirmed what I already knew: that disabled parents are scared to ask for help because of society’s assumptions that we cannot cope and will make our children suffer. The assumption that our love is selfish, that we give nothing and expect everything back and have children to be our slaves. If we are seen to be not coping, our children will be put into care. So it happens that children are asked to do a bit more than is desirable. If disabled people were empowered and assisted to live independent lives using resources such as direct payments, it would not be felt to be shameful to ask a PA to help with the extra work of parenting. It would be like having an au pair or a nanny.
Why is it that such programmes can be made and disabled people have no power of redress?
Micheline Mason is a writer and founder of the Alliance for Inclusive Education