The best things in life are free – and the worst, if you watch prime-time TV.
In a (free) article on newstatesman.com, James Medhurst, a former researcher on “The Weakest Link”, points out that an early series of the programme featured a blind radio producer, and the same guy (Michael Hughes) has just completed nine weeks in the “Big Brother” house.
Medhurst says, “In the past, disabled people have been portrayed as brave and heroic or as tragic charity cases, and it is reassuring to see the message that some of us are as unremarkable as the rest of the population…”
In the UK, Medhurst continues, the generous portrayal of disabled people seems to be confined to popular entertainment programmes. “It might be expected that it would be the highbrow intellectual media, such as the makers of worthy documentaries, that would take the lead in the inclusion of disabled people, but this is simply not the case. The problem is that programmes designed to be worthy rarely succeed in this goal when they are driven by out-of-date values and stereotypical assumptions about disabled people.”
In contrast, when it comes to portraying people with disabilities, South Africa is remarkably mature – even if our documentaries on disabled people, for example, are a little “push the PC line”.
Not so behind the scenes. If anything, there should be a forward demonstration of employing disabled people in production. But, and the SABC et al. will deny this vociferously, most are employed to boost the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) numbers and put into menial jobs.
Could somebody please show me a deaf graphics artist or a video editor who is wheelchair-bound?
Do we have blind sound mixers? It would make sense as blind people could use their enhanced sense of touch to navigate the mixer, and their acute hearing to mix audio with precision and sensitivity.
I train a lot of people, and I’ve never been asked to train a disabled person into a craft.
Do we have newsreaders who are cross-eyed? No, we only have people who look like those cosmetic fantasies on the covers of Cosmo and Femina.
Neil Postman (Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business) acidly points out that we have this fetish towards beautiful people who model the airbrushed illusions on magazine covers to portray credibility and truth.
It sort of adds a new dimension to Keats’s “beauty is truth and truth beauty”. It doesn’t matter if they are intellectually challenged (read stupid), as long as they look like some false ideal.
It seems the only people with disabilities we in the media always seem to employ are the insane. But that is not a perceived disability. Instead it’s hailed as “soooo creative”. And if they become criminally insane by schnarfing enough Columbian marching powder to fill a flour sack, they become “the hottest thing since Tarantino”.
And, what about the myth that many artists and creative people are bipolar, or manic depressive as it used to be called, before it was fashionable to be so?
Psychiatrist William Gilmer of the Northwestern Memorial Hospital, US, says, “While artists may be more likely to suffer from bipolar illness than perhaps certain other groups, it could be because the illness in and of itself leads individuals to select work environments or vocations or occupations which would be more tolerant of the erratic behaviours or the inconsistency that can go along with the illness”.
Now that makes you laugh more than a joint would! “Occupations which would be more tolerant of the erratic behaviours….” So delicately put!
Howard Thomas has been working in entertainment and media for 40 years. His experience with television dates back to the beginning in South Africa. He is a media business consultant, trainer and specialist in audience psychology.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (October 2008).