Penny Pepper explores the failure of the diversity and inclusion trope for disabled people with a variety of stories to tell

Imagine a young alien who is asked to study the life of disabled people in developed countries on this weird little blue planet by looking at mainstream culture. What would they find?

There’s the Cinderella story where the disabled prince decides to kill himself at the end (Me Before You), and the opposite with young horny disabled men in search of a brothel (Come As You Are). 

So many bad disabled people on the planet! Bond villains, historic baddies a la Richard III or Quasimodo. Alternatively, the disabled are sad and vulnerable. Take Tiny Tim, from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, who creates sighs of pity. But sometimes there’s triumph over such tragedy – behold Clara in Heidi and Colin in The Secret Garden.  

I devoured these classics as a kid but, even as a prepubescent, before political correctness was even a thing, I knew to my marrow that these characters did not represent me. Rather, they tormented me – adults considered me lazy for not progressing like those fictional children and for daring to never be cured. A variation of this motif includes biopics such as Born on the Fourth of July and, further back, Reach for the Sky. Our alien’s bewilderment grows because now we are heroic and held up on pedestals for inspiration.  

Many disabled people enjoy the grim pastime of making lists of such films, TV shows and books. And, while there are glimmers of hope with the increasing presence of disabled actors, the conclusion for our alien would be puzzling: we’re evil, inspirational, vulnerable, useless, virginal, overly-sexed, suicidal, and brave.

As this biased, second-hand view of disabled people – it’s others who tell our stories and tell them horribly – overloads us all, it’s no wonder that disability hate crime rises by the day and we’re fair game for abuse and name-calling. Today, a scrounger, tomorrow a retard, then the villain.

It is difficult to name one decent successful film with a disabled person in the lead or thereabouts, written and directed by a disabled person; or to name a novel by a disabled writer celebrating and extrapolating the disabled story in its fullest, contradictory glory.  

Seeing all of this played a key role in forming me as a writer. There was nothing that I could truly relate to that represented my experience and, as I grew older, I realised that other disabled people felt the same. I set myself on a course to change the world, beginning in punk fanzines and screaming that we, disabled people, are here, that we’ve always been here, and our stories are as powerful and exceptional as any. 

The harsh truth is the rejection letters from the early 1990s which say that my writing is good, but that no one wants to read about disability because it’s too negative. Placing my own fiction remains a challenge. 

Is it any wonder then that I wept when I watched the acclaimed dramatist and playwright Jack Thorne’s James MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival last month which focused on the failure of the film and television industry to take on our stories, to accept us and our talents across all areas, to allow our actors to portray us and our writers to write for us?

Thorne – whose powerful Channel 4 drama Help about the crisis in a care home hit by the Coronavirus aired this month – pulled no punches in his passionate speech. As someone with direct experience of disability, he picked open the hollow promises of diversity and inclusion that do not include disabled talent to any noticeable level. Her highlighted that it happens on repeat and that enough is enough. 

In my view, this starts with non-disabled people believing that they know about disabled people and becomes the worst kind of circular argument, making incorrect assumptions about the audience not being interested. How many black writers have heard this? How many from the gay community? Indeed, how many women through the centuries? We know the answers to that.

I believe that audiences of all types are mostly friendly, hungry beasts with a great capacity for new stories that intrigue, from different palettes of the human narrative. But the disability narrative is not available within mainstream culture – particularly in literature. Readers don’t have much of a choice between the made-up world that our alien would have discovered and a genuine culture in which disabled writers invent worlds where disabled characters have sex, commit crimes, have children and are maybe a princess or a beggar, a witch or a stripper.

It is time to breakdown the false and offensive representations. Disabled creatives will catch up, bringing stories to mainstream creative platforms – a mainstream which must lose its nervousness and lack of interest in order to provide true equality. 

Because, if we are allowed to connect with readers and viewers, society will see that – unsurprisingly – our stories are as limitless as they are unique; a missing piece of the human experience. 


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