Last night I took part in the Big Benefits Row on Channel 5, if only as an audience member. I was asked to come along at the last minute, at about 2pm on the day of transmission. The plan was to meet up with some other people who were going to the show for a bite to eat, and then to make our way mob handed to the studios. A key reason for this desire to form a gang was that four of our group were wheelchair users. For anyone who hasn't had any experience of being in the company of someone who gets around on wheels, going anywhere new can be worrying as we can never be sure of the access provision. No matter how hard you push to ensure you will be able to get into the building, go for a pee when you are inside and of course actually get to the area you need to visit it becomes a regular part of life that you find yourself unable to do so, due to the building being nowhere near as accessible as you were promised.
Image copyright Mik Scarlet
We were all put on edge before going to the studio when we discovered the restaurant we had booked was just as we had feared the studio would be. Accessible, but only just. We were all sat next to the serving area, and so were bumped into at least once a minute for our entire meal by one or more of the stressed out waiting staff, and the toilets were blocked by a group of children's high chairs before we complained. As we ate, Sue Marsh, famous for her blog The Diary of a Benefit Scounger who had been booked to be part of one of the panel discussions, received a phone call telling her she would now be sat in the audience.
Already expecting the worse, especially as we all knew we were going to be in a TV studio with Edwina Currie and Katie Hopkins who are not known for their ability to hold a rational debate, we left and fought our way through the streets of Covent Garden. When we arrived at the studio our fears were justified but not because of a situation we have expected. No, we faced a whole new access issue. As Sue was now an audience member it transpired that only three wheelchair users were allowed onto the studio floor, for fire safety reasons. I won't try to describe why this is rubbish, but any disabled reader will know how much effort it took for us all not to explode with anger as the old "fire hazard" line was trotted out.
Luckily Sue can walk a little, so she walked to the studio using her stick and gave up her wheelchair space to one of us, sitting instead on one of the rather uncomfortable chairs provided. Then the three of us wheelies had the indignity of being discussed as if we were not there as the camera crew and director tried to solve the problem of us being far bigger and more in the way than they had imagined. By now I could tell that all my disabled fellows were loosing their temper, as was I, and so my usual coping mechanism kicked in, by loudly cracking jokes. "How can we find jobs if we can even find a space to sit?" "Lucky there aren't any disabled people on the production team as then one of us would have to go" etc. Oh how we laughed...
Image copyright Mik Scarlet
As the show went live, we found ourselves positioned at the far end of the studio almost out of shot. We watched as the show descended into name calling and insult throwing without really dealing with any of the issues. At one point I saw a chance to make my voice heard, pointing out that the welfare state was created to provide a safety net when things went wrong in life, such as becoming disabled. The rest of the show had some interesting moments, such as Peter Stringfellow stating he felt people like us gang of wheelies in corner were OK to be getting benefits, falling into the stereotype that ALL disabled people don't work. All in all the serious issues facing disabled people at the minute thanks to our societies obsession with benefits and scroungers were totally over looked.
You see whether disabled people like it or not, we just aren't media friendly. If we have the ability and where with all to be able to explain why some of the cuts are impacting so dramatically on our community then we aren't disabled enough, but if we look "really disabled" we might then offend the viewing public. This kind of thinking is why we are almost invisible in the TV media. Sure there are a few disabled faces, but as between 1 in 8 and 1 in 4 of our society has some kind of impairment we should be more heavily featured, both in factual and drama. All we currently get is freak based exploitation in factual and inaccurate portrayal in drama. It's why I feared before going into this debate show that there was no real chance of hearing the voice of disabled people.
Image copyright Mik Scarlet
I started my career in the media in 1988 as a presenter on a mainstream TV show. I went on to front an award winning kids television show, and then spent ten years presenting news and current affairs for the BBC. I had to take time off during the noughties after I broke my back for the second time and spent most of that time watching TV amazed as portrayal of disabled people went backwards in time. As I now rebuild my career I am still shocked that there are so few disabled people on TV, and that there is still such resistance to changing that situation. So I say to all the major media companies, ""come on, isn't it time you included disability in your programming, increased the numbers of disabled people both in front and behind the cameras and became more representative of the viewing public?"