We live in a media society where we are so desensitized to violence, gore and so much more that it would take a great deal to appall and offend anyone, especially a well socialised teenager like my daughter. It’s not often that I see her wheel out of the lounge in tears of anger as to what she has just witnessed on the television.
For context, I say wheel because she is a wheelchair user, a proud and confident one at that. A disabled person who wants and deserves to be thought of as an equal. The reason for her sudden and brutal departure from the living room was on seeing a video montage of children with disabilities accompanied by a song, a cover of Coldplay’s “Fix you’’ The implication given to her and disabled children everywhere that they are not like everyone else, that they are in need of repair, they are broken. The stereotypes that hold her and the entire community of disabled children back were being paraded around again on national television, but this time, for her and me, it reached a peak of tears and anger.
I thought it was time to address this, especially as the behemoth of charity fundraising appears again, BBCs Children In Need. CIN is a bastion of broadcasting, but its decision to show such a crass film with a crass soundtrack upset her dearly. The whole concept (which was obviously well-intended) sadly came across as a message that disabled children are damaged goods and that with money and time, they will become “normal” and “not broken” little people. How this got past any of their charity partners and how they thought this was acceptable asks a troubling question of ethics, motive, and responsibility.
BBCCIN has changed the lives of families countrywide, much-needed sums of money have been raised, changing and saving lives, and for that aspect, nothing other than a huge thank you will suffice. However, as good and thankfully received as the money raised is, the view the show portrays of disability is outdated and breeds the continuation of our children being “unable” “unlike” and “needy” The stereotype that disability is a personal tragedy and so disabled children deserved to be pitied is rife and it’s damaging. According to this charity “selling point”, the burden of disability is unending; life with a disabled child is a life of constant sorrow and agony, and that the able-bodied audience stands under a continual obligation to help them through montages of ill-picked, wealthy celebrity voices while all accompanied by nauseating sad piano soundtracks over personal stories. The wrong people seem to be in charge, with the wrong hosts fronting the marathon of assumptions.
Every year on the night of the broadcast of CIN, my social media comes alive with hundreds and hundreds of voices of frustration from fellow parent carers, disabled adults, and children alike, all voicing similar concerns such as: “an overload of pity.” “narrative needs to change.” and, “We don’t need pity porn!”. These are families similar to mine, these are also the voices of disabled children who continue to be held back by negatively perpetuated ideas of who they are and how they live their lives. The emphasis portrayed that children with disabilities are helpless and dependent has never been further from the truth. Contrary to what many BBC executives might think, disability does not mean a poor quality of life, disability is not a burden, the system which governs us is providing the burden.
I am fully aware that in order to stimulate the public into parting with their money you need to appeal to their hearts, must appeal to their minds, but you must remind them why your charity is having to step in to help in the first place. Every year the public is casually, and with kind intent filling in the gaps of financial aid that the system has caused without being told why, and when you view it like this ‘Children in Need’ might be seen as a masterpiece of insidious manipulation. People give money because they feel sorry for the “brave” children who are “suffering”, many of whom do so with incredible decency and passion. A small few act out an altruistic act of giving, forgetting about the broken welfare system around them which isn’t doing the job it was surely meant to do in the first place.
You could say that even having to broadcast CIN is an open admission of the ultimate failure of capitalism, with not even a hint of shame from Westminster, or an apology. The fact is that there is a lack of political will to address tax holes and tax havens, this shows an abdication of responsibility. Charity is good, but it can’t be used as an airbrush to hide the real issues and causes of so much harm done by political ignorance, it does a disservice to families like mine everywhere. The truth is that you can’t talk about charity without talking about politics, the two are intertwined and inseparable, its cause and effect, and the cause must be shamed into witnessing its shortsightedness.
All this critique of CIN may seem rather harsh. After all, charity represents a beautiful act done to shift the balance of gross social and structural inequalities. The problem with CIN is that it provides temporary relief to a larger problem, while simultaneously hiding the deeply rooted structures that create the need for itself in the first place. The way forward, to drag the show into reality is to become humorous, creative, or both, showing the structural and political reasons behind poverty. The bear itself, Pudsey, although a cultural icon now, infantizes disabled children, giving strength to the myth that our children are delayed, it must change to reflect the reality of the recipients. There must be input from disabled children, adults, and families which is imperative, to stop the anger, but also to engage and guide content that often people without disabilities or experience dictate.
CIN feels as if it is a closed shop to us, only there once a year to open but not there to let us in to help which is a massive failure from a public broadcaster, a sad example of stonewalling and ego. We are the beneficiaries, but we are neither allowed to approach the BBC with ideas nor allowed to represent ourselves by becoming the hosts of the show, thereby becoming masters of our own futures, taking back control of our existences, dictating the issues and endgames, as the disabled community.
I don’t want to keep writing these same words but as grateful as we are for the BBC stepping in, as fantastic the will to give and sustain life is, the show must realise its faults. The times are trying to change, disabled children with all the new tools around them are dictating and showing their obvious powers and capabilities. They are not just “In Need” of money, they are “In need” of respect and a media rebranding. In short, if the system is going to continue to abdicate its responsibilities onto the media then let us please dear BBC, be in charge of our own destinies and slowly transform the model that you with good heart, but closed ears and eyes have created. Our children do not need “fixing” the media model does.