Selling off Channel 4, a profit-making publicly-owned asset, makes no sense. This move puts jobs, small businesses and popular TV shows at risk. It also risks the exceptional work Channel 4 has done to create a path for disabled voices, stories and talent.
“I wouldn’t be cast to play Beyoncé, so why should she be cast to play me?”
It’s a straightforward question posed by Anne Wafula Strike, the British Paralympian wheelchair racer. It clarifies and solves, bluntly, a conversation that has been going on for generations – why shouldn’t non-disabled actors play disabled people?
We deserve, of course, to be represented, but there is another element: understanding. A non-disabled person couldn’t understand what it is to be disabled and how the world tries to use and exploit it – the barriers and the grinding reality of being ‘othered’ daily.
They can only sketch a blurred figure with no finer details, nuance, or marks left behind by a caged, restrained life.
Society and the media have told us that our stories – our lives – don’t matter, so those non-disabled actors should portray us, often mockingly and always shallowly. We shouldn’t expect to have our lives, bodies, or minds represented, reflected, authentically, or at the very least, without the distortion of prejudice and bigotry.
As disabled people, we know that the only way to progress is to have these conversations – to force them in quiet and loud moments – to say we’re here – and we’re not going anywhere: a radical act.
Anne offers the example of a child who doesn’t want to eat bread – the parent may give other options, but the disabled are ordered to eat, even as it tastes wrong – even as it poisons us and shrinks our lives. So, we must be grateful – we must not protest.
We have been conditioned not to be vocal: not to vocalise our discontent. Our anger. Our bone-deep disdain.
Channel 4 has had moments of clarity when it comes to seeing disabled people as more.
As we take more space, are more vocal, and as we take our shared experiences, our shared history, and put it on display, and examine it on our terms, Channel 4 has truly embraced inclusion.
It has truly said, “let’s hire them,” let’s create a path for them that doesn’t diminish their struggles – or mine them for content. Others have focused on policy – have made promises – that have not stuck, which don’t feel as if they ever will.
With Channel 4, there is a feeling that we’re not mouthpieces for the non-disabled – that inclusion is possible – it isn’t just a platitude. But, of course, sometimes it’s just a feeling. A feeling which grows and becomes more substantial. When conversations between disabled people feel like progress and possibility, how wonderful is it to see those conversations broadcast on national television?
One example of inclusion has remained with Anne – seeing disabled presenters and pundits lead Channel 4’s paralympic coverage.
It gave the coverage more importance and resonance – exceeding mere inspiration. There was a shorthand – because the presenters understood what it is to be disabled, the sacrifices and the barriers, the small moments in our everyday, mundane reality of exclusion and discrimination. Those conversations and vocalisations must continue.
TV shows such as The Last Leg, and Channel 4 itself, have brought visibility to the ordinariness of disabled lives.
Without a disabled voice, there can only be ableism. Without disabled voices, non-disabled people will continue to get it wrong – to tell us what is right.
So, Channel 4 has hired disabled people, has included them in decision-making processes, and continues to enable their voices – because, in an imperfect world where the disabled have to fight for survival, we must recognise progress and continue to raise our voices and build further.
Of course, it’s also important to recognise there have been lapses.
We can all recall one of the most prominent examples: The Undateables. A series following people with disabilities in their quest for love. This title looks terrible on paper but even worse, proclaimed on a billboard.
Unfortunately for many disabled people, most seem to have taken the branding to be accurate – carving out a public space to watch a spectacle. Rather than dispelling the myths around relationships and disability, the program appears to have ingrained them further in the public consciousness.
But ultimately, the recent decision to sell Channel 4 should be met with a decisive refusal.
It hasn’t solely relied on potential, possible policy – with other channels, we have been promised so much, yet we seem to get scraps dropped from the table by others.
We need to take our rightful seat.
Nothing about us should be humble – we’ve humbled ourselves enough. So, from now on, we should take and talk – freely, openly, and without remorse.
Channel 4 has embraced diversity. It has shown a willingness to simply say, “let’s hire them,” let’s create a pathway for them.
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