It’s Cooler to Listen to Disabled People than Pity Them, The Apprentice

It’s Season 17 of The Apprentice, and for some reason, I am still watching this show. Usually, the most irritating part of the show is Alan Sugar’s grating personality, but this week, viewers were subjected to a jarringly offensive cartoon about a disabled, wheelchair-using child.

This week in the search to find Lord Sugar’s next business partner, the task was to create a cartoon aimed at 2 to 4-year-olds.

Both teams immediately chose to pursue an “inclusion” angle. Team ‘Affinity’ created a cartoon about Yogita The Giraffe, a young giraffe who was afraid she wouldn’t fit in at school because she is too tall. So far, so bland.

Meanwhile, Team ‘Apex’ decided to create a cartoon centred on two children – Femi and Faye (a wheelchair user). An ableist disaster ensued.

Red flags were immediately raised for disabled viewers during the concept discussion, which placed heavy emphasis on the need to focus on “inclusion” as a theme – before any ideas for the story, mood, or characters were raised. This was an obvious forecast for tokenism. 

This was clearly reflected in the character design for Faye, into whom such thought and attention were put that her wheelchair wheels intersected with her torso. This was created using instructions from the team to a professional graphic designer and animator.

Yes, it really did look this bad

The worst part, however, was the story. Femi, a little boy, is playing on a slide. Faye, sat at the bottom in her wheelchair, exclaims that she would like to be able to play with Femi. 

Femi comes down from the slide, stating that his mum always says, “it’s cool to be kind to each other’. He invites her to play, and Faye responds that she is unable to get up the stairs of the slide.

Instead, Femi suggests that they play a different game – a clapping game, which, because neither character model has hands, looks like the children are slapping each other.

Of course, this is an incredibly ableist narrative. Faye is positioned as a literally unmoving object within the story (besides the brief slapping) with all agency resting in Femi, who “kindly” decides to take pity on Faye. The Disabled People’s Movement, particularly in Britain, has a strong history of resisting such “pity” based narratives.  

Rather than creating an exciting and fun game that Faye can fully participate in, or challenging the fact that the playground is inaccessible to her, Faye is portrayed as only deserving of some brief clapping game. 

This shows children that their disabled peers are to be seen as sad, boring, and isolated receptacles for “kindness”, rather than a marginalised group with their own ideas, agency, and character.

Fortunately, the ableism in this narrative was at least partly identified by some of the viewers to whom Team Apex had to show the cartoon. In the market research section of the show, one parent pointed out her discomfort towards Faye’s portrayal: “saying she can’t go on the slide and she just has to sit at the bottom almost came across a bit patronising”.

 In the pitch to children’s television experts, a panellist rightly pointed out that Femi’s actions were simply “taking pity on [Faye]”. However, when Team Apex lost the task, there was no discussion of these points by Sugar or his staff. Instead, the focus of discussion was on whether the story was too boring, or an “infomercial”. 

It’s disappointing that the BBC did not take the opportunity in the boardroom to highlight the damaging ableist narrative, and the harm it could pose to disabled children, behind this allegedly inclusive cartoon.

The cartoon created by Team Apex is, of course, symbolic of a much wider problem around the perception of disabled people and their marginalisation in society. This is highlighted by a speech given by one member of Team Apex during their pitch:

“Now, differences aren’t barriers, but they’re gateways – they’re gateways to a better world… and the key message here is [of] true and utter kindness”.

Disabled people do not need “kindness” – we need rights. The idea that our “differences” are simply “gateways to a better world” echoes the deeply problematic “disability superpower” narratives, which remain so pernicious and so harmful. 

For disabled people, our differences do result in very real barriers – not in ourselves, or in a lack of pity, but rather in the barriers which are placed before us by an inaccessible society. Here – the barrier was the playground equipment that was inaccessible to Faye. 

I would love to see a cartoon where instead of providing Faye with a lesser alternative out of “kindness” or pity, the children questioned how unfair it was that Faye was unable to use the slide, and asked the grown-ups around them why they had not provided a solution. 

This would teach children the important lesson that being creative and thinking outside of the box can allow them to change the world for the better – for themselves and their peers. 

Perhaps, also, it would give confidence to children such as Faye to make such demands for themselves. Though, of course, they wouldn’t have to if ableist narratives didn’t prevail over actually listening to us.

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