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The Invisibility of Disability in the U.K.


  • Published: 2015-04-13 (Revised/Updated 2015-05-25) : Author: Paul Dodenhoff : Contact: p.dodenhoff@lancaster.ac.uk
  • Synopsis: Disability within the UK is generally hidden from public view to an extent that disability is still pretty much invisible within modern society.

Within the UK we are often told that we are faced with the problem of an aging population. As a consequence, as we are living longer, it becomes increasingly likely that many of us will experience disability at some point in our lives. In fact, the majority of disabled people within the UK are not actually born disabled, but 'acquire' impairment during their life at some point. The prevalence rate of disability within British society therefore rises with age.

Government statistics generally cite figures indicating that around 1 in 20 children are disabled compared to around 1 in 5 working age adults, with almost 1 in 2 people over the state pension age. At present we have a population of disabled people at more than 10 million out of an overall population of 64 million Brits. So, while we often regard disabled people as a 'minority' group, it is a significant minority of approximately 1 in 6 of the current overall UK population.

However, disability within the UK is generally hidden from public view, and to such an extent that we can argue that disability is still pretty much 'invisible' within modern society. Only rarely do we see disabled people in visible positions of employment, only rarely do we see disabled people in visible positions of power or authority within society, only rarely do we see disabled people on TV in the role of TV presenter, newsreader or 'expert', and only rarely do we see disabled people on TV programs that has absolutely nothing to do with overt voyeurism and entertainment. Entertainment that often poses as 'human interest' stories and found primarily in television programs such as The Undateables, Embarrassing bodies or Body Shock . TV programs that are often little more than the modern day equivalent of the 19th century freak show.

Last year the BBC acknowledged that there aren't enough disabled people on BBC TV (currently little more than 1%) and announced plans to quadruple the number of people with disabilities on BBC television by 2017. However, even this improvement will at best only raise the profile of the disabled to 4 in every 100, compared to the actual ratio of disability of 1 in 6 within current UK society.

This lack of visibility within our popular media is not to be confused with 'invisible disability', where people may not display any visible or outward sign of impairment. However, a lack of visibility within society of those who are 'visibly' disabled in some way arguably increases negative attitudes towards the disabled by helping to further marginalize them. In short, the abled-bodied will never get use to disability nor feel comfortable around the disabled if we keep hiding the disabled away.

Avoiding Disability

I was recently told a true story of a school child with a significant physical impairment, currently within mainstream education and who was actually excluded last year from appearing in school plays and musicals at the request of parents of abled-bodied children at the same school. This request was made and granted because those parents apparently did not want to 'look' at a disabled child 'on stage'. Not exactly the actions of the 'tolerant' or 'equal' society that we are often told exists within the UK, but one that perhaps highlights the general selfishness and negative attitudes the abled-bodied often display towards disability.

The above story also mirrors the experience of BBC TV children's presenter Cerrie Burnell (who was born with only one hand) and whose initial appearance on television years ago sparked a number of complaints from outraged parents - primarily that the presenter's missing hand was frightening their children! Although, arguably it was perhaps the parents themselves who had a problem with Cerrie's missing limb rather than the children themselves, as children can be pretty much matter of fact about these sort of things.

A report from Scope issued in 2014 found that while we have undoubtedly seen improvements in the way the disabled are treated within the UK (with the aid of government legislation) negative attitudes amongst the general population still predominantly exist. For example, Scope found:

"Two thirds (67%) of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people. Over a third (36%) of people tend to think of disabled people as not as productive as everyone else. Over four fifths (85%) of the British public believe that disabled people face prejudice. A quarter (24%) of disabled people have experienced attitudes or behaviors where other people expected less of them because of their disability. One fifth (21%) of 18 - 34 years old admit that they have actually avoided talking to a disabled person because they weren't sure how to communicate with them"

Arguably, the less experience of disability we have, the more likely we may have mistaken and unchallenged beliefs surrounding disability, or just feel generally uncomfortable with it. I remember reading a research article by Erin Martz in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation way back in 2003, highlighting that individuals with 'invisible' disabilities were 16 times more likely to be employed than individuals with openly 'visible' disabilities. No surprise then that some disabled people will often go to extremes in order to disguise their impairment.

So, what would E.T make of it all

Like many other people I've often wondered if intelligent life exists on other planets, or indeed if intelligent life actually exists on this one! I've also wondered what extra-terrestrials would make of us Brits if they did actually come to visit at some point. Certainly, Mr or Mrs E.T would initially need to go into hiding in order not to frighten the parents of British children. However, access to TV and popular TV culture would perhaps be enough on its own to supply these extra-terrestrials with any knowledge of British society that they may require. Without doubt, many of the social norms and preferred cultural values prevalent within our society are often reflected back at us by what is shown on TV.

I recently completed a short, four week research project randomly sampling popular British TV culture such as adverts, game-shows, 'soap operas' and news programs, looking for positive images of 'disability' within the UK. Although, it probably won't come as a big surprise to readers that I didn't actually find that many positive images. In fact, disability was largely conspicuous by its absence.

So, what impression would Mr or Mrs E.T have of life in the UK had they attempted the same study themselves? What 'facts' would be unearthed about British society? What impression would they get

Fact number 1 - Britain is only made up of 'white' people

'White' people dominant current British TV culture, with the starkest comparison to 'real life' being TV advertising itself, where white people outnumbered Black people or any visible ethnicity by more than 6 to 1 during the study period. Clearly, Black people may frighten the parents of small children too.

Fact number 2 - Britain is short of women

Mr or Mrs E.T would undoubtedly not be too surprised that British males tend to cause more crime than women, and would probably put this phenomena down to immense sexual frustration, caused by an apparent shortage of women. Across all TV programming males tended to be much more visible than females, outnumbering women by more than 3 to 1 in general. Although this ratio was pretty much the same for TV advertising, 'voice overs' for these commercials were much more evenly split at 50/50. Perhaps indicting to Mr or Mrs E.T that the female of the species in the UK may just be a little 'shyer' than the male variety.

Fact number 3 - There are no disabled people within the UK

Disability is largely absent on British TV, full stop. As reported above, the BBC estimate that the disabled make up just 1% of their TV programming. Which is a relief in a way because I struggled to find any disabled people at all in any of my samples. TV advertising was perhaps again the most shocking, with absolutely no disabled characters being picked up at all during the study period.

Primarily this was to be expected, because if disability within the UK carries some kind of social 'stigma' as many researchers still argue, then it's not surprising that advertisers don't want their goods associated with disability, even if the disabled tend to make up a significant percentage of consumers. If disability is seen as a deviant or faulty 'condition', what manufacturer wants their goods associated with 'faulty' people? Even though they will be perfectly happy to sell their products to similar 'faulty' people.

E.T's report

Certainly, we can find the occasional disabled person on British TV, particularly via soap operas and television drama, but in general disability within UK popular TV culture is still primarily addressed through its titillating 'freaks of nature' obsession, such as programs featuring men with 10 stone testicles ( Body-Shock ) or women with two vagina's ( Embarrassing Bodies ).

Certainly, Mr or Mrs E.T would be surprised that disability within the UK is represented by more than 10 million people, as you would never guess from its otherwise lack of visibility on TV. The BBC figure of 1% visibility relates to the BBC itself, across all of British television this figure will much more likely equate to 0.1% than the BBC's 1%. However, if we don't get a more representative spread of the disabled on television, we will certainly struggle to combat any negative attitudes held towards impairment within society itself.

Although this article has been a 'little tongue in cheek', British television arguably reflects many of the social values and beliefs that are widely prevalent within British society. In British society, being 'White', being 'Male', and being 'Abled-bodied' are still by far the 'preferred' characteristics society craves and treasures, which is tough luck if you happen to be Non-White, Non-Male or have a hand missing. Preferred social norms and values that are beamed daily into our living rooms, images and notions that constantly surround us and help to 'socialize' us within the social world, almost without thinking.

However, analysing TV culture is complex research, and a much more complex medium that I could ever hope to do justice within such a short space of time. However, as a taster project it was certainly an 'eye-opener'. For although British society is made up of all colors, creeds, shapes and sizes, rarely is this 'melting-pot' accurately reflected on British TV - where selling goods, scoring political points and entertaining or frightening the masses seem to be far more important fare.

Let's just hope that Mr or Mrs E.T do not frighten the parents of small children too much if they ever do make an appearance in the UK one day.

Statistics: U.K. Disability Facts &

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