Learning Disabilities and the Media

Last night (25/11/15) I attended Mencap’s second annual lecture in the name of Lord Rix. It was a thought provoking occasion, about the representation of people with learning disabilities in the media. Two speakers, John Harris, Guardian journalist, whose 9 year old son has autism, and Sarah Gordy, one of very few actors with Downs Syndrome to make it onto mainstream TV.

A few things have stayed with me. One is the statistic that almost a third of adult social care spend is on people with learning disabilities, but they rarely feature in discussions about social care, which mostly assume it is all about older people. How can we change that? We need to because, even though the Spending Review has released Councils to raise more money through Council Tax, there is no guarantee that they will use it for adult social care, and anyway it is not going to be enough.

Another is John Harris’s view that learning disabilities is the final frontier when it comes to civil rights. No longer is it acceptable to ‘Black Up’ like the Black and White Minstrels. But it is Ok to have non disabled actors playing disabled people (Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking) or autism (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man) or learning disabilities. I was not quite sure what I think about this. If these films had had little known actors, albeit disabled, would they have had the same huge audiences. I very much doubt it. Is the end justified by the means?

I also pondered that issues relating to people with learning disabilities are not necessarily the same as for other groups who have beem misrepresented. Some people, however benign the media, however advanced the technology, will not be able to represent themselves. Other people will always need to speak for them. So we may be just arguing for re-drawing a new frontier, including those who can self advocate in media representations, in blogging and tweeting, but still leaving others unheard and unheeded.

Good to be pushed to think about these things anew. The biggest question for me is, how do we get issues relating to learning disabilities discussed in a well informed way in the mainstream media. If we are ever going to change the world so that everyone is included, that has got to happen.