2004 - Transcript -Radio Discussion - 2004

HOW DOES THE PORTRAYAL OF DISABLED PEOPLE IN BOOKS AFFECT ATTITUDES AND POLICY TOWARDS DISABILITY?

PRESENTER: WINIFRED ROBINSON
GEOFF ARMSTRONG -the director of the National Disability Arts Forum
Amanda Dalton - Playwright, education director at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester
PAUL DARKE - Academic.

ROBINSON
Well to talk about how books featuring disability impact on attitudes and policy we've brought together Geoff Armstrong - he's the director of the National Disability Arts Forum, it's funded by the Arts Council and its purpose is to encourage people with disabilities to get involved in the arts, he's based in Newcastle and he joins us from there. Amanda Dalton's here in the studio with me, she's a playwright, she's also education director at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and her work has featured characters with mental impairment. Dr Paul Darke joins us from Birmingham, he's written a book - White Sticks, Wheels and Crutches - it charts the history of the representation of disability in film. Paul Darke from Richard III to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time what would you say were the key novels and plays along the way?

DARKE
Well I think there's many key texts but obviously you can take Dickens and then other Victorian literature, for example Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, Treasure Island, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, even say the Sherlock Holmes canon which has - Sherlock Holmes is rampant with disability in a big way. And then there's children's fiction, like Polly Anna, SecretGarden, Peter Pan. The great pop fiction, say Nathaniel West Miss Lonleyhearts. And then right up to modern American fiction, modern English fiction, along with biographies - disabled people like Christy Brown, Firdaus Kanga and there's - even Arthur Miller is a terrible exploiter of disability. But there's been some great stuff as well. I think just picking out two books that I think explore difference and abnormality in very wonderful exploratory ways is Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole or even say Armistead Maupin's Maybe the Moon about an actress of short stature. There's thousands of books and in fact one academic called Leonard Davis looking at disability in literature argued that every novel explores notions of abnormality and normality through its language and its text, even if it's like name calling by characters. And it's very much like in cinema and in culture - disability is absolutely everywhere.

ROBINSON 
Which of these great writers could claim to have made a difference to general attitudes towards disability in their own time?

DARKE
Well sadly I think probably most of them but if we think about Dickens, for example, I think the whole ethos of paternalistic charity, which is still the dominant form of mentality towards disabled people in our culture, I think Dickens is - for example Tiny Tim and then a whole plethora of other characters - legitimated that to society in a way that is quite unimaginable and in the days when literature was quite a small business and the number of readers was quite small, the impact of those writers was incredibly significant, unbelievably.

ROBINSON
I'll bring Amanda Dalton into the discussion now. Mark Haddon said his book isn't about Asperger's Syndrome, that the boy is simply a device that tells the tale. When you write about disability what are you hoping to achieve?

DALTON
I think I'd be very much with Mark Haddon and I would guess that most writers would say the same, which doesn't of course mean that you don't have a responsibility to think about what it is you're writing about and how you write about it. But certainly for me I'm interested in the idea of normality and what we mean by that, I suppose, it's one of the things I'm interested in. And certainly a belief that there's a kind of continuum, if you like, and that sometimes by exploring the life of somebody who has a mental disability or a mental health problem of some kind, it actually becomes a way of getting under the skin of actually all of us.

ROBINSON
Geoff Armstrong what do you think?

ARMSTRONG
Oh I'm fascinated by how writers feel that they can engage with a disability issue at all and so freely, how they can possess, if you like, disability culture or try to take possession of it through their work and what they feel gives them the right to do that. 

ROBINSON
Why - I mean why is that the question that interests you?

ARMSTRONG
Well it's almost as if it's like open season on disability issues and disability - you can just drag a disabled character into your novel or your play and use it as a metaphor for evil or for hopelessness and say well it's not the disability issue we're talking about, it's the metaphor that I'm using to get across the point. And would the same - going back to an old chestnut - would writers do the same with black characters or would men be so comfortable about doing that with women? And I think it reflects upon the way disabled people are within society, it's just available to abuse basically as they see fit.

DALTON
I feel that's quite strong and quite unfair, although I absolutely understand I think that there are many times through history - and still today sadly - where there's a great deal of abuse goes on in connection with disability, I'm not saying otherwise, but I would be very horrified at the idea that we're suggesting that someone doesn't have the right to write about whatever they want to write about.

ROBINSON
Paul Darke, can I bring you in here, because you have said in your work that a piece about a disabled person that is popular with able-bodied people generally must have something wrong with it.

DARKE
Yes, I'd say if non-disabled people like it there's usually something wrong with it …

ROBINSON
But why?

DARKE
Why? Because it comes back to the notion of normality that your other guest was talking about a bit earlier, that I think that's the whole point of culture, often, is to deal with conflicts within society and cultural artefacts do that. And when you think about normality and abnormality that is at the heart of almost all cultural production, be it moral, sexual, physical morality and normality and I think the representation of disability is about society dealing with that. So, for example, on the one hand you have a society that professes equality in a massive way, like we do with the DDA and all that, and on the other hand you've got mass extermination through abortion - 99% of people with Down's Syndrome and Spina Bifida are being aborted - they are massive contradictions that culture deals with. Any writer should be able to write whatever they want. The problem is is that most writers write with absolutely no knowledge of what they're writing about and they exploit disability.

DALTON
That's a hugely sweeping statement, I feel …

DARKE
Which bit?

ROBINSON
But if Paul writers have switched from Shakespeare using somebody with a disability as a metaphor for evil and they move then through Dickens into a paternalistic caring sentimental mode, I mean it is possible to argue that a character like Tiny Tim doesn't make the mainstream feel comfortable and good, it makes them feel bad in fact and uncomfortable. But if that is the case aren't we part of a continuum where now we have these children's books which are trying to cast disabled characters simply as another character in the discussion just at the point perhaps where you would hope to get?

DARKE
No I don't because I think that's a denial of the situation of disabled people. Sanitising disability now is the key thing, mainstreaming, the BBC does that, Channel 4 does that, that achieves nothing. Most disabled people are being aborted, that's a simple fact. So just by having nice, normalised disabled people doesn't actually deal with anything, in fact it de-politicises significant social practices and processes that need to be out in the open, that are hidden.

ROBINSON
Okay, we have to draw this discussion to a close but for the record the National Autistic Society, we contacted them and asked them about Mark Haddon's book, they said they've had some good feedback from it and if some people get a better understanding that can only be welcomed. So I just wanted to quickly go round the table and ask you whether you would be pleased to see it as the overall Booker winner? Amanda Dalton.

DALTON
I'd be delighted to, I actually want Don Paterson to win because I'm a poet.

ROBINSON
I said Booker, of course he was left off the Booker list, Whitbread.

DALTON
I knew you meant the Whitbread. I'd be delighted to see him win it, I think it's a great book and I think that he's handled the issues, he's handled with immense sensitivity.

ROBINSON
Okay Paul Darke?

DARKE
No I wouldn't, I think he exploits disability in quite an unimaginative way and it's the unimagination that I'm critical of, not the exploitation of disability.

ROBINSON
Geoff Armstrong.

ARMSTRONG
Well I haven't read anything else that's in the list but I quite enjoyed the book actually and I'd be perfectly happy to see it win, I think it's a good - it opens the issues and it gives a good insight into what it might be like to have autism.

ROBINSON
Okay thank you all very much and of course we'd like to hear your views, do contact us via the website.
Raio 4 You and Yours 2004

BBC OUCH! - 13 Questions: - Paul Darke
6th November 2008

PAUL DARKE

Dr Paul Darke describes himself as an academic, writer, artist and cultural critic. A long-time commentator on disability issues, he and his organisation, Outside Centre, are responsible for the Wolverhampton disability film and arts festivals. Paul also presents a weekly radio show every Wednesday on WCR FM in Wolverhampton - it has guests, discussion and music relating to disability. A bit like the Ouch Podcast. As a presenter, he is quite used to asking nosey questions; maybe this is why he was very easy-going when Ouch hurled 13 of 'em at him ...

People think I'm ...

Scary - because they think that I think I know it all, when really I know I know nothing. We're all just scrabbling through life.

I want to ban ...

All lorries over the size of a transit van. They are uneconomic, unenvironmental and a danger to the public. Everything should go by train.

Not a lot of people know that I ...

Am a stamp collector. I probably have the best collection of disability stamps in the world. My favourites are African. They reveal so much about their countries and their view of disability, mostly in a negative way, but they are often gloriously bad like the one covered in white sticks celebrating money raised for the blind by a local rotary club.

The best piece of advice I would pass on is ...

Listen and don't talk so much. It's stood me in good stead since I took it on board in about 1982. I was in hospital with a broken leg and ended up next to a Texan psychologist called Ferris, like the wheel. He gave me therapy for 6 weeks, mostly about listening and understanding. It changed my life. We’ve been friends since.

I struggle with ...

My weight. I eat and drink far too many unhealthy things and have an intense dislike for green vegetables. It’s probably because of the special school I went to, whose primary aim was to destroy the taste of any food, particularly veg, by boiling it to death.

I excel at ...

Being disabled I'm so insecure that I don't think I excel at anything. Maybe trying to be nice, however hard it is at the time. It may seem like the harder thing to do but it’s actually easier.

My ideal dinner guest is ...

Harpo Marx of the Marx brothers. He played the disabled character fantastically. He’s a hero of mine. A genius in simplicity. What a perfect act! Obviously having a disabled actor in a disabled role needs to be a priority, but making films is a business. They need a big name to sell.

I couldn't live without ...

Cinema. It’s the thing that stops me from getting headaches. The last film I saw was The Wave, a German film about the rise of autocracy. My PhD was on disability and cinema as well.

Where do you spend most of your time?

At the computer, doing emails, letters, applications and appeals. Getting money either for myself or the organisation - usually dealing with fools and charlatans.

My first job was ...

As a low-ranking civil service officer. Bizarrely, I was in charge of machine guns in a barracks in Surrey. I was ordering weapons, getting rid of old ones and organising transport. It was awful because I am a complete pacifist.

When I come home in the evenings I ...

Watch Family Guy. I love the use of disability; it makes me laugh. The policeman is a wheelchair user and there is a talking dog called Brian who, in one episode, brings blind people out for a day and does audio description for them in the cinema.

My greatest achievement so far has been ...

Getting my PhD. It was very hard because I didn't have any basic education like O or A levels. I went to a special school which chose not to educate us. It was for kids with spina bifida. They probably thought we'd end up in a home or die.

Being disabled in 2008 is ...

A nightmare and a joy. I think society is at a changing point on how it views disabled people. On one hand we have more equality than ever through legislation. On the other hand, the advances in medical technology and screening mean that there will be less and less of us. I'm hopeful and scared.