Introductory Essay on Normality Theory

 

The representation of Disability in the media in the last ten years is pretty much the same as it has always been: clichéd, stereotyped and archetypal.  Though it is not really disability imagery or representation (in any meaning of the word).  It is Impairment imagery; imagery where disability is understood to be the impairment almost devoid of political significance of social construction.  Impairment imagery abounds on all channels and in all media forms: television, film, radio and in print.  If anything, impairment imagery is on the increase.  Equally, the war of words amongst disabled people themselves – academics, broadcasters, artists and lay people alike - about the nature and meaning of disability imagery / representation has grown considerably.  A major new text seems to come out annually articulating some new theoretical position (decrying last year’s theories as old hat and detrimental to the greater good of disability emancipation).  For example, the Disability Studies post-modernists[i] (rectifiers and revisionists) are currently, misguidedly, arguing that impairment imagery is nothing other than the Art of Art or the nature of aesthetics (if only) and not actually disempowering at all but merely a misunderstanding of art history and genre (in film, painting and literary texts).

 

Perhaps the most significantly factor in the increase in impairment imagery is due the fact that the mainstream broadcasters in the UK (the BBC and Channel 4 in particular), as well as many sections of the print media (the broadsheets in particular), have significantly shifted in their attitude towards disability.  Whereas there used to be (within the last five years) a number of coherent Disability perspective programme series on a number of UK television channels there is now none at all.  Ten years ago there was a disability television series (a politicised output made by disabled people, with a belief in the social model, themselves) on every major UK terrestrial broadcast channel.  Thus, it could be argued, a significant de-politicisation of disability has taken place in favour of a fragmented impairment orientated broadcast output which is now, more than ever, linked to a charity or ‘freak’ philosophy.

 

The move away from the domination of the number of a few terrestrial broadcasters to the addition of a plethora of competing channels from satellite, digital and cable channels has meant that the main broadcasters have started to focus more on ratings and the ‘quick fix’ of consumerist television.  Disability – as a political issue (like many other political issues) - does not seem to fit into such a schedule; except perhaps as a consumerist issue: liberal rights for the few consumer-like and normalised disabled people or the increasing business-like mentality of the large and powerful charities and their political lobby machines.  For example, whereas the commercial channel ITV used to have a politicised Disability programme such as Link it now has Esther, hosted by Esther Rantzen.  Esther is a magazine style programme rooted in the charity consumerist/rights model of impairment and, unlike Link, is not made by disabled people (though it has the occasional disabled reporter).   Esther has a number of items in each show and maybe one or two are occasionally ‘disability’ themed (actually impairment specific in reality) whereas Link was entirely about disability and, occasionally, about impairment..

 

The move away from disability specific programming – seen equally at the BBC and particularly at the ‘minority’ interests broadcaster Channel 4 – is, they have argued, about ‘mainstreaming disability’.  This is the placement of disability within the mainstream of programme production and output at those two corporations.   Another pure example of mainstreaming is the cancellation of the BBC Radio 4’s long running Does He Take Sugar programme.  It has been ‘replaced’ by the mainstreaming of disability stories and issues within Radio’s lunchtime daily magazine show You and Yours.  In fact, disability, the social process of exclusionary practices of society against disabled people, has not been ‘mainstreamed’: impairment has.  Disability has almost entirely been lost except as a political, or even polemical, issue linked to impairment charities or particular socio-political or medical issues.  For example Channel 4 has made a big play of its disability and sexuality campaign to allow disabled people to access prostitutes, sex surrogates and be sexually active.  (In reality this is merely ’normalisation’ under a political headline and not actually about disability.) The concentration by broadcasters on impairment issues, increasingly being fed by the main wealthy charities’ increasingly professional and effective (and large) Public Relations departments, is increasing as the charities opportunistically appropriate the language – not the essence - of disability social model politics and use it for their own, impairment orientated, agendas.

 

The seemingly paradoxical acceptance of, whilst at the same time there is a backlash against, disability political correctness can be seen as at the heart of the matter.  The original intent and meaning of political correctness in relation to the social model of disability – an understanding of the genealogy of oppression through culture – is what has been negated and replace by an acceptance of what political correctness has become: the sanitisation of past unpleasantries or objections to extreme examples of abuse against impaired individuals.   By which I mean that whereas broadcasters and journalists would routinely use the term cripple or handicapped they now routinely use the term ‘disabled’ but actually have as little understanding of the politicisation of the issues as they did when they previously used the terms cripple or handicapped.  The language has changed but not the politics behind it; for example, institutionalisation itself is not questioned only the excesses of abuse within an institution.  The media, particularly the printed press but also investigative television journalism, will highlight that a particular ‘bad’ ‘home’ is using illegal restraining practices whilst a model of ‘good practice’ ‘home’ is just down the road and that one should learn from the other!  The media will make a clear distinction, for example, between good and bad institutionalisation whilst never actually realising (let alone understand) the politics of institutionalisation as an abuse against disabled people in itself.  

 

Significantly, and increasingly so - and this is at the heart of the matter, the news item may well be presented by a pretty and highly normalised disabled presenter or reporter.  Thus, and this is true across all forms of media representation of disability (impairment), political correctness has been a sanitising process rather an educative or politicisation of disability (as it was originally intended to be).  What one now gets (and this is especially true of television) is the clear distinction between the rights and representation of two quite distinct classes of disabled (impaired) people: the normalised and the un-normalisable disabled people: the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ cripple (disabled people).   The same could be said for race, gay and gender issues within the media and, in this sense, disabled people are being no less or better represented than other minority groups.   Rights and equality are increasingly being seen as the prerogative of one group of disabled people (the ‘good’) over and above another (the ‘bad’) and this social process is being clearly reflected in representations of disabled people throughout the media; it may be subtly being carried out at the moment but it will increasingly become less ambiguous as time goes on and other issues affect the position of both groups of disabled people within society (such as genetics and euthanasia).   In addition rights (Human Rights) is increasingly being represented as something which the bad cripple should have the right to exercise in the facilitation of their non-existence (euthanasia stories increasingly talk of disabled people’s right to kill themselves as just and as an axiomatic truth).

 

In this context, one can see that the politicisation of disability issues that had begun within the media in the last twenty years has been rejected and replaced by the new political correctness of ‘mainstreaming’ or sanitising impairment.  Television, in this respect, is not that different to Hollywood or the main ‘serious’ sections of the newsprint media.  Significantly, one cannot forget the role disabled people themselves have played in this trend through their own articulation in the early days of disability imagery criticism in arguing for ‘positive’ images over what they saw as ‘negative’ imagery (which merely reinforced the dichotomy of the good and bad cripple scenario).   What such an articulation has facilitated is the move towards a sanitised imagery of disability being shown: an imagery that is no more or less ‘realistic’ than that presumed to be ‘negative’ imagery.   To some extent it is less realistic because it now often concentrates on an entirely non-politicised view of disability as impairment (and vice verse) that is rooted in normalised idea(l)s of white middle-classness (whereas most disabled people are poor and uneducated due to discrimination and lack of opportunities and employment).  One of the problems, and what led to such a naive call for ‘positive imagery’ was (and is) the misunderstanding of stereotypes and imagery itself.   No image is value free or has any less or more ‘reality’ than any other image.  Combined with this is the fact that stereotypes do indeed have a lot of value in being able to assess the reality of any given groups social position (i.e., the disabled and the non-disabled).

 

Stereotypes are very useful in the identification of relations between social groups (the oppressed and the oppressor) and, as such, are both revealing of a wider social framework within which, in this case, disabled people are seen.   Equally, stereotypes can be highly empowering and enjoyable for the oppressed in revealing the true nature and picture of their social relationships: I am right, society does see me in this way; I am not imagining it.   Positive imagery, on the other hand becomes a further threat to disabled people by making clear that to be accepted and valued by society one must be like this or that (i.e., normalised and educated).  Thereby an equally false / arbitrary reality is created which many disabled people either cannot or do not want to emulate.   Consequently, disabled people have become more oppressed by positive imagery than they were by the apparently negative or stereotypical imagery (especially on television but also on film and in the print media).     The positive imagery, as has already been said, is fundamentally impairment imagery and a view of disability as normalised impairment: the good cripple - or those worthy of social processes such as institutionalisation, abortion or euthanasia (the tragedy model so loved by charity): or the bad cripple.  Equally important is the recognition that no stereotype or archetype exists or is used in isolation: the good mother / maternal woman stereotype is often used when disability stereotypes / archetypes exist (et cetera).

 

Many disabled critics have, and still do, call for role models in the propagation of ‘positive’ imagery but, as stated above, what this actually means is the enhancement of the normalised disabled person over and above the valuation of disabled people per se.  What disabled people, and society at large, are being fed is the image of a certain kind of valued disabled person who is physically able, educationally competent and striving to achieve a ‘normal’ wealthy life(style).  One only has to think of the pretty Para-Olympian or the pretty disabled ex-model or dandified karate-kicking disabled television presenters, who the main charities use in their advertising, in order to see their increasing dominance as the (stereo)type used in the ‘positive’ representation of disabled people on television.   Many disabled critics see such ‘ambiguous’ disabled people (seemingly political but entirely wrapped up within the mainstream oppressive structures of media and charity alike) as evil opportunists but this is to ignore the power, prevalence and lure of the status quo which clearly shows the consequences of not ‘playing along’ with normality: isolation, unemployment, poverty and, even, persecution.

 

This is not to say there is not still a mass of exploitative imagery[ii], rooted in the old style disability imagery, that is purely about exploiting disability (impairment) through the use of a range of crass and unimaginative archetypes of disability: disability as evil; disabled people as abject or atmosphere or as a quick visual fix for a poor narrative or characterisation; or disabled people triumphing (or failing) over tragedy.   Images that show disability as impairment and impairment as axiomatically abject and abhorrent (this is essential to perpetuate the dominant social preference for the good cripple over the bad cripple paradigm).  Drama is especially apt at still using such imagery: be that in Hollywood or the Drama departments of the western television broadcasters (in the UK the main television networks of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4).   Disabled people, the depiction of impairment, is in no less a position of purely colonialised bodies used in the service of the idea or ideal of a pure and simple ‘normality’ in body, morality and political ideology than say those of blacks or gays (and, to a lesser extent, women).   Many disabled imagery critics (in visual, literary and other artistic forms) have shown clearly and repeatedly that the impaired body is the basis on which normality exists and that it is the paper upon which normality is defined almost daily within our culture.  What the more articulate critic is showing is the complex nature of image politics in relation to disability within a politicised context (as above).   But, and this is becoming increasingly significant, what is interesting is the Disability Studies post-modernists who are attempting to do a number of disempowering intellectual gymnastics in order to validate their own positions as un-problematic – despite their status as ambiguous role models within society as disabled people who are actually denying disability - in favour of a normalised impairment and individualised politics of social progress that benefits the few (successful) disabled over the many disabled people who are left behind in the margins of society.

 

Normality, as such, is the key then to understanding both the nature of representations of disability / impairment[iii] and the criticisms of such representations from both divergent attitudes amongst disabled people and from the non-disabled critic and/or academic.  Not bad for something that does not actually exist!   Normality – the belief that there is an essentially correct way to have been born, look like and be – the belief in normality, has defined the nature of the representation of disability and impairment (and non-disability) by formulating it as the basis upon which otherness (abject humanity bordering on inhumanity) has been defined in all figurative representation of humanity.  The recognition of the nature of representation per se is at the heart of Disability Art.  Disability Art has been incredibly powerful in undermining the ableist (and classist) ideologies behind traditional Art Histories that validate the depiction of disability as apolitical by emphasising impairment as an individual tragedy (or entertainment through spectacle: i.e., the freak).  From this perspective it is easy to see and understand why (and how) some disabled people can reject one image as negative (because it fails to offer them the chance of normality) whilst another is deemed to be positive (it offers the prospect of some kind of normality).  Additionally, one can see how (and why) the good and bad cripple nexus is becoming increasingly dominant: both reinforce the idea(l)s of normality – leaving no space for ambiguity on the value of one in relation to another (e.g., the ‘good’ normal and the ‘bad’ abnormal).  In a culture (our Western one in particular) where identity and nationhood is seen –or, to be more precise, constructed - as being increasingly under threat from unseen enemies (e.g., terrorists, asylum seekers, illegal immigrants) the battle over the hegemonies of normality are increasingly less subtle and more overtly apparent (as is the case with disability representation).

 

Postmodernist disability image critics are starting to claim that we need to move on from the disability activists’ politicised criticism[iv] of representations, which the post-modernists see as entirely negative and anti-intellectual, at worst and, at best, anti-art (be that in film, literature or any other art form that has a history and tradition of representation).   One cannot fail to notice that such a perspective only seems to serve the individual’s progression through institutions of oppression (be they media or media studies departments within Universities) allowing them to use the (or create their own) same types of oppressive or impairment based imagery.   This is not to deny that a move forward from the naïve positive/negative image dualism is necessary (as shown above) but to deny the nature of the normal/abnormal binary opposites is both intellectually wrong and politically pure folly given the fact that disabled people, as controllers of their images, have progressed very little in the last fifty years.   By which I mean that disabled people have always been making images (of themselves and of others) throughout the history or television and film and other art forms.   The point is that in the past they were not revealed as disabled, or they obtained their entrance into the system through special schemes.  And, more importantly, such disabled individuals never came to their art in a society that has a progressively politicised idea of what disability is – politicised by disabled people themselves in the margins of society.  This has as much to do with issues of class, power and wealth as it always has done and disabled people must not let go of the power they now have to undermine, through the analysis of the representation of images of disability, the very nature of all representations rooted in an oppressive history and tradition (and arbitrarily based on class, education, wealth and power).  Few people, especially those seeking to dilute the social model of disability in various ways, seem to grasp the politics of the politics of disablement across the board of social inquiry in seeking political change; this is as true in the study of the representation of disability as it is in the demystification of the medicalisation of disablement.

 

The point is that no disability imagery critic worth his or her ink would argue that normality is conceived to be a unified or consolidated whole.  Quite the contrary: normality (in its essential fiction) in highly unstable and fragile within the individual and society as a whole.  It is the very fragility of the belief (as well as in the idea[l]) that makes representations of disability so popular, important and pervasive.  Finally, it is disabled people’s own ability to make and imagine images of disability that ultimately gives them a power that far exceeds those of almost any other kind of imagery: they undermine the entire value system of society: normality.

 


[i] Disability / Postmodernity: Embodying Diability Theory, 2002, Marian Corker & Tom Shakespeare (eds.), Continuum, London (UK)

[ii] The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disabilities in the Movies, 1994, Martin Norden, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick (USA)

[iii] The Body and Physical Difference: Discourse of Disability, 1997, Mitchell, D., & Snyder. S., (eds.), University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor (USA)

[iv] Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability, 2001, Enns, A., & Smit, C., (eds.), University of America Press, Lanham (USA)