06 Jun 2013 More Disability History Documentaries Please - Daniel Blackie


It’s hardly surprising that Radio 4’s documentary series on disability history (Disability: A New History) has created quite a buzz in our research team. Our co-director, David Turner, was the academic advisor for the show and other team members also participated in its making. As a disability historian, I’m delighted my field is finally getting the media attention it deserves.

We certainly need more disability history and disability studies’ perspectives in the mainstream media. Radio 4’s decision to commission this landmark series is undoubtedly cause for celebration. Yet, some of the publicity surrounding it suggests just how much still needs to be done if cultural attitudes towards disabled people are to improve significantly.

The weekend before the first episode aired, I thumbed through the TV and Radio listings in The Times eagerly looking for some mention of the show. Wow! Better than the one line entry on the schedule I had expected. It actually made the ‘Critic’s Radio Choice’ for the week. Fantastic. Then I read on.

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[Dan listening avidly to Radio 4's Disability: A New History - public broadcasting at its best!] 


The general tenor of the piece was, of course, positive towards the programme.  It was, after all, the critic’s pick of the week. Readers were informed enthusiastically that the series would take listeners on ‘a fascinating and unpredictable journey’ into disability history. More troubling, though, was the piece’s reliance on the common cultural trope of the ‘supercrip’ – the courageous and inspirational disabled person who overcomes adversity through sheer force of will. Thus, in the column’s opening paragraph, readers are told that the Paralympics ‘were arguably more inspirational’ than the Olympics. ‘The determination and skill of men and women with a variety of disabilities,’ it went on, ‘was astonishing, a real testimony to the strength of the human spirit’ [‘Saturday Review’, The Times, 25 May 2013, p. 23].

For the Times’ critic, it’s disability that gives Paralympians their superior inspirational quality. For disability rights campaigners, such a position is highly problematic. Narratives of heroic overcoming and the stereotype of the ‘supercrip’ undermine disabled people’s struggle for full social and economic inclusion. By implying that all a disabled person really needs to do to overcome his or her ‘problem’ is try hard enough, these representations individualise disability. This diverts attention away from the social and cultural factors that give rise to ‘disabling’ barriers and promotes the idea that, ultimately, it is disabled people that must change more than society.

By revealing its historically contingent nature, disability history highlights disability’s sociocultural basis and powerfully contests such harmful and simplistic ideas. If a critic commenting on Disability: A New History in a serious national broadsheet still feels moved to raise the spectre of the ‘supercrip’ after apparently listening to such an enlightening and engaging series, it shows more are definitely needed. Perhaps the BBC should commission one on the history of disabled coalminers. I know a few people who could help.