CChildren’s TV presenters are often at the forefront of social change. This may be because – as one of the interviewees noted in Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain (BBC Two) – “children are much better at inclusion” than writing angry letters, and their parents who file an Ofcom complaint.
Ben Kaji, of current CBeebies, won praise for His age-appropriate discussion of racism in OctoberIn 2009, however, his predecessor, Siri Purnell, was unwittingly active. Burnell was born with his right arm, which ends just below the elbow. She hadn’t decided to stand up for the rights of persons with disabilities – all she wanted was to present another episode of Balamori – but when parents complained that her appearance was “scaring the kids,” she did exactly that.
Where do such prejudices against the disabled come from? This documentary saw Purnell explore this question and find the beginnings of the answer in the archives of a workshop in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. There, page after page of a parliamentary report issued in 1861, people were shortened to labels like “thinking impaired,” an umbrella term that covers all kinds of physical and mental conditions. In Victorian Britain, the handicapped and the poor were routinely forbidden from the rest of society in work homes. When Pernell tentatively suggested that “it kept going, somehow,” the continuity is striking. In this inferno of the nineteenth century, twenty-first century punitive attitudes toward benefit recipients have taken root.
However, not everyone was satisfied with letting PWD live by themselves. Burnell’s history is full of misguided doers, such as Manchester’s philanthropist Mary Dendy, whose attempts to save Britain from “this evil” caused generations of misery. As a committed eugenics scientist, she dedicated her life to founding Sandlebridge Colony, a “home for the permanent care of the vulnerable-minded,” and campaigned for the Mental Impotence Act of 1913, which gave authorities broad powers to institutionalize people against their will.
At this point, the rhetoric of “silence” has shifted from who do you think you are? From social history to an unusually bleak episode of the ITV reunion program A family long lost. Brothers David and Alan Gumpel only discovered having an older sister, Jean, in 2007 after that Opened a letter addressed to their long-deceased mother. Jane had stayed locked in Macclesfield’s nursing home for over 70 years, but when the brothers finally managed to visit them, she immediately recognized them and greeted them by name. David said, “Within weeks, she was dead.” “She was hanging out to finally see her family.”
The whole thing was almost unbearably sad by the time the first heroes in Burnell’s history appeared to point the way forward. There was Dr. Ludwig Gottmann, a Jewish spine injury specialist who fled Nazi Germany, then used competitive sports to restore the confidence of paraplegics in England, and eventually founded the Paralympic Games. Later, in 1972, Major Paul Hunt wrote a letter to the Guardian inviting her Formation of the Physically Handicapped Union against apartheid (UPIAS), which led to the development of the Social Model of Disability. This was a revolutionary idea that people were not handicapped by their weakness or difference, but by a society that, for example, had no wheelchair lanes at train stations.
Badass in particular, however, was disability rights activists Jane Campbell and Alia Hassan, who mentioned to Burnell the suspense of “putting London at a standstill” with their direct campaign in the 1980s. The look of bewildering insult was on Chris Tarrant’s face when he showed up from the Telethon ’92 charity fundraiser at LWT Studios in front of a crowd of protesters holding signs for a “Piss on Pity” picture. The producers, though, seem to have missed a trick in not approaching Tarrant for updated comment. What is the best case study of how much – or not – common attitudes toward people with disabilities have changed over the past 30 years?
The history of Handicapped Britain features many heroes who inspire them, but what Silenced makes very poignantly illustrated is that this is not really the story of individuals who beat the odds. Indeed, it is a story of how entire societies can – and should – open up to include people in all of our diversity. So, it was appropriate to give the last word to Micheline Mason, campaigner for Integrated Schools in the time before CBeebies: “When people saw non-disabled children saying that we wanted our friends at school with us, we had so much fun together, that’s what changes people. You can hardly argue. About this anymore. “
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