One morning in 6th Form, we were told to go to the Theatre for a presentation. The teachers wouldn’t tell us what it was about, just that we had to go. It turned out that the local fire service had come in to warn us of the dangers of using our phones while driving. It was designed to be a hard-hitting, shocking session. They mocked up the audio of a live crash and gave first-hand accounts of family members of those who had died or had life changing injuries after using their phones behind the wheel. It was meant to make us feel something and stop us from being tempted to do the same. It worked; it was horrible to listen to and very impactful. Even 8 years later I still remember Airplanes by Hayley Williams was playing during the audio mock up. It certainly made us think twice about our future actions.
However, there was a problem with one of the messages of the lesson. A few of the slides in the presentation used images of wheelchairs which were very similar to the one I was using at the time with captions along the lines of ‘Do you want this to be you?’ These pictures made me feel extremely uncomfortable. By using images of wheelchairs as a shock tactic, they inferred that wheelchair users, including me, had a dismal quality of life. The caption might as well have read ‘Do you want to end up like her over there?’ Nobody looked my way, but I could feel that they must be thinking about me. It was very awkward!
I was scared to bring it up but when I spoke to my tutor and best friend afterwards they said they had noticed it as well and completely agreed that the images shouldn’t have been included. I spoke to the teacher who organised the session and he was happy for me to send my concerns to the presenters directly. I was very nervous about complaining to them and it took me ages to actually pluck up the courage to do it, but I eventually did. I explained that I knew that the message they were trying to get across was an important one, but that it was totally inappropriate to use disability imagery as a warning. I said that I had an amazing life and that the image they had used suggested otherwise, that the pictures played on harmful stereotypes of disability and that they shouldn’t be used. I never got a response.
The incident came back into my mind yesterday, when I was browsing iPlayer and I noticed the thumbnail of BBC 3’s new series of short films called ‘Face the Consequences.’ The idea of the show is that young people come on camera to talk about their reckless and extreme behaviour, whether that be excess drinking, tanning, cosmetic surgery or speeding, without knowing that just around the corner is a person whose life has drastically changed as a result of the very same actions. They then bring said person out to tell their story while the one that was just recounting tales of their careless risk-taking sits there in awe.
For the drinking and speeding episodes, the ‘surprise guests’ are both paralysed wheelchair users. The conversations that take place after ‘the reveal’ are actually really nice, genuine ones. The wheelchair users aren’t miserable and the non-disableds aren’t patronising and it seems like a positive experience for both parties. However, they do feature a lot of crying by the non-disabled people and earnest pledges that they will change their ways. The producers of the show clearly had the intention of shocking the non-disabled people and deterring them from repeating their behaviour. As the title suggests, they wanted them to ‘face the consequences.’ Essentially, it was another way of saying ‘don’t do this or you’ll end up like me.’ This represents a huge problem with how society views disability. We need to stop using the prospect of disability as a deterrent for reckless behaviour.
At this point I want to clarify that I was born with my impairment. I don’t have an acquired disability, so I can’t claim to know what it’s like. In no way do I want to minimise the personal trauma and challenges that individuals and their families go through after a major injury. I’m not saying that they haven’t gone through an extremely difficult experience. They undoubtedly do go through a significant process of grieving for their loss of function and adapting to a new way of life. And they must absolutely have space to tell their stories honestly and frankly, to talk about what they’ve been through, their difficulties and regrets and what it’s like to live with an acquired impairment. It’s completely understandable that they would not want others to go through what they have. The key point here though, is that these conversations must be nuanced and complex and centre the experiences of the disabled person. They should not just be used as a moral prop to deter the behaviour of others.
What we desperately need to change is the wider narrative imposed by a largely non-disabled society. The one that says disability is akin to a death sentence. The one that says paralysis equals an existence with no quality of life. The one that threatens people with being trapped by a disability. The one that uses the image of a wheelchair as a warning against thoughtlessness.
By using disability as a shocking warning, those conveying the message put up a barrier between disabled and non-disabled people. It emphasises negative differences between bodies. It contributes to the idea that disabled people’s lives are awful, ones that are not worth living. It reinforces the stereotype that the lives of disabled people, and particularly wheelchair users, are severely limited and unbearably hard, that they are trapped and have lost their freedom. Ultimately it says that being disabled is something that should be avoided at all costs.
This is absolutely not the story we need to be telling. I’m disappointed because BBC 3 has done some great work on disability, like Don’t Take My Baby and Things Not To Say To A Disabled Person. Yes, life as a disabled person can be bloody hard, but becoming disabled does not equal having no future, or no possibility of building a good life. Most disabled people develop coping strategies and live fulfilled, enjoyable and complex lives. I know I do. I just finished a Parliamentary Internship and I’ll be starting my Master’s in September. I can’t wait to see what the future holds. I’m definitely not saying that people should happily go and get themselves into a car crash, but nor should they be so terrified, so moved at the prospect of becoming disabled that that would be the one thing that would make them stop drinking or speeding.
There are so many other ways to deter people from extreme behaviour so please let’s focus on the ones that don’t push harmful stereotypes of tragedy. Stop with the shock tactics and stop using disability as a warning. Let survivors have the space to speak without first using them as a tool to change others’ behaviour. We can discourage recklessness without reinforcing stigma, so let’s start to change the conversation.