Picture this, a beautiful child lands a modelling contract with a top brand showcasing their products, or lands a spot on a children’s TV show. It’s just another day in advertising. An equally beautiful child with special needs or visible impairment lands a modelling contract, and the story goes viral.
Shared millions of times worldwide, with captions like “Child with *insert diagnosis here* wins modelling contract” and “Changing the face of beauty: Super-cute toddler with Down’s Syndrome bags Matalan modelling contract”.
In an article in the Independent from 2005 Sue Walker, founder of modelling agency Kids London, said her agency doesn’t have a child with a disability on its books. Why not? “In the modelling industry, there is certain criterion one has to make to be a model,” she says, including the right height, body shape, and looks.
Let that sink in. Our kids apparently don’t “look right”. In a day and age where most young people live vicariously through Instagram and social media, they look up to the likes of the Kardashians and other celebrities for their own version of what ‘perfect’ looks like. As technology improves rapidly, and our phones become powerful computers that we can use to edit and place filters on the content we post online, our children are growing up thinking that they have to conform to society’s perception of what perfection is.
It’s a dangerous slope for inclusion. The children who are represented in the media now become our actors and famous faces of the future. Not much has changed in the 13 years since. Now is the time to start getting it right.
In children’s television there are more and more representations of disabled children.
Hannah Sparkles on Fireman Sam is the only child in Pontypandy who uses a wheelchair (albeit she is a fictional animated character). Special needs children appear in shows such as Yakka Dee and Mr Tumble, there are more disabled children used in big brand marketing campaigns like River Island’s recent campaign “Labels are for clothes” and characters with disabilities are becoming more regular in TV shows. However, it feels like they are there as a token gesture rather than actually being properly represented as a fully included member of our diverse society.
There are very few children’s books on the market where the child has a disability or impairment. Do publishers feel there isn’t a market for them? (Believe me there is!) Are authors just not writing them? Either way, as a parent of a disabled child I would love to be able to buy a book where my child is represented as something other than the villain. In most fairy tales and Disney films the baddies or villains all have a physical impairment of some description, like Captain Hook.
How many times in the last number of years has an able bodied actor been cast in the role of a disabled character, then been heaped with praise for their portrayal? Why not cast an actor with the specific disability that the character has? You can’t get more authentic than that.
Believe it or not, just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they would not be able for the part. Freddie Highmore plays the part of Dr Shaun Murphy in the Good Doctor, a doctor with autism and Savant Syndrome. The show has some wonderful storylines, which highlight both how we can become more inclusive of people with autism and the prejudices they face, and the actor does play the character very well.
However, why not cast an actually actor with autism in the part? They do exist. Recently Lost Voice Guy won Britain’s Got Talent, the headlines read “Disabled guy wins Britain’s Got Talent” and “In spite of not being able to speak – disabled comedian wins Britain’s Got Talent”
NO! NO! NO! – they should have read “Lee Ridley – Comedian wins Britain’s Got Talent”. His disability is irrelevant to his talent. Yes, he uses a voice synthesizer to help with his act, but he would still be hilarious if he didn’t need that piece of adaptive equipment. As a society, it placates our moral compass and makes us feel better about ourselves if we think that people are “overcoming barriers” to do things like act, or model or be a successful competition winner. The same barriers, that ironically, society has constructed itself.
Here is a thought – let’s tear down those barriers, because simply by focusing on peoples’ disabilities, we are immediately excluding them from society’s perception of their worth. They become a token, a box to tick, a quota to fill, and it’s entirely wrong, both morally and to the detriment of future society.
My daughter is five. She has a variety of diagnosis from genetics to physical impairments to neurological differences. These are impairments which she lives with, her disability is the way society will treat her as she grows up. If things stay the same, then she will spend her entire life having to either prove her worth to earn her place ‘in spite’ of her disability, or feel like she is only involved because there is an inclusion quota.
My dream is that the inclusion movement has been so successful that it’s no longer a movement. That people, whether they are typical, disabled, impaired or otherwise are so involved in their communities and the world that there is no longer any difference made between them. That representation of all abilities in society is so commonplace in entertainment and the media, that it no longer makes headlines or goes viral. That it’s just the norm.
This blog was originally published as a guest blog spot (written by me) on http://www.familyfund.org.uk