Readers outside the UK may not be aware but the latest instalment of the Simon Cowell’s Cringe-Circus of Doom is in full swing, as the current season of Britain’s Got Talent heads towards the final. I avoid these shows like the plague (and also like cliches), they’re not to my taste and I couldn’t pick any of the most recent winners or contestants out of a line-up, but it’s a little harder this year.
You see, there’s a disabled contestant – and as usual when anyone on Team Disabled makes it into the mainstream, people can’t wait to tell us about them. It’s as if disabled people all know each other by some magic unavailable to ableds. As if the blue badge was actually a telepathic version of Doctor Who’s psychic paper. So to avoid confusion, I’ve followed Lee Ridley’s appearances on the show and made notes of which specific jokes I’m going to adapt and steal. I should say at this point, that I enjoy his one-liners, although I’m sure many disabled people will have heard many of them before and have their own versions – disability gallows humour is a real thing.
Why am I musing on this? Well, because whilst the conversations in person are less excruciating these days, to the point where actual nuance about what’s funny and what isn’t can be brought up, social media – and especially Twitter, has not caught up. Any disabled readers with low blood pressure need only type ‘lost voice guy’ into Twitter’s search bar to have their condition at least temporarily relieved. I want in particular to draw your attention to a group of people that are at the moment driving me absolutely nuts…
The Lemonade Brigade
This is where inspiration gets tricky. Because finding inspiration in something is not premeditated. It’s a response that often owes nothing to thought, and everything to emotions – and that’s OK. As soon as you start trying to set boundaries on something like that, you’re fighting a battle that you cannot win. It’s tricky because as a disabled person growing up, there are very few visibly disabled people on TV or in media and so it’s natural to latch on to those that we do see, and I want to make it clear that I understand that. One of the reasons I remember watching the Atlanta and Sydney Paralympics so vividly, is because they were two of the only times I had ever seen disabled people on a screen. The reason that so many people can pick out Ade Adepitan is not so much for his sporting achievements, but for his TV work. Exposure matters.
“Just because you have a disability, doesn’t mean that you stop pursuing your dreams”. This is a common response I see to any kind of disabled person having success with an evident and visible condition. The response that ‘if disability or illness gives you lemons, make lemonade!’ Never be held back we are told. Except that success does absolutely nothing to negate many barriers that are inherent when you have a disability. Success, fame and wealth may soften the blow, but it doesn’t eliminate the original diagnosis. It’s not a matter of gaining so much recognition, that your disability becomes a non-issue. This is the basis for inspiration pornography, the idea that the only disability is a bad attitude. When these people type the lemonade response, the subtle subtext that they may not be aware they are pushing, is that people who don’t lead as full a life as possible when disabled, do not have any valid reason to point to the disability as a factor. It’s an unintentional way of shaming a lot of people.
What people do, when they trot out tropes like these, is negate the inherent difficulties that disabilities bring. Now, these difficulties are not insurmountable, but they are real as well. But we are effectively being given the idea the whole aim of living with a disability is to overcome, to get out from underneath it, to move on and to be ‘just like everyone else’. It’s a binary view of disability that is unhelpful and counterproductive. I’d like to see a world in which the harder bits of disability – the physical difficulties, barriers limitations, and innate societal prejudice of ableism – are acknowledged as real and part of an altogether human experience. What currently happens, is that examples like Lee Ridley are used to give us the idea that these things don’t happen to you if you work hard enough, train hard enough, apply yourself, or glory be – just always have a positive attitude. There should be a way of saying that we can have the shitty bits of disability, it’s not a matter of overcoming them. It’s a matter of living with them as well as we can, and allowing us to be whole people, rather than smiling cardboard cutouts who society aims to represent disability, by making the disability not be there.
Many disabled people will have heard or made many of Lee Ridley’s jokes before. That isn’t because it’s a matter of overcoming battles, but a matter of coping strategy. A matter of identity and a matter of shared experience. It’s not our job to inspire you. It’s our job to live. Whatever that looks like.