MMU discusses disabled role in UK culture

By Will Astbury

MANCHESTER Metropolitan University has staged a conference which discussed the part people with disabilities play in the nation’s culture.

The Present Difference Conference examined ways in which disability is represented in the mainstream media, in books, film and other cultural practices, and considered the role and experience of disabled people as cultural producers and practitioners.

Hosted by the university (MMU), in conjunction with BBC Northwest, the Cornerhouse and the Cultural Disability Studies Research Network, the conference was organised by Dr Lucy Burke, of the Department of English at MMU, as she believes the cultural side of disability and of disabled people’s lives has been largely ignored.

“Much of the study and contemplation of disability has been focussed on social policy, so this is a relatively new area in academic terms,” said Dr Burke.

Present Difference, which ran from 6 to 8 January 2010, brought together writers, artists, filmmakers, broadcasters, academics and disability activists from Ireland, Scotland, Russia, Germany, Sweden, Italy, the USA and Canada.

A number of groundbreaking works were on show including Justin Edgar’s ‘Special People’, Ju Gosling’s ‘Abnormal’, and Sean Burn’s ‘Bastille England’.

Jim Ferris also read poetry and the award winning animations of Canadian filmmaker Shira Avni were shown.

Ex-MMU students contributed too. Former English and creative writing undergraduate Peter Keeley, who has cerebral palsy, pitted acting graduate Paul Henshall with Mark Benton as a ‘disabled character and a homeless character’ in the BBC3 comedy ‘I’m With Stupid’, which was presented to conference attendees.

Speaking to Manchester Mouth about how the conference went, Dr Burke said: “Given the freak weather that hit Manchester the day before the conference, everything went amazingly well.

“Despite the snow and the closure of the university, we managed to run a full programme and the feedback I have received has been fantastic.

“The presentations at the BBC were particularly interesting. The delegates from the USA described the UK as miles ahead in terms of the representation of disability in mainstream programming.”

Dr Burke, whose son Danny was diagnosed with autism when he was just three, explained that she had organised the conference to widen studies into disabilities.

“Disability Studies in the UK is largely confined to sociology and social policy departments, my aim is to widen this focus to include the arts and humanities,” said the doctor, “The cultural side of disability has been neglected in universities.

“Nearly all English degree programmes explore the ways that literary works portray class, gender and ethnic differences, but hardly any of them explore the representation of disability.

“Equally, disability studies in this country has focussed on issues of social policy and social and institutional experiences of discrimination, but hasn’t really focussed a great deal upon the cultural side of things. I want to address both these things.”

Emphasising the need to see people with disabilities as ordinary rather than extraordinary, Dr Burke called on the media to re-examine the way it represents those with disabilities, saying: “The kinds of representations that are available are generally negative.

“Strands like Channel five’s ‘Extraordinary People’ have a lot in common with nineteenth century freak shows in terms of their emphasis upon extreme physical differences (The Girl With No Face, The Tree Man etc). Disability is still often portrayed as some kind of tragedy.

“My aim would be to generate lots of different stories about the experience of disability and to make it ordinary rather than extraordinary, particularly given that the majority of us will experience disability at some point in our lives.”

Looking towards the future, Dr Burke believes that more needs to be done to enhance the educational and social opportunities available to disabled people.

“In my experience, disabled children have to contend with low aspirations and limited opportunities to participate in the kinds of activities available to their peers,” said the doctor, “Lots of people, even teachers at schools, make assumptions about the potential and abilities of disabled kids and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“As far as participation in the arts is concerned, universities and colleges need to do more than just adhere to the reasonable adjustments clause in the Disability Discrimination Act and become far more inclusive and accessible in their practices.

“We need actively to encourage disabled people to develop their skills as artists and performers and for there to be a wide range of roles available to them.”

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