Content note: Mentions of sexual assault survivors, but no graphic imagery or descriptions.
I just read a piece by Melissa Gira Grant, titled ‘All Bodies, No Selves’, about a problematic trend in media reporting and policy making that reduces survivors of sexual assault to just bodies, and it resonated with me in regards to disability reporting and policy. It reminded me of why I decided from day one of planning my podcast that I would only invite people with chronic illnesses and disabilities on as guests.
Grant comments that people who write about gender/sex/sexuality politics from within their own experience are often expected to do no more than present a compelling personal narrative. She says:
If you have something political to say about gender or sexuality, you will be expected to voice it through what your body is and what it has done, what has been done to it.
Media interviews expect little more than a “peep show”, Grant says, requiring you to create value with disclosure after disclosure. I had an experience like this in a recent radio interview, for which I had been invited to comment on the government’s drive to push people aged under 35 off the Disability Support Pension. I had expected that I was invited in my capacity as an advocate, given that I had written about this subject and hosted a podcast about young people with disabilities. However, when the radio host turned the discussion to me, her voice became sad and she adopted a funereal air as she introduced me. For, you see, I am young, and … d i s a b l e d. I had a dozen statistics and facts that I kept trying to bring to the conversation about government welfare policy, but the host talked over me, asking instead for me to disclose the sorts of cruel things people say about my disability.
I was taken aback because – maybe thanks to my white cishet privilege and the fact that usually people can’t see my disability so assume I am able-bodied – I had presumed that they wanted my opinions. It surely helped that my opinions were informed by personal experience as well as professional work, but I was just happy that the mainstream media was inviting a young disabled person to comment on policies specific to young disabled people. The commentator the show had had on before me was an older man from a disability advocacy body. (He wasn’t asked what mean things people say about him.) I didn’t realise that my status as someone possessing a chronically ill body was the only thing they were interested in.
In ‘All Bodies, No Selves’, Grant wrote this passage about sexual assault survivors that could easily be about people with disabilities (two groups which as a Venn diagram would be nearly circular):
Be a good poster girl. Get vulnerable enough for someone to step in with the right story, the perfect #hashtag, the slightly more powerful person to carry your cause for you. (You’re just a body. You can’t be trusted.)
This reads to me as a perfect account of inspiration porn.
Some of this was in my mind when I began planning my podcast Just A Spoonful, back in mid-2014. I liked the idea of a disability-only space, where able-bodied people’s voices were denied access. Not out of a grudge – but to pound out a level playing field for us. Each episode I have a guest with a disability. Everyone on my podcast has a disability. So there’s no opportunity for novelty – you already know that they’re disabled or living with some chronic illness, because otherwise they wouldn’t be there. What this also means, is that nobody has to be the poster child for disability or for their particular condition. I’ve had three episodes where my guest had bipolar disorder, and none of their stories are the same.
I tell each guest when I invite them onto the show: we don’t need to talk about your condition, your impairment, your illness, your disability. The fact of it is already there, baked into the show’s premise. There’s no need for you to relive your diagnosis story, or talk about “what it’s like” if you don’t want to. You’re here because I want to know about you, because I wanna pick your brain. Your band, your clothing store, your sustainability advocacy, your pet kitten – like, that’s why I invited you. (More guests with kittens, please.)
That being said, an incredible amount of guests choose to talk to me about their conditions. After all (and this is kinda the point of the podcast), our bodies are huge part of our lives. They’re sort of vital to everything we do. But they’re not the whole experience. Too often, the wider population gets stuck at the ‘body’ part of people with disabilities. Nobody talks to us because we’re just bodies. That’s how The Australian can run a piece about the closure of a residential institution in NSW in which the journalist visits the building, profiles some of the residents, and only includes quotes from their family or advocates. I actually spoke to that piece’s author, Rick Morton, via public tweets, and he offered that,
In this case I wanted to tell the story of one resident who moved from Westmead. He is non-verbal. But I should have tried harder.
I have a really wide network of people with disabilities who I call frequently, to orient my reporting from their perspective.
I understand Morton’s bind in wanting to present the most compelling story but also report respectfully. I do not think he accomplished his goal in this case. Martin Ryan, the 54-year-old man Morton was profiling, was presented as merely a body that was tended to and spoken for. Ryan’s 84-year-old mother (not a resident) was interviewed about what the closure of the institution meant to her, and NSW Disability Services Minister John Ajaka was quoted describing disabled people picking out their own linen and paint schemes. Yet group home residents themselves were still absent, a silent group being shuffled from one building to another.
I can’t help wondering, why couldn’t the journalist covering that story, any disability story, be someone with disabilities. If you don’t have someone in your network who has a disability and is appropriately qualified, why not train someone up? People with disabilities are more than capable, and a very diverse community. A bunch of us are writers, freelancers, and if we lack the commensurate professional experience of our able-bodied peers, it’s probably because we either can’t physically manage full-time work or because workplaces are structurally inaccessible to us. These are not huge obstacles to getting more disabled voices out there. Got a story about the NDIS? Put someone with lived experience on that beat. Then you’re less likely to get subpar reporting that forgets to interview any of the people directly affected.
As Grant asks in her piece, who actually benefits from reducing people to tragic circumstances? We hear a tragiporn story about a 29-year-old who has to stay in bed all day. We hear about her diagnosis, her illness, everything about her life that we hope won’t happen to us. Then, to quote Grant, we
take from it a gush of feeling, and then move on. We’ve consumed. Now that we’re done with it, we can put the body back in its place.