Portrayal of disability in the arts and the media is a perennial and important issue if disabled people are to feel like equal and valued members of the community. Portrayal issues are as important as access to the arts and media.
Last Thursday morning’s RNZ Summer Report featured a group of young people in Masterton talking about their production to help with confronting the loss of their peers through youth suicide.
Their play Smoke and mirrors presented scenarios with the themes of hope, purpose and belonging, powerful and universal concerns for young people.
In one scenario, a young man sees a shadow in the mirror, a blind man, a metaphor for his “blindness” to his own considerable potential, and his “tunnel vision” view of a meaningful future for himself.
The use of blindness and low vision in this way in such a sensitive situation and subject came as a shock. It was quickly followed by sadness to find myself encountering a new generation, albeit I hope unintentionally, perpetuating the myth of blindness and low vision as a wholly negative and life-limiting experience. It was hard to listen to that.
As a young vision-impaired person I was nearly defeated by those very fundamental questions of hope, purpose and belonging. If I was a young person today, struggling with them, how would such a play resonate with me? What kind of message does such a portrayal give to depressed blind and vision-impaired or other disabled young people?
We know very little about disabled youth and suicide in New Zealand. We have no information readily available, not uncommon in relation to disability. We do know that disabled people are amongst the poorest, and suicide rates are higher in the most deprived areas, and that men and Maori have higher suicide rates than women and non-Maori. (Ministry of Health.)
The disability section of the Lowdown youth and depression web site looks promising but delivers little. It is very wordy, links within the website occasionally fail to work, and no Sign Language or easy read information is offered. There is also no guidance about the accessibility or appropriateness of general services.
We have ample evidence of the devaluing of disabled lives every day in the media and in the experience of disabled people. It would be helpful to see more realistic portrayals of disabled people, and for them to be meaningfully included in campaigns such as suicide prevention and depression support.
And portrayal of disability and disabled people doesn’t have to be inspiration porn. But it must be respectful and it must be real.