The Secret Millionaire and disabled people

2008-08-21 by

I was worried about watching another sensationalist reality TV series, but as usual, when it comes to disability, I always feel compelled to watch programmes that deal with the subject as I am very interested in its perception through the media.

At first my fears were confirmed when the narrator introduced the episode and talked about Nick Leslau , the secret millionaire, who would go and spend ten days with ‘the disabled’. It’s this kind of labelling language that makes disabled people cringe: we are not one homogeneous category; disability is not all there is about us. It makes us feel ghettoised, shelved and ultimately ‘put away’.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that programme handled the charity issue quite well: the millionaire could have helped poor people, teenage single mothers, drug addicts or anyone else – disabled people were not portrayed as natural recipients of charity. Most of the people running the projects featured in the programme are disabled themselves, showing levels of initiative, strength and persistence equal, if not superior, to all those self-made millionaires we see so much on TV these days.

The programme contained an important ‘eureka moment’ when Nick Leslau faced up to his discomfort with disabled people, admitting that prior to making the programme he would have avoided them, even crossed the road away from them. That level of discomfort may sound extreme but is a very common and powerful prejudice.

In the course of the Disability Equality training I deliver, I often meet people that are clearly uncomfortable with the issue of disability and think that having a disability is the worst that can happen to someone. They see disabled people as needing charity yet accepting charity is seen as a terrible shame. Other participants wonder why disability is such a difficult subject, and why some disabled people are the recipients of hate crime. Why, they ask, do so many people find disability scary?

It’s well known that human beings are fearful of what they don’t know. When we are confronted with something unfamiliar it can make us feel uncomfortable, so we address this fear by trying to fill in the blanks – we provide our own explanations designed to quickly restore our peace of mind.

Making assumptions is human nature but we do have a duty to question the validity of our assumptions and recognise when greater effort is needed to fill in those blanks. Of course it is far easier to just not bother, but it is this lack of effort that results in our being prejudiced.

Assumptions are often well-meaning but nevertheless damaging. For example: ‘He’s very articulate for a black man’ – or: ‘Women wearing the burka are repressed and we must help them’ – and so forth. Assumptions like these are unjustified, yet unfortunately many people still make them.

The Secret Millionaire last night was very effective in illustrating that by working and living alongside disabled people, we can discover that ‘they’ are not so different after all. Or as Nick finally said to the camera: ‘disability is only skin deep’.

To me that was a good achievement for a TV series because it provided an excellent example of how social fears can be confronted, how prejudice can be gradually dissipated – and you don’t need to give away any money to do it.
When we make the effort to communicate with ‘others’ the stereotypes crumble away.

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