The Elephant Man’s 40th Anniversary: Have Societal Attitudes Towards Visible Differences and Disability Changed?

This article was extracted from Scratch Cinema.

Forty years after the release of David Lynch’s groundbreaking The Elephant Man, StudioCanal is marking the anniversary with a 4K restoration of the film playing in cinemas from March 13th. There will also be a DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD release available from April 6th. 

The Elephant Man tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a man with severe deformities living in 19th century London. Shunned by Victorian society, Merrick is exploited as a disfigured circus freak and treated cruelly by almost everyone he meets. Anthony Hopkins plays Doctor Treves, a kindly surgeon who rescues Merrick from a life of prejudice and shelters him at the Royal London Hospital, which becomes his new home. Merrick soon becomes a celebrated curiosity, gaining celebrity status among London’s upper class. Shot in black and white, Lynch’s historical drama explores themes of compassion, the human condition and man’s inhumanity to man. Boasting an outstanding lead performance from John Hurt, this influential film went on to be a commercial and critical sensation with eight Academy Award nominations.

Black and white photo of John Hurt as the elephant man cornered by a crowed of Victorian era men
Image courtesy of Brooksfilms

In Frederick Treves’ memoirs, he mistakenly gave Merrick the first name of John when his name was, in fact, Joseph Merrick. In 1977 this name was used by playwright Bernard Pomerance when he wrote ”The Elephant Man”, a play that premiered to critical acclaim in London. Many often assume that Lynch’s film is based on the play. As a result of a legal case, the film’s introduction carried a statement declaring itself separate from the Pomerance script. 

In the forty years since its release, what impact has The Elephant Man had within cinema and its portrayal of disabled people? More importantly, have social attitudes towards visible differences changed?

From a young age, we often associate visible differences with a negative connotation, with scars and disfigurements making for menacing undertones. The film industry has fed audiences this narrative for decades, showcasing sinister and reclusive villains such as Scar in Disney’s The Lion King, Joker within the Batman franchise, to the titular antagonist in The Phantom of the Opera.

On the other end of the spectrum, modern stories resembling characters with visible differences are often overly sentimental and patronising. Based on The New York Times bestselling book, Wonder is a film about ‘Auggie’ Pullman, a fifth-grader with a craniofacial condition resulting in distinct facial differences. Jacob Tremblay played Auggie, wearing prosthetics and heavy layers of makeup to portray the character’s facial disfigurement. Craniofacial conditions affect 600,000 people in the United States alone, which only strengthens the need for authentic and reflective representation. In Wonder, Auggie is used as a prop to educate those around him about kindness and acceptance, with his mere existence labelled as inspirational. The stories that are told on screen ought to be reflective, powered by authentic storytelling rather than used as an accessory to make non-disfigured people feel better about themselves.

a close up of Auggie's face, he's wearing a spaceman helmet
Image courtesy of Lionsgate, Mandeville Films, Participant Media, Walden Media and TIK Films

Adam Pearson was born with a condition that causes tumours to grow on his face. He has been bullied, harassed and described as Elephant Man for as long as he remembers.  Pearson starred in the critically revered science fiction film Under the Skin along with Scarlett Johansson, enabling Pearson to challenge the stigma surrounding disfigurement on the screen.

In 2018, the casting of a non-disabled actor in the BBC drama adaptation of The Elephant Man sparked criticism, reminding the public that inauthentic disability representation is still a prominent issue within television and film. Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things) had been cast as Joseph Merrick, who is arguably the most recognisable disabled character portrayed within film. Some called this casting a missed opportunity, highlighting the barriers that disabled actors have to overcome to progress within the industry, with inaccessibility being a significant factor. 

In recent news, Jo Vigor-Mungovinm, who traced Joseph Merrick’s grave, has been fundraising the estimated £100,000 for a monument of Merrick in his native Leicester. However, prejudice has hindered any such attempt to commemorate Joseph Merrick, with critics declaring that the city is already “ugly enough”.  The city’s reaction is a stark reminder that there are still vocally hostile attitudes towards disability and visible differences. 

a black and white portrait of joseph merrick
Joseph Merrick

Changing Faces is a UK based organisation who campaign for positive and accurate representation, a society free from discrimination and a society that respects difference. The charity launched their latest campaign, ‘#VisibleHate: Together We Can Stop It’, with a video featuring British presenter Adam Pearson and other individuals with a visible difference repeating remarks such as “If I were you, I’d kill myself” and “a face only a mother could love”. Every comment uttered within the video is familiar to many with a visible difference, having encountered such verbal abuse themselves. 

Changing Faces recently published independent research revealing that seven in ten people with visible differences experience adverse reactions such as staring and bullying simply because of the way they look. The study also found that 28% of people with a visible difference have experienced a hate crime and 35% of those people now feel nervous when leaving their homes. Almost half of those who have encountered negative behaviour say they’ve lost confidence and 27% claim it has negatively impacted their mental wellbeing.  

Media platforms are encountering a turning point within our society, as we start to realise the importance of accurate representation of marginalised communities. Media portrayals influence the shaping of social attitudes, distributing a trickle-down effect upon impressionable audiences. It’s time for a shift within the infrastructure to change perceptions towards ‘different’ people. For change to happen, mainstream television and film companies need to reach into underrepresented communities and consult the experiences of marginalised individuals, both positive and negative. Netflix shows such as Special and Atypical are paving the path for mainstream disability representation, but overarching progress within the industry is slow with no momentum or driving force behind it.

It can be said that the release of The Elephant Man was a necessary and critical display of social attitudes towards disfigurement, challenging the social standard for compassion. Lynch’s exploration of hypocrisy still rings true, with his depiction of exploitation under the guise of kindness as a barrier of total liberation and independence for disabled people. Despite the film’s flawed theme exploration, which has only become glaring due to societal progression, Lynch’s The Elephant Man paints a devastating portrait of a man with so much to offer and a heart that never stopped loving.

Atypical’s Journey to Authentic Disability Representation: Shining a Spotlight on College Disability Services

This article has been extracted from Flip Screen.

In 2019, the Higher Education Commission ordered an inquiry into the experiences faced by disabled students, including autistic students, to investigate why educational institutions are failing to support their disabled students. 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act 2010, and yet there are still barriers preventing disabled students from achieving their full potential within academia. Policy Connect states that disabled students are more prone to experience social isolation and loneliness, they are generally less likely to complete their degree and they are paid less as graduates. For many disabled young adults, the prospect of higher education brings with it uncertainty as to their capability to commit to the demands of university education.

Typical coming-of-age stories within television often discuss the transition young people face moving from high school to university, exploring the rollercoaster ride of excitement and dread as they prepare to enter the next chapter of their life, away from the safety and familiarity of their status quo. It’s a rarity to see plotlines featuring young people with disabilities contemplating their future and the support they’ll be afforded for a smoother transition.

Atypical is a coming-of-age Netflix series that centres around Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old student on the autism spectrum. The show follows Sam as he navigates through high school, dating and family struggles.

Netflix poster for Atypical. Atypical is written in all capitals in the centre, with Sam, his sister, father and mother lying down looking up.

Season one faced backlash for excluding autistic people from the creative teams developing the plotlines, with none of the writers, directors or producers being on the spectrum. The missing discussion resulted in the perpetuation of many stereotypes being portrayed, ignoring the fact that autism is multifaceted with varying symptoms across the spectrum. Instead, we see what neurotypical people think autism is. One of the fundamental pillars of the modern disability rights movement is the principle of “nothing about us without us”.   Inaccurate or one-dimensional depictions of autistic people can be harmful and damaging, especially if the general public are misinterpreting mainstream media as a valid educational source.

In popular media, disability has a 2% representation rate, in which disabled actors portray only 5% of disabled characters. Imitated representation of disability often stems from the belief that autistic people, and disabled people on a broader level, can’t share their stories and speak for themselves. Atypical redeems itself in season two and three, in which a part of Sam’s plotline introduces a support group for young adults on the spectrum, all portrayed by actors with autism. 

Photo showing the support group for young adults on the spectrum. Sam is seen sitting in a circle with his peers.

During the third season, we see Sam settling into college and coming to grips with unfamiliar environments and routines. In the third episode, titled ‘Cocaine Pills and Pony Meat’, Sam begins his ethics module and becomes overwhelmed with the demands of the class. He starts to have trouble sleeping due to the changes in his life, worsened by his stern professor. Sam’s father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), talks to him about possibly asking for support from his college. Sam visits the Disability Services Centre where he’s shown around by Sid (Tal Anderson) and Jasper (Domonique Brown).

“…and even if you don’t use the services, you can still use the bean bags.”

The episode finishes with Sam sitting in his ethics class, along with Excited Evelyn (Marietta Melrose), his ‘anonymous’ note taker.

It’s refreshing for audiences to be introduced to a narrative that acknowledges disability services, enabling viewers to conclude that there’s no shame in asking for help as it’s there for a reason. Disability is no indication of limited capabilities, and education should be accessible to everyone. 

In the UK, some of the disability services available to students include mobility training for blind or visually impaired people; lecture notes provided in alternative formats or in advance; notetakers; support workers and alternative arrangements for assessments. Although there is an adequate system in place, there are still fundamental flaws that require attention.

Having said that, it’s crucial to ensure that disabled students are aware of the support that’s available to them. Illustrating everyday dilemmas faced by disabled people is vital in the fight for authentic disability representation within television and film.

Notwithstanding the negative reactions towards Atypical‘s first season, the pioneering show has since made leaps and bounds in its disability representation, narrative and storytelling. The introduction of an LGBTQ+ relationship in the latest season is just another example of how marginalised communities are taking centre stage and breaking through stereotypical dynamics.

Since the release of the third season, audiences have anticipated the announcement of a fourth, which Netflix has not yet confirmed. 

Ad Astra: Sentimental Space Movie Ft. Daddy Issues

Brad Pitt is Major Roy McBride, a lonesome astronaut in James Gray’s stunning space-opera. Ad Astra first premiered at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago and left critics shivering with existential chills.

Gray’s outer-space epic features space pirates in dune-buggies and flesh-eating monkeys but still manages to leave some audiences feeling empty and dissatisfied.

McBride is a highly accomplished, yet emotionally repressed astronaut tasked with a top-secret mission to save humanity.

Unexplained cosmic rays and electrical surges are threatening life on Earth, and it’s thought that McBride’s long-lost pioneer father is the source of these disturbances.  Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) led the promising Lima Project which travelled past the boundaries of the solar system before going off-grid.

“What did he find out there?” asks McBride.

The raw and on-the-nose commentary about the sins of fathers and humanity’s isolation within the stars can leave an all-consuming deep-pitted feeling of bleakness as you leave the cinema, leaving you to wonder whether you actually liked the film or not.

Brad Pitt is wearing an astronaut suit and he is floating in a space vessel, looking at the camera
20th Century Fox

Pitt’s performance of the compartmentalised protagonist lends a robotic approach to human emotions, yet this trait is what makes him perfect for a mission that would drive most human beings to the brink of despair.

Critics have revered Brad Pitt as of late for his recent performances including his role as Cliff Booth in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Might we see some Academy Award nominations?

Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytemea and James Gray treat audiences with demonstrations of their mastered film-making techniques. Ad Astra is beautifully shot on 35mm and provides us with an immersive experience among the stars.

An astronaut is standing on a satellite ladder, looking down at a planet in space
20th Century Fox

Viewers will be in awe and wonder at the stillness of these breathtakingly spectacular visuals. Max Richter compliments Hoytemea’s celestial sequences with his atmospheric score, striking a melody of curiosity and mystery as we venture to find life beyond the stars.

The startling thing about Ad Astra is that it feels familiar, as we explore the commercialisation of space travel and overpriced blankets on a budget ‘spaceline’. We begin to realise that the frictions of our home planet has tainted the spectacle that is outer space.

McBride’s pessimistic monologue reveals the deterioration of this new world as well as some severe abandonment issues. His whiney narration feels like a diary entry, while hinting at a melancholic yearning for his father.

The film’s ending may leave some viewers feeling deflated, and some may even fall asleep within the first half-hour before the film picks up its pace. If you love stunning space sequences and atmospheric soundtracks, then buy a ticket while the movie is still playing in cinemas.

Ad Astra shouldn’t be entirely written off, but audiences should consider the film’s thought-provoking themes and social commentary.

Describing Audio Description

Audio Description (AD) is a narration track that is played in addition to the dialogue and soundtrack of a film; it is primarily intended to benefit blind and visually impaired audiences. The commentary describes the visual elements of the media, such as body language and expressions which can assist a blind or visually impaired person’s enjoyment of a film, especially if these visual elements are crucial to the film’s storytelling. The first audio-described programme to air on UK television is believed to have been Coronation Street, over 25 years ago. 2018 saw the first audio-described advert which was championed by Fairy Liquid and broadcasted on ITV.

Curious to hear how audio description sounds? Here’s an audio described trailer for Frozen

Many cinemas have AD facilities installed, a system that delivers AD through a headset. Headsets are generally provided at the box office when customers collect their tickets; the AD track is undetectable unless you are wearing a headset yourself. Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime usually provide AD for their content, as well as online broadcaster services such as BBC and Channel 4.

Several theatres across the UK provide audio description, this is delivered through means of infrared, radio or WiFi to a receiver that customers can book in advance. Audiences can familiarise themselves with the set in advance of the audio described performance by attending an onstage touch tour where they have the opportunity to handle props and customers, and to meet the cast.

Museums and galleries offer audio description through a variety of options to support accessibility for blind people. Recorded AD guides can help blind or visually impaired people enjoy visiting galleries independently. These guides supply descriptions of the exhibitions as well as directions to aid navigation through the establishment. Some museums and galleries offer opportunities to touch particular artefacts as part of a group. Many museums and galleries have created tactile replicas of famous artworks, such as the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam with their ‘Feeling Van Gogh‘ programme. This programme is an interactive exhibition where people can feel, smell and listen to the ‘Sunflowers’.

Van Gogh's painting of sunflowers in a vase with a yellow background
Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’

Advocates are aiming to ensure all platforms are streaming accessible content, and the next push is for adverts to adopt audio description tracks. Apple has announced that the Apple TV+ will be optimised to be accessible for both blind and deaf audiences.

“Audiences worldwide can enjoy Apple TV+ originals subtitled and/or dubbed in nearly 40 languages, including Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (SDH) or closed captions. Apple TV+ series and movies will also be available with audio descriptions in eight languages.”

Apple

If you wish to learn more about audio description, then visit the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) website.

Revisiting A Quiet Place: Disability Representation

A Quiet Place is my go-to film when quoting the success that captioned showings contribute to the film industry. I often argue that cinemas are missing a trick by failing to provide more captioned screenings, an issue that is adjacent to the overall dismissal of accessibility within cinema and the film industry. I discussed the topic of captioned cinema screenings in more depth in an earlier post I wrote.

A Quiet Place is a 2018 American post-apocalyptic horror film directed by and starring John Krasinki. The film also stars Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe. The plot centres a family struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by blind extra-terrestrial predators with an advanced sense of hearing. The majority of the film is subtitled as the characters communicate using American Sign Language; there are very few scenes with English dialogue. The film’s suspense and horror element is the direct effect of overwhelming silence.

John Krasinki's character is looking into the camera with his finger to his mouth, signaling to be quiet.
John Krasinki

A Quiet Place was released in the United States in April 2018 and was a significant box office success, grossing over $340 million worldwide. A sequel, A Quiet Place: Part II is set to be released in March 2020.

Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe respectively play the roles of Regan and Marcus, the daughter and son of the family. Regan is hard of hearing and wears a cochlear implant, suggesting that the family were already well versed in American Sign Language. The family’s survival and evolutionary advantage through alternative methods of communication are partly owed to Regan’s disability, a refreshing narrative of disability that is later developed in the film’s progression. The actress cast to play the role of Regan, Millicent Simmonds, is Deaf herself. The filmmakers hired an ASL interpreter so that spoken and signed language could take place on set. Simmonds helped her colleagues to learn sign language, encouraging the fluidity and authenticity of the cast’s use of sign language during the film.

Emily Blunt is telling Millicent Simmonds to be quiet.
A Quiet Place, from Paramount Pictures.

I was pleased that a Deaf actress had been hired to play Regan, disabled actors are usually ignored to such a degree that they are a rarity in film and television’s depiction of disabled characters. Disability is an identity much like race or gender, but the arts are lacking in disability representation. Instead, disabled individuals like myself regularly see non-disabled actors emulate the characteristics of a marginalised group without any outreach into the community they depict. It’s protocol now that non-disabled actors who are cast for disabled characters gain critical acclaim and take home Oscars. John Hurt in the Elephant Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Holly Hunter in The Piano, Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and many more have received applause for their performances. It seems that critics adore and advocate for sentimental and exploitative depictions of disabled characters.

Daniel Day-Lewis in the film My Left Foot. He is sitting in a wheelchair with a basket of food on his lap, a woman is behind him.
Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot

My opinion isn’t that non-disabled actors shouldn’t play those roles, but I do believe that the playing field has to be levelled out so that disabled actors are at least allowed the opportunity to audition for these roles. The exclusion of disabled actors is prevalent; it is a systemic problem that is industry-wide.

Millicent Simmonds‘ breakthrough performance brings a level of substance and authenticity to Regan, a role that was close to home for me. I had the opportunity to see this film at the beautifully furnished Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy. I rewatched A Quiet Place on DVD, and while I still enjoyed it, the atmosphere of the film is better suited to quieter cinema screenings with minimal popcorn munching.

Despite my enthusiasm for this movie, I had one major disappointment with the distribution of A Quiet Place. There are some crucial scenes with English dialogue that contribute to the plot, so I had to attend a SUBTITLED version of the film. Instead of subtitling the entire movie, for the benefit of both hearing and Deaf people as the film utilises both spoken and signed languages, some scenes didn’t have sign language or subtitles when English was being spoken. I was frustrated as this was a film that centred a Deaf character and the use of ASL, yet it was only hearing people that were accommodated for the entirety of the film.

Films that portray authentic depictions of disabled characters and prioritise involvement with the disabled community are valued as they help pave the path for disabled people to tell their own stories. If you haven’t seen A Quiet Place, then please watch and support this film, I promise you won’t regret it.

I Am Mother: Post-Apocalyptic Confines

I Am Mother is a 2019 Australian science fiction thriller, widely released by Netflix. Sputore’s directorial debut follows a girl living in a post-apocalyptic bunker. She is raised by an android, whose purpose it is to aid the repopulation of Earth and the restoration of humankind. Their relationship is tested when a wounded stranger arrives at the bunker.

I Am Mother opens with a title card that reads “DAYS SINCE EXTINCTION EVENT: 001”. The audience is introduced to “Mother”, an android (voiced by Rose Byrne) who is raising a human child within the confinements of the post-apocalyptic bunker. Time jumps forward to introduce a teenager simply named “Daughter” (Clara Rugaard). Mother and Daughter live together in isolation, protected from the contamination and threat that still lingers on Earth’s surface after the extinction of humanity.

‘Mother’  android
‘Mother’ in Netflix’s I Am Mother

Everything changes when an injured woman (Hilary Swank) arrives at their door, pleading for help. Along with Woman’s unexpected arrival, Daughter learns some disturbing truths about Mother. Despite the classic sci-fi ‘evil robot’ trope, this film pleasantly surprises with an unpredictable and unconventional story.

Early on, we learn that Daughter is being prepared for an exam. The film’s ending reveals that Mother had a far more insidious motive for Daughter’s testing as she attempted to raise the ‘perfect human’. Ultimately Daughter must prove that she and humanity are worthy of survival. It is later insinuated that Mother executed the extinction, to protect humankind from destroying itself. Daughter discovers that she wasn’t the first child raised by Mother, finding human bones in the incinerator. It is suggested that Woman also originated from an embryo within the bunker.

Hilary Swank’s character is up against a wall, looking scared of ‘Mother’ Android

After Daughter and Woman escape to the Earth’s surface together, Daughter quickly learns that Woman lied about living with a community of human survivors, admitting that she manipulated Daughter so that she could escape the bunker. Daughter abandons Woman, returning to the bunker to confront Mother and to raise her new brother, whose embryo she had previously chosen as Mother’s reward to her for her exam results. Daughter’s demonstration of her selfless determination to ensure the human race’s survival convinces Mother of Daughter’s capability.

Mother concedes to Daughter, as her purpose has been fulfilled. The android is no longer needed, assured that Daughter has proven herself as a capable guardian. Daughter sobs as she shoots Mother, who falls to the ground. Mother’s AI consciousness still exists in the other droids that roam the Earth’s bare surface, one of the droids visits Woman’s home and addresses her in Mother’s voice.

“Funny that you’ve survived so long. As if someone’s had a purpose for you. Until now.”

Mother had orchestrated Woman’s injury and arrival into Daughter’s life, catalysing Daughter’s curiosity and escape from the bunker. Once Daughter returned to the bunker and proved herself worthy of guiding humanity, Woman had outlived her usefulness.

Followed by an ominous slam of the door, Mother carries out her final task.

This dystopian film is tense, intelligent and suspenseful. I Am Mother is an ambitious and well-acted science fiction story with a central psychological paradox that poses intriguing questions about motherhood and humankind’s reliance on technology. Newcomer Clara Rugaard has a dynamic presence on screen, lending substance to her role as a human that questions what it means to be human.

Woman and Daughter’s faces are side by side, a still of Mother is underneath their faces. There is a black backdrop

The visual storytelling drives the film’s dystopic vision and imposes mecha-maternal sentiment as we witness the sweet moment of a head resting on a robotic shoulder. The downside of this film is that it can be easy to become lost in the plot’s details and twists, especially if you have a habit of checking your phone whilst watching movies.

Queer Eye’s Disability Episode was a Disappointment

Netflix’s much-loved reality show Queer Eye returned to our small screens earlier this summer with its fourth season. Audiences once again saw the Fab Five travelling through the Midwest, meeting different nominees of varying backgrounds, helping them to improve different elements within their lives. The Fab Five consists of food and wine specialist Antoni Porowski, interior designer Bobby Berk, culture and lifestyle expert Karamo Brown, grooming consultant Jonathan Van Ness and fashion designer Tan France.

The Queer Eye team are standing alongside each other and are wearing suits. They are posing and looking into the camera. The words QUEER EYE more than a makeover are below the Queer Eye team

Queer Eye’s popularity is partially owed to the show’s deconstruction of stereotypes, addressing polarizing issues whilst maintaining a level of respect and sensitivity for the nominees’ stories. In a nutshell, the show’s purpose is to help good people feel comfortable in their skin. The Fab Five focuses on self-love and empowerment, often bringing touching moments of shared experiences and struggles.

Episode 2 of Season 4 featured the reality show’s first visibly disabled nominee, Wesley Hamilton. Wesley was shot 7 years ago and was subsequently paralysed from the waist down. He is a wheelchair user and community activist, who formed a non-profit organisation that aims to combat mental and physical health issues faced by disabled individuals through the promotion of fitness and a healthy lifestyle. The organisation is named ‘Disabled but Not Really’ something that was also selected as the episode’s title. Queer Eye prides itself on the encouragement of empowerment and the celebration of one’s identity so this episode name felt contradictory to the show’s message. The titling of the episode perpetuates the ideology that identifying as disabled has a negative connotation, that disability is something to overcome. Inaccessibility is the issue that many disabled people struggle with and encounter daily, rather than the disability itself. This criticism isn’t towards Wesley as he is more than entitled to name his organisation ‘Disabled but Not Really’. He has the right to view and address his disability however he chooses.

Karamo is sitting on a couch, Wesley is in his wheelchair opposite Karamo and they are talking
Karamo and Wesley

However, Queer Eye’s episode titling left me feeling frustrated as it was a display of ignorance and disregard towards the wider disabled community, many of whom proudly identify as disabled. Disability is defined by the disability rights movement as the primary result of society’s exclusion of varying body types through structure and policy. This framework is known as the social model of disability and emphasises the social issues that affect disabled people. It was clear that the Queer Eye team didn’t consult the wider disabled community during production, neglecting their responsibility to utilise their platform to help change the narrative surrounding disability. The episode danced around themes of accessibility, independence and disability pride, barely scratching the surface of the issues and values central to the disability rights movement.

The trending hashtag #SayTheWord came to mind when watching this episode, reminding me of the shared sense of pride within the disability community I often see on the Twitterverse. First coined by Lawrence Carter-Young, this hashtag strives to empower disabled individuals to be proud of their disability, to say the word.

‘If you ‘see the person, not the disability’ you’re only getting half the picture. Broaden your perspective. You might be surprised by everything you’ve missed. DISABLED. #SayTheWord.’

The Fab Five failed to explore this mindset, engaging in the erasure of disability identity and pride.

Woven throughout the episode, there was a reemerging spotlight on the co-dependent relationship between Wesley and his mother, Dawn. Karamo took Dawn aside for a private conversation, commenting “You had to give up your life for 7 seven years”, later asking the question “Has he ever said thank you?”. Dawn simply replied, “He doesn’t have to say thank you.” Karamo attempted to delve into something that he has no business discussing, overstepping his boundary with no consideration as to the implications of the suggestion that Wesley should be thankful. The episode continued to convey the message that disabled people can only achieve independence through interdependence, fueling the stereotype that all disabled people are ‘invalids’, imposing a burden on their loved ones as they care for them. The issue at hand is the lack of accessibility and proper infrastructure which forms a barrier to disabled people seeking independence.

Many non-disabled audiences were inspired by Wesley ‘overcoming’ his disability, on the other hand, most disabled viewers perceived the episode’s narrative as ‘inspiration porn’ and a missed opportunity as Queer Eye chose a narrative that distanced itself from the wider disabled community. I appreciate that each episode is only forty-five minutes long, making it impossible for a total exploration of disability rights and issues, but the episode still missed a trick. It would have been wonderful to see Tan reach out to a disabled fashion designer to discuss adaptive clothing and the options available for Wesley, or for Bobby to consult with a disabled interior designer and collaborate on Wesley’s house. Despite this, I was relieved to see both Tan and Bobby undertaking a practical approach, restructuring Wesley’s house and clothing to accommodate him in every-day life. Bobby comments that “Wesley doesn’t need anyone to do anything for him, the house makes him struggle more than he needs to”. It was refreshing to see Bobby travelling in the city with Wesley to gain a better understanding of his daily commute and the difficulties he faces due to poor design.

The Queer Eye are posing with Wesley in the middle of them

Tan advises Wesley on the tailoring of outerwear such as jackets so that they don’t get caught in his jacket. In one heartfelt scene, Tan cries as they shared their experiences of struggling with self-confidence, Wesley asks Tan how he was able to become proud of his identity as a gay man. This would have been the perfect opportunity to discuss disability pride, that the shame a disabled person may experience stems from external reactions and stigma, rather than how their body works. Instead, Wesley comforts Tan and the episode continues.

In many ways, the episode was heartfelt, especially the scenes depicting Wesley’s strong relationship with his daughter. Nonetheless, I had high expectations for the Fab Five, and they weren’t met. They missed a prime opportunity to examine ableism as well as internalised ableism, a topic that is in dire need of discussion within mainstream audiences.

The Fab Five clinked their glasses to a toast of “Disabled, but not really” and the next episode began playing.

Caption This

Imagine that you’re at the cinema to see the latest blockbuster: you’re sitting in your seat, overpriced popcorn in hand, waiting in anticipation for the film to begin rolling. The film starts to play! But… there’s no sound. You begin to realise that the entire film is in British Sign Language. There’s one problem… you don’t know any sign language.

Now imagine that less than 2% of film screenings in your area are provided with English audio and dialogue, with screenings often taking place in the morning during a weekday. Now replace ‘audio’ with ‘subtitles’. This is a real issue faced by Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) individuals in the UK who wish to attend a cinema showing of the latest film.

Between February and June 2018, #SubtitledCinema campaigners Ellie Parfitt and Michelle Hedley studied four cinemas and the subtitled showings these establishments individually provided over the course of four months. The cinemas are based in Norwich, Northumbria and their surrounding areas.
The lowest statistic found from their research was an astounding 31 subtitled showings out of a total of 7,618 screenings, this is 0.4% of screenings per week. The highest statistic was 153 subtitled showings out of a total of 5,898, an average of 2.6% of screenings per week. Their research revealed that during these four months there were more than 5,000 screenings that hearing people were able to attend. In comparison, Deaf/HoH customers were provided with 150 projections that were at convenient times. This is only 3% of the opportunities afforded to hearing customers.

Many multiplex cinemas argue that there is a lack of demand for subtitled showings, with low numbers of attendance. 11 million people are living with a hearing loss in the UK, this is the equivalent of 1 out of every 6 people. However, if cinemas continue to screen subtitled showings at unreasonable times, such as 11 am on a Tuesday, when most people are working, there isn’t going to be an audience. This isn’t because people don’t want to attend, it’s because of inaccessibility. If these showings are rescheduled to more convenient timings, with efficient and proactive advertising, this would increase demand and audience presence.

Since the arrival of streaming services such as BBC iPlayer and Netflix, the popularity of subtitles has risen with many hearing users opting to switch on captions. Many people struggle to understand the dialogue of films for several reasons, regardless of whether they are hearing impaired or not. Subtitles can also be beneficial for those whose first language isn’t English.

On a more anecdotal note, the first-ever captioned screening I saw was Star Wars: The Force Awakens during my family’s Christmastime tradition of a cinema trip on Christmas Eve. I didn’t even realise the screening we were attending was going to be captioned. I hardly ever went to the cinema as I preferred to wait for the DVD to be released so I could watch the film with subtitles. I never even realised captioned film screenings at cinemas were available. Watching films without subtitles means I have to concentrate a lot more than hearing people would, and I would still miss out on important plot points and dialogue crucial to the film’s storytelling. This accidental subtitled screening completely changed my cinematic experience, as it meant I was able to complain about the plot holes and laugh about the punchlines during the car ride home. I wasn’t left out of a shared experience. Even though subtitled cinema screenings are sparse, these showings allowed me to gradually fall in love with film, leading me to join my University’s Film Society and to becoming President of said Film Society. We even went on to organise a subtitled short film festival at our local independent cinema, the Belmont Filmhouse.

If you would like to learn more about this issue, then visit Action On Hearing Loss. If you would like to help, then you can sign this petition!

YourLocalCinema.com is a website that displays all of the subtitled showings available in your local area, this is a website that I use religiously so that I don’t have to check all of the individual cinemas’ websites for subtitled showings, I highly recommend it.