I recently ran a critical review of BBC Three's Don't Call Me Crazy season. It received a plethora of comments presenting opposing views, either castigating or applauding the programme makers. I made the mistake of just giving the programme a cursory glance. There is so much exploitative tv relating to a broad range of impairments including mental health, which sets out to manipulate the viewer down the same old path of tragic and brave storytelling.
The usual format is to lead the audience towards making sentimental emotional responses and critical judgements about how terrible / gifted / extraordinary the 'subjects' of the documentary are. The tried and tested approach leaves a taint in the air which tells the viewer how much better off they are being 'normal.'
Having finally watched the second programme in the series (originally broadcast in early July) I changed my mind about Don't Call Me Crazy. What came across, watching it in a reflective state of mind, was the ordinariness and humanity of the young people whose stories were being told.
Because the narrative voiceover was kept to a bare minimum the viewer was able to feel the individuals response to their predicament, without judgement. Yes it is highly distressing and uncomfortable programme-making, but that is the point. What it isn't is entertaining, in the way that the majority of tv documentaries are, that attempt to be 'educational'.
Because of the amount of room given for the people involved to tell their stories, I take back my previous comments about this being voyeuristic television. What Don't Call Me Crazy doesn't project is the usual narrative telling us how lucky we are not to suffer a similar fate because of our inherent weakness or defect. 'Crazy' implies someone or something cannot be explained, but the predicaments presented here are understandable because we are allowed the room to see the world from the viewpoint of the individuals, their families and the Unit staff.
How much opportunity the three girls were given to consent to how they are portrayed, only the programme-makers know, but it's patronising to say that their consent to being filmed was invalid because they are in distress. The support they give to each other through the most harrowing of times is evidence that they aren't 'crazy', but are living through circumstances that would topple most people.
How do you respond, for example, to an individual who refuses to eat because s/he believe, in their heart of hearts, that food is just 'wrong'? What comes across through the support of the other patients and the professionals involved is that a consensual reality is up for grabs. None of us know the truth, because we are all alone and the best we can do is to try to communicate - be it ever so fragile and ever so tentative a thing.
I came away from watching the programme feeling that it had challenged the stereotype that being vulnerable and in a life threatening state of distress means you aren't equipped for any future quality of life.
BBC Three's mental health season continues this evening with Inside My Mind to be broadcast at 8pm. I shall watch with more of an open mind, this time.
In the run-up to taking Bedding Out to the Edinburgh Fringe from 9-10 August, Liz Crow has been busy taking the many thousands of messages in tweets made during the last performance in April at Salisbury Arts Centre and formatting the conversations as a downloadable resource divided into topics ranging from talking about labels and identity, the reality of our lives as disabled people, the welfare system, propaganda and campaigning. You can find these if you scroll down the Bedding Out page on the Roaring Girl website and find the link labelled Twitter Conversations.
Reading through the tweets you see peoples' identities emerge in a context of dealing with the contradictions that current welfare reform faces disabled people with. There is a strong sense of isolated people making connections and expressing outrage at having to deal with having been demonised more and more effectively over the past few years.
So, for example @MYHeardRadio begins a conversation by saying “we've moved away from the fragile dignity afforded by the care/welfare system, towards justifying our existence?” “How has it happened” s/he asks “that in the UK folks think it's actually OK for sick and disabled people to need to justify and 'defend' their needs?”@Kitschmonkey responds with a statement affirming a right to existence: “Identity becomes eroded through illness, and further by how we are viewed by public. I am not a victim. I am a whole person.” @RGPLizCrow follows the thread with a statement about the kinds of games disabled people get caught up in as a result of the pressure to present a contradictory sense of self. “I wear a public self that is energetic, dynamic and happening, I am also ill. I conceal it carefully,” she says. @tippyscarecrow adds to this by saying “It's hard to get a balance: wear a mask and have a life, versus the knock-on effects of impairment. Many people only see me in my mask.”
The frustrations of bearing a fractured identity emerge through the conversations time and again. @IsabelleClement observes that “when the private becomes public it helps to illustrate the existential panic disabled people can end up feeling in the brave new world of Tory welfare reform.” #BeddingOut explores the knife edge disabled people are living on, having to deal with being tick-boxed as part of the process of justifying existence, setting out to be a platform to counter the lies and misinformation established in the press. According to a TUC-commissioned poll published earlier this year those who know least about benefits are the most hostile to claimants. @RGPLizCrow argues against the cynicism and despondency in the face of the immense power struggle that faces us: “If we say 'nothing we say makes a difference’ we've lost the battle,” she says.
Whilst the press claim widespread benefit fraud the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) statistics report fraud at 0.7% across all benefits, with DLA fraud at 0.5%. The battle is reflected in articles like that in the Daily Mail claiming 75% disabled people are 'faking it'. At the same time according to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, published in November 2012, tax evasion is over £120bn. Government ministers are misrepresenting official statistics for political gain according to the Guardian. We are fighting an ideological battle to counter spin on the costs of the benefits system.
Online statistical data from the DWP shows that the cost of benefits to the economy works out at a tiny percentage of GDP and less than ten percent of total taxes. Getting on for one-third of benefits goes in housing benefit, profiting landlords, raking it in as a result of the inflation of house prices by successive governments since the 1970s. DWP statistics show that still more of that money goes in subsidising employers who pay their staff less than a living wage.
A new ideology has emerged in the wake of the Paralympics as disabled people have gone from being marketed by the media as 'superhuman' to being labelled as 'scroungers' living the life of riley on others' hard-earned taxes. From remarks like those of @DACymru it seems that the Social Model of Disability has been appropriated and remodelled: “The Work Capability Assessment is a prime example of the Social Model being twisted and used against us.” Anti-charity rhetoric has been reinterpreted as meaning that disabled people don't need support to be able to get on with living with an impairment. Further to this @bluehook asks “…what happened to the equality impact assessment?” Government rhetoric emphasises the will to get disabled people into work at the same time as taking away the means of facilitating the possibility of being able to do so by cutting the Access to Work programme. Within a very short space of time the agenda for inclusion has been turned on its head.
Fears arise through the conversations: @lisapeacefrench states “What frightens me is that welfare reforms are CAUSING discrimination and stigma.” With the proposed disbandment of the Independent Living Fund in 2015 there is a question about the reintroduction of institutions. @DebzCaulfield states “#BeddingOut highlights the agenda for austerity cuts, ie putting disabled people back into institutions." "This must not happen,” she asserts.
What comes across through the messages is the need to share experience and to find solutions and ways of making our voices heard. @Onlyfluffyone applauds the use of social media: “From my bed I have witnessed a small revolution begin.. @RGPLizCrow has started it.. We need to carry it on.. Time for more #beddingout.” @DADAAorgau describes #BeddingOut “as a quiet act with a loud social impact” affirming that “quiet acts can have loud consequences.”
I'd urge you to have a look at the site and take part as Liz Crow prepares for Bedding Out in Edinburgh
Friday 9th August 10.00am – Saturday 10th 4.00pm
Hunt & Darton Cafe, 17-21 St Mary’s Street, EH1 1SU
Conversations around the bed Fri 1pm, 5pm, Saturday 10am, 2pm, with BSL interpreter and notetaker
Conversation on Twitter Fri 9pm, Sat noon