Dear Comic Relief / 28 February 2013
Dear Comic Relief,
have your ears been burning lately? They should have been, because you have been a hot topic amongst members of the disabled people's community over the past month.
Things came to a head recently when Prime Minister David Cameron appeared on your fund-raising music video with One Direction. Many disabled people - who are being subjected to massive cuts in their benefits, allowances and legal rights - felt that this was one PR stunt too far! In fact, I understand that there's a campaign under way to get the PM removed from the video.
But this isn't what I'm writing to you about. In 1985 when Comic Relief was launched by Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry, many of us were disappointed that it seemed to be following the same pattern as the established Children in Need charity. This portrayed disabled people as being needy and vulnerable, tragic but brave, dependent and objects of pity. It all reinforced society's perception of us being unable to manage our own affairs and live without supervision, "care" and charity.
We approached Comic Relief and explained our concerns. We introduced Richard, Lenny and other members of the original team to the concept of various approaches to understanding "disability". We talked about ways in which disabled people had identified how medical and charitable "models" of disability damaged our struggle for our equal rights. We described how, if people were encouraged to feel sorry for us, they would never take us seriously as members of the community.
We also explained about the "social model" of disability, which describes the barriers in society that effectively disable us. Those barriers, we said, can be identified and removed, opening the way to our full participation as citizens. If our allies become indignant about the barriers we experience, we argued, we can then all work together to remove them. How much more positive for us disabled people, than being patted on the head and patronised.
We were surprised and pleased by the original team's reaction to what we had to say. They listened, admitted that they'd got it wrong and wanted to know what they could do to put things right. They understood that what we were saying required them to hear directly from disabled people, not from non-disabled people who purported to represent us. A number of talented and clued-up disabled people were then invited to work with Comic Relief and to introduce the concept of disability equality to the organisation.
Disability equality training, provided by disabled trainers, was arranged for non-disabled people who were involved with Comic Relief. This was across the board, and involved all levels of the charity. Comic Relief also paid for the unique training material that was used and also funded its mass production as a training pack for use by groups and organisations of disabled people afterwards. The pack, called 'Altogether Better', included a video and printed training materials and was a hugely influential training resource for over a decade. It is still held up as a model even now.
On your own website, you talk about the important work you did with the (then) British Council of Disabled People (BCODP) so that disabled people could fight "to be involved in decisions that shaped their lives"
So what's gone wrong? We watch in disbelief as you provide funding to one of the richest and biggest disability charities, an organisation that is controlled and run by non-disabled people, and that has a history of abusing and oppressing disabled people and excluding us from having any real say in the running of their organisation. We are talking of course about the Leonard Cheshire Foundation who continue to portray us as needy, vulnerable and tragic in order to tweak people's heart-strings and get them to open their wallets.
Our offer to you, as the new generation of Comic Relief organisers, is to look back at what we achieved together over a couple of decades. To meet with us again and to address the core issues that seem to be raising their ugly heads again; to stop you decending this slippery slope.
I'm a bit long in the tooth now and unable, personally, to participate as I once did. However, I know there is a network of young, professional disabled people who would be more than happy to work with you. Your organisation's mission is supposed to be all about social justice, about giving people the resources to help themselves, in order to create lasting change. Maybe it's time to review that objective in relation to the way that you support those organisations who continue to oppress disabled people?
I look forward to a positive response from you.
aka Crippen - Disabled cartoonist