THE INVISIBLE IRISH MINORITY

Mary McEvoy asks if disability has proved to be a box-office success, why does so much of the Irish media ignore it?

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What is a minority? Do you belong to one? Do you have a family member who does?

A minority is a relatively small group of people differing from others in the society of which they are a part.

This is not a piece about refugees, immigrants, people without homes, Muslims, Protestants or Jews—all of whom, regardless of origin, are indeed Irish minorities. It is about a small group of Irish people who at birth or in early childhood are assessed and, for pragmatic reasons, labelled as having a disability or handicap.

Frontline is singularly dedicated to parents and staff members whose role is to care for this particular minority—people with a mental handicap. The magazine also publishes articles on related disorders which may be of interest to our readers.

Over the past fifteen years, individuals and organisations have attempted to educate the media about people with a variety of special needs. NAMHI, in particular, worked very hard to persuade RTÉ to depict that specific minority in Irish programming in such a way as to make their participation part of ‘the norm’.

Our two most popular ‘soaps’, Glenroe and Fair City, have clearly ignored the message—with one exception several years ago, when Stephen Brennan’s son appeared in a wheelchair- His brief stint on the programme was the only attempt to include someone with a disability—with a life! (Dinny’s gammy hip and Miley’s epilepsy don’t genuinely qualify.)

Glenroe clearly depicts a farming community in County Wicklow. Many years ago, I researched that county’s statistics on disability, with regard to age and location. As a county, Wicklow is representative of any other population regarding numbers requiring special services. But in on-screen Glenroe (Kilcoole), special needs are invisible.

Fair City, to the best of my recollection, has never featured a person with a disability of any description. An urban setting of high population density would be an ideal place to include someone, even a peripheral but constant character, to indicate that people with special needs are part of the community. I don’t think most of us would quibble with the age, gender or specific disability of such a character—as long as a presence was established. All of us know someone who would have the ability to play such a role; I am reminded of a young man in his late twenties who has a learning disability—I meet him socially on occasion, and he would be well able to bring his own unique personality and talents to such a role.

Coronation Street fans sometimes forget that the character of ‘Maude’ is in a wheelchair, as her feisty character overcomes her physical incapacity. I don’t know if the actress in question needs a wheelchair (I suspect not), but her portrayal is real, as her character weaves in and out of plots and sub-plots.

A few years ago, an American TV company produced ‘Life goes on’ about a family which included Corky, a teenage boy with Down Syndrome. The programme ran for three years, and actor Chris Burke (in the role of Corky) taught viewers a lot about the complexities and dilemmas which occur when such a character evolves in a most natural way within a family, school and community.

Two Australian soaps on our TV will occasionally feature a character with a disability. They appear and disappear after a story line is completed. Within that story, the disability is discussed rather effectively. In Neighbours, a young man with a visual impairment became romantically involved with a lead character, and in Home and Away a teenage girl faced her dilemma of hearing impairment, trying to decide whether to use signing or imperfect speech in her attempts to communicate. This cannot help but have an effect on a young viewing population, and their attitudes towards people who are ‘different’.

Recent major films have portrayed disability with box office success—in Rain Man (Dustin Hoffman) and Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks). These were quality efforts which portrayed autism and learning disability in a way that the public could understand and respect. Who could fail to admire Dustin Hoffman’s character’s decision to return to the safety of a residential environment after experiencing life with his well-intentioned brother, played by Tom Cruise? Even if filmgoers may not have found all of Forrest Gump’s achievements credible, they couldn’t fail to have been moved by his open heart and common sense.

If disability has proved to be a box-office success, why does so much of the Irish media ignore it? Jim Sheridan gave us Daniel Day Lewis as one of our own, Christy Browne, in My Left Foot, and the Academy of Motion Pictures graced it with several nominations.

Irish people have sent a wheelchair user to the European Parliament, so voters seem to have no difficulty with the image of Brian Crowley as their representative in Brussels, and President McAleese has appointed him to her Council of State.

Last year, Boyzone featured in a cereal commercial, and the ubiquitous fans hung around outside their fictional concert venue. Among the clatter of excited devotees, I am certain I spotted a teenager with Down Syndrome, whose adoration was just as palpable as that of the other adrenaline-pumping females.

The education of people to counteract prejudice and discrimination is most effective when presented at a very early age. People of all ages watch Glenroe and Fair City, which are supposed to represent urban and rural Ireland.

My question to directors of programming, writers, producers and editors is: Why aren’t people (of any age) with a disability represented on national dramas?

Why are they absent? Why are they ignored? Why are they invisible?

I see them all the time—anywhere and everywhere.

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