You may recall that, back in October, I mentioned a youtube channel by two sisters, one of whom had fairly severe Cerebral Palsy. On the face of it, the videos they made were quite unproblematic, documenting their lives, drawing viewers’ attentions to issues they found salient. Yet, forgive my grumpiness, the more of their material I came across – both on youtube and Facebook – the more problematic I found it; the more of a nasty taste it left in my mouth. It wasn’t the content of the channel which was the problem, as much as how it was delivered and indeed the very premise of the channel.
Cheethams with Dreams purports to be about two sisters in Manchester (I think) living their lives. Yet the more of their videos I watch, the more it looks to me like the slightly older, able bodied sister, Becky, is speaking for her younger sibling, Hannnah. Of course, hannah is shown using her communication aid quite a bit, but she is always cued to say pre-written sentences by becky, as if she is only allowed to speak when told to. It is clearly Becky who sets up and structures the content of the films, so that it feels like she is the one who is showing us what a marvellous sister she has, rather than allowing hannah to speak for herself or present herself to us of her own volition. Becky is presented as the one caring for and supporting her sister, for example speaking to Hannah from behind the camera as she eats her lunch with a Neater Eater, asking patronising questions, just as a parent would speak to a toddler while making a home video for their grandparents. It is as if Becky is using Hannah as an object of fascination to show the rest of the world, or presenting her as her poor crippled sister who she has to care for and support.
As you can probably tell I quite like blogging: I enjoy rambling on about whatever takes my fancy, letting the world know what is on my mind. My weblog, of course, was set up for me by my brother Luke, who is far better at such things than I am. While Luke may help me maintain my blog though, only I have any say about its content; only I write my blog entries. This blog is therefore mine and mine alone. If luke (or Mark) did have input, the nature of this blog would be totally different: it wouldn’t just be the ill-informed ramblings of a cripple, but would probably include my brothers’ perspective on what I write and what I’m up to. It would perhaps feel like they were speaking for me, or facilitating what I have to say.
Thank zark they just let me get on with it – they’re both too busy these days anyway. Yet the point I am trying to make is that, as a guy with cerebral palsy, it is important to me that my voice is my own; I don’t want anyone else to talk for me. That’s why the Cheethams with Dreams strike me as so problematic. Watching them, it is obvious hannah cheetham is perfectly intelligent; probably just as intelligent and I am, and heading to university. Yet the way her sister dominates their videos makes it feel, to me at least, like she is being spoken for, or worse, used as a means of attracting attention. In quite a few of their videos for instance, all hannah does is sit there and squeal a bit while her sister delivers the all dialogue, to my mind infantilising her quite appallingly. If Luke tried to make such a video with me, I would tell him to shove it up his arse and head for the nearest pub.
Yet we see this sort of thing quite a lot. Last night there was a program on the Beeb about Katie Price and her severely autistic son Harvey which was just as troubling. The way in which the former model constantly foregrounded herself over her son made it feel to me like she was simply using her son to get attention and reenergise her dying career. The documentary was ostensibly about Price looking for a place for her son in a post-16 special needs education college. Yet that is obviously a problem faced by many, many parents across the country, so the question arises: if the BBC wanted to air a program highlighting the problems faced by parents of young people with severe autism in their late teens, why did they do one just focussing on this former Page 3 girl?
Moreover, the way in which price treated her son was sickening. I know that he has a developmental age of around seven, but his mother was treating him like an infant, constantly referring to herself in the third person. Autistic or not, the guy deserved more respect. More to the point, price seemed determined to make sure the focus of the program was on her rather than her son, for example explaining to the camera how the unfolding events were making her feel. It was clear that she wanted the program to be about her, not her son; and that Harvey was just a useful tool with which she could gain the audience’s sympathy.
It would have been far more interesting, in my opinion, to have let Harvey Price speak for himself, insofar as he can. What must it be like to have a supermodel for a mum? Was he comfortable getting all that press attention? Wouldn’t he rather be treated a bit more like an adult? But, like Hannah Cheetham, someone else has taken it upon themselves to talk for him, using the fact he is disabled to get attention, but in doing so denying him his own voice..