Sunday, 9 June 2013

Brave poor things

Brave Poor Things, presented by Peter White as part of his series on the new history of disability was, I thought, profoundly moving in its discussion of construction of a "voice" for disabled children in the Victorian era. It was a voice which played dextrously on the sentiments of pity, through the themes of suffering and bravery. 


"I have a great deal of bodily pain.
But when it is most severe I feel Jesus with me."


Those scripted voices did a terrific job of raising funds, but they kept disabled people in their place: suffering and brave; icons, not rounded people who might be courageous and tough one moment, grumpy and irritating the next, suffering losses and regrets. Demanding rights, not desiring pity. 

Occasionally, as White showed us, a child's voice can be stumbled upon in the archives. Could anything be more moving than this letter home, written by a young girl in an institution for the "deaf and dumb" to her father in 1906? 
"I do feel homesick at times. When are you coming down to see me? Do you know how long I have to stop here? I'm longing for home; give my love to little May. The children are all dumb here, I'm the only girl that can speak. Well, I shall not be able to write to you until February, you must write to me often." 
The letter was never posted by the authorities. It was found, spellings corrected, tucked in the principal's letter book. 

Today, Tanni Grey Thompson spoke out against the welfare changes which will have a seriously negative effect on the independence of many disabled people. It reminded me that it's one thing to admire the courage and stoicism of the paralympians; but quite another to speak out for people's right to a decent quality of life and independence. We can't shake off the old discourses around disability; layer goes on layer, one leaking into the other, like a trifle. But I am grateful to Peter White and Tammy Grey Thompson for sharpening my alertness .