Guest blog from the Good Schools Guide Education Consultants' Head of Special Needs, Bernadette John
Viewers tuning in for the Downton slot on Sunday night will have got something of a jolt – instead of cosy escapism, they were confronted by a brutal tale of death row executions and family betrayals (Undercover, BBC1).
I hope something else gave them a jolt – the portrayal of a family which, incidentally, has a child with a learning disability. To my knowledge this is a first for mainstream television. A family which happens to have a child with special needs but his condition is not central to the plot.
In the same weekend we saw a transgender person competing in the ultimate family show, The Voice, and a bank (surely among the most conservative of advertisers) promoting its services to betrothed gay couples. Progress to be sure.
And yet, can you recall a single advertisement featuring a learning disabled person? Thought not. How has this become the ultimate taboo?
Becoming the norm
It is important because the more our screens portray the full tapestry of humanity, the more accepting society becomes. When people who deviate from the norm of the mass, in whatever respect, are shown frequently on our screens, they become part of the norm.
Parents of children with special needs tell us that one of the most wearying aspects of their daily lives is the public gawping. Before they set foot in a park, restaurant or supermarket, they have to feel up to coping with being a public spectacle. The National Autistic Society reports that 87% of families with an autistic member describe how people stare. Half such families rarely go out owing to the dread of public reaction to autism.
This is the Society’s theme for this week’s World Autism Awareness Week (2-9 April) - calling on the public to find out more about autism so they can respond to autistic people with more understanding.
I’d add to that a call to scriptwriters and copywriters to step up. The medium certainly lags behind real life – it’s hard to believe that, only a few decades ago, the only advertising campaign to feature non-white people was Benetton's United Colours (and that was to promote the range of colours in its jumpers).
Gay marriage has caught on a couple of years after the legal event. But why the bashfulness about disability which has been around since time immemorial?