A few days ago it was the Golden Globes, soon it will be the BAFTA’s and then the Oscars, and while we don’t know before the ceremonies who the winners will be one thing we all know in advance is that there will be celebrities queueing up to make passionate acceptance speeches in support of their favoured ‘causes’.
Recent favourite celebrity social causes include women’s rights, whether that be the #metoo and #timesup movements, gender equality generally, or pro-choice campaigns. LGBTQIA+ community rights are a popular choice for celebrity endorsement, as are racial and ethnic equality causes. Diversity in many forms is well represented by these high-profile celebrity figures, except in one seemingly absent area; disability equality.
Celebrities will queue up to be photographed alongside a ‘cute’ disabled child and will be on-message during television fundraisers to help provide much needed income to disability charities, but stick them on the red carpet or on the stage at an awards ceremony with the whole world watching and disability equality remains the poorest of poor cousins when it comes to celebrity endorsement.
There are a small handful of exceptions, celebrity disability allies and celebrities who have a disability themselves…
US actor Selma Blair, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2018, commented that “I really feel like people with disabilities are invisible to a lot of people…” to Vanity Fair magazine at an after-show party following the 2019 Oscars; “If I can help anyone be more comfortable in their skin, it’s more than I’ve ever done before.” See more of this story here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-47390896
Actor, presenter and comedian Sally Phillips is a passionate and articulate disability campaigner, particularly on behalf of people with Down’s Syndrome including her own son, Olly. Her brilliant TV documentary, ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome’ is very well worth watching, read more about it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-37500189
Disney Pixar animator, writer, director and producer Bobby Rubio created the wonderful Pixar short film ‘Float’, about a child who is different, in response to his own child Alex who is Autistic. You can read and see more of this story here: https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.com/2019/11/19/float/
However these shining lights, and a few that are willing to speak about mental health, seem to be among a very small number of exceptions to the rule, and the rule tends to be that other areas of discrimination and inequality are more ‘fashionable’ to campaign about than disability. Disabled people and their families watch, seemingly invisible, as a wide range of social causes are vocally promoted and supported by high profile celebrity advocates while they are often overlooked.
So, what can the disability community do to change all of this? To be noticed by those who have the influence, followers and platform to make a real difference and to help bring about positive change? I believe that there are three key things that we need to do if we hope to see future Oscar winners raging at the microphone, campaigning on behalf of disabled people and their families:
1. We need to be a community
All too often, the disability community turns in on itself. Time and time again I’ve seen online conversations, and even ‘real-world’ ones, that have started positively but have rapidly degenerated to stronger and stronger criticism of each other due to perceived (and sometimes real) misunderstandings or misrepresentations of their particular difference, diversity or disability. Winning points about minutiae seems to be more important than the big picture. We need to be better than this, we need to be a community that supports each other, not pulls each other down. We need to pull together.
2. We need to learn from others
The transformation in the perception, acceptance and rights of the LGBTQIA+ community has, to a great degree, been due to the relentless and highly skilled campaigning of organisations like Stonewall. They have been excellent at raising awareness of inequality and abuse and then challenging decision makers, influencers and ultimately the public at large to change their thinking. We could do a lot worse, as the disability community, than to study their approach, as well as that of other similarly successful campaign groups, and learn from them.
3. We need a #metoo moment
Social media has the power to change the hearts and minds of the world overnight. A hashtag or post can go viral and reach many millions of people in hours, being picked up and passed on by influencers and celebrities along the way. What is our #metoo moment? How do we succinctly, passionately and successfully launch a movement for change that has that kind of impact? We need to plan for it, prepare for it, time it right, get it in front of those celebrity advocates that we do know, unite behind it and publicise it for all we’re worth!
We can bring about change, we can make a real difference to the lives of disabled people and their families, but we can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen. We need to be proactive, we need to be professional, and we need to be united. Let’s go transform the world together and get celebrities talking about disability equality and rights for a change; are you with me?
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Image rights: Header © unknown; Golden Globes/Oscar © HFPA/AMPAS; Selma Blair © BBC News and Selma Blair; Sally Phillips and Olly © BBC News and Sally Phillips; invisible person © ASupriseCalling; James Arnold © Mark Arnold.