When C4 get it right: Born to be Different

I am a bit of a sucker for documentaries about growing up or growing older. When I left my last job, my colleagues bought me the box set of the Up series, and it remains one of my favourite things I’ve ever seen. I love Child of Our TimeBut I’m particularly drawn to Born to be Different because this is growing up/growing older + disability.

I’ve taken Channel 4 to task before for what I consider to be ableist, unfair disability programming in the form of The UndateablesI stand by what I said in that post. But equally, Born to be Different is proof that when they get it right, they really, really get it right.

Disability is a strange thing. In some ways, with many disabilities, it seems the biggest physical challenges come early on. Will a child walk? How bad is the brain damage? What’s the diagnosis? Once those things are established, it can only get easier, right?

I’m increasingly not sure that’s true.

The Born to be Different kids are turning 16, and I’ve realised, for the first time, that disability splits in two. For some people, it’s a battle to live with a condition – to maintain self esteem, independence, faith – in the face of a world that increasingly judges them. For others, with life-shortening conditions, it’s a battle just to survive.

The life-shortening conditions are heartbreaking, obviously, but they’re harder to relate to. The kids with these conditions are still just that – kids, and it’s their parents and siblings you really feel for, because they can express just how hard life is in the face of such epic disability.

And then it gets complicated. Because although Zoe, who has arthrogryposis, is much more disabled than I am, I relate to the challenges of her condition, which affects the mobility of her arms and legs. I’m in tears as she talks about giving up netball, and then PE more generally, because ‘people can be nasty.’ Now, she says, ‘she wants to be a barrister,’ and I recognise too that turn to academia as an area in which is is possible to succeed. And god, I want Zoe to succeed.

In the episode I watched tonight, she was encouraged to apply for head girl, and I was immediately transported back to my last year of middle school, when I won the prize for overall contribution to the school. I was twelve, and it felt like the last time I was in any way at ease with myself (in many ways, I already wasn’t). Zoe panicked about making a speech, and as she struggled up to the podium, I completely got why – it’s not easy being the centre of attention when your body won’t cooperate. I cried, a lot, both for her, and for me, because I feel a million miles away from a happy-go-lucky childhood, and I’m not sure I could readopt that approach to the world even if I wanted to – snark and sarcasm are an easier and more robust defence. But Zoe is lovely, and I hope that, against the odds, she finds a way to maintain that as she grows older.

The boys in the programme so far have all been much sicker, so it’s hard to say whether there’s a gender split in how hard disability hits as you reach adulthood, but the Radio Times’ summary of next week’s episode, and its focus on dating, depressed me:

‘At 15 years old, Emily is interested in boys, although she’ll need one who won’t balk at her manually sluicing out her bowel several times a day. Similarly, Zoe worries that boys who claim to see past her arthrogryposis don’t mean it.’

There is something about the way that’s written that pisses me off. Will both Emily and Zoe find dating harder because of disability? Almost certainly. But ‘manually sluicing out her bowel several times a day’ is oddly graphic and unnecessarily explicit. Presumably Emily can do this independently, and any potential boyfriend would have no need to witness it in quite the icky terms its described in here? We need to understand disability better, undoubtedly, but it shouldn’t give us free rein to pore over the details which, it strikes me, are only there to make an able-bodied audience recoil in horror at the realities of life with a disability. It’s a precursor, I reckon, to questions like this.

Channel 4, to their credit, have avoided that this time. It would be nice if the Radio Times could do the same.