Superhuman or Simplyhuman?

a crowd applauding at Southbank Centre's Unlimited festival.
Audience at Southbank Centre's Unlimited festival. Image for Unlimited by Rachel Cherry.

At Southbank Centre’s Unlimited festival in September 2016. Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for the Unlimited commissions programme, chaired a platform unpacking the pervading themes of disability language and representation in the media, posing the question Superhuman or Simply human?

Jo was joined by Mik Scarlett, actor, access consultant and equality trainer; James Taylor, newly appointed head of public and affairs and policy at Scope and Liam Bairstow, Coronation Street actor from Mind the Gap Theatre.

Mik Scarlett began by explaining the timing of use of the term ‘Superhumans’ as driver of a media campaign championed by Channel 4, the designated channel for broadcasting the Paralympic Games in 2012.

“I don’t think anyone involved had any idea about the politics, or that the use of language might be damaging; it was designed for the publicity machine,” said Mik.Right from the word go for many people with impairments the Superhumans campaign has caused ripples of discontent and discomfort, raising questions as to whether disabled people had been properly consulted about it.

“I guess for me, Superhuman can be interpreted in different ways, right? It describes things that disabled people are doing over and above those that non-disabled people are doing. And to me it feels quite empowering,” said James Taylor.

Mik, who took the name Scarlett after the indestructible TV hero Captain Scarlett, made the distinction between being resilient and having super powers. “That’s what you could say about me; cancer, injuries, illness. I got through it all and came back fighting,” said Mik. He went on to consider what the development of bionics and augumentation might mean for disabled sporting competition, and which may, in the future, play into the ideas and themes of being Superhuman too.

Someone from the floor made the point that use of the term Superhuman had to be considered alongside circumstances many disabled people find themselves in today, and the reality of their lives amid the impact of austerity and the ‘benefits purge’.

“I don’t think Channel 4 intended to say, ‘if you’re not doing what these guys are doing, you’re not worthy.’ It has slipped into the psyche of the public, because it coincided with a media that has gone after disabled people in quite a savage way,” Mik added.

“I think the work Channel 4 have done can be viewed in different ways, but in my eyes I think they have done a lot, and other broadcasters have as well, to ensure that their presenting team and teams behind the camera and those who write scripts are representative of wider society, so ensuring that disabled people are represented there as well,” James added.

“TV shows like The Last Leg demonstrate what they are doing, and to me it doesn’t seem tokenistic. It does seem like they are actually doing the right thing, they are doing a lot to increase visibility of disabled people and disabled issues on television,” said James.

Liam Bairstow spoke about his role in Coronation Street on ITV and how this very public platform had developed his skills and strengthened his resolve. “I get good feedback on social media but there are a few negatives as well. When they do that, it makes me stronger”

What some see as positive moves forward around disabled representation in programming by Channel 4 was contested from the floor at the meeting. Programming of shows like ‘The Undateables’ or ‘Benefits Street,’ where the disabled lived experience is less favourably portrayed, was seen as unhelpful.

Jo Verrent, chairing the discussion, appreciated how Superhumans, at the time and still to a degree, works as a marketing device, capturing the imagination of the public. However, she suggested she spends a lot of time not feeling human at all, let alone superhuman. “Not long ago ‘sub-human’ was used as a term to describe disabled people,” Jo added.

With a steer back to the question in hand, it was good to hear reference made of artists who are reflecting the ‘Superhuman or Simplyhuman’ debate in their work and the perspectives of those with hidden disability debated too, namely Katherine Arianello and her particular spin on being Superhuman. (More about that work here).  Liz Crow also essayed these issues with her ‘Bedding Out’ project.

“There are artists responding to these things, in the way that artists do, which is fantastic and brilliant and one of the best ways to have this conversation,” Jo added.

The shift, this year, for the 2016 Paralympic Games, is the ‘Yes I can’ video with disabled people doing day-to-day things which took the Superhuman theme into new territories.

“So we have disabled people hanging nappies and cleaning their teeth, as if to say, ‘people are doing all these things, they are all superhuman. So if you are not able to do that stuff yourself then you are not superhuman, you are something else – and that is damaging,” Mik added.

Across the debate at the Southbank centre there were many different opinions, all of them reflecting on what these terminologies and publicity campaigns might mean for young people and their future.

‘What I’m hearing is that the disabled movement and disabled community isn’t one set thing, and what we want to do is ensure that young people see the disabled community as a wide diverse group of people.” James said

For Unlimited, Jo Verrent was clear: “at Unlimited, we use the term extraordinary. We locate the term within the artwork, rather than the fact that somebody’s experiences and impairment, is what makes them extra-ordinary.”

The range of artists and projects and practice shortlisted for the next commissioning round is testament to this, with those chosen representing a diversity of opinions and ideas around the themes debated at the Southbank, and for some, disability as a theme is not even in the frame.

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