“All of the children needs help”: Disability in the Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds

This is the second of two blog posts on The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. For an introduction to the posts, along with the first blog post on hetero and cisnormativity in the programme, click here.

In the main disability hasn’t been a feature in The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. This, in itself, is telling. As Katherine Runswick-Cole and Tillie Curran have pointed out in their book Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies although there is a general turn within academic research, particularly Childhood Studies, to understand children as social agents, disabled children are regularly left aside or tagged on as an afterthought (see also this interview where Katherine discusses the book).

An episode of the latest series, however, introduces Daisy, who is a five-year-old wheelchair user. As Daisy enters, Dr. Sam Wass, one of the psychologists who is watching a commenting on the programme, says “it’s going to be really interesting seeing how the other kid’s react”.  This phrase sets the scene for Daisy’s treatment throughout the programme. She appears as a subject under study, from which to gauge the other (non-disabled) children’s reaction to ‘disability’. A theme in the psychologists’ comments throughout the episode is that the other children want to ‘baby’ Daisy, when what Daisy wants is to be understood as a peer and a friend amongst the group. It does indeed seem that this is the case. Yet, there is little attention paid to how adult actors and decisions, have influenced and (co)constructed these reactions through the way that Daisy is spoken of, the tasks that she is involved in and the structural barriers that Daisy faces when navigating the school.

Relational Autonomy and In/acccessibility

One of the approaches used by the programme makers is to break up the general scenes of the children playing with clips of interviews, where a faceless person asks the children questions on topics ranging from what it means to be a grownup, to what love is, and why people have friends. In Daisy’s episode, the children are quite deliberately asked “is there anybody quite different here today?” It is telling that Daisy herself is not asked this question. “Yeah, the one with the wheelchair”, one child replies. Although perhaps the intention here is to allow the children to be curious/ask questions, it in fact treats Daisy, from the outset, as an object of curiosity. The interviewer then goes on to ask, “do you know what disability is?” The child says that he doesn’t know, and the programme moves on. For those of us involved in Disability Studies and disability activism, disability is a form of societal oppression (what a brilliant show this could have become if that conversation had been started).

The Social Model of Disability separates the terms impairment from disability. Whereas impairment is a perceived ‘difference’ in body or mind, disability is the barriers (physical, attitudinal, economic and so on) in society that restrict what disabled people are able to do and be. Following the social model of disability and principles of the Independent Living Movement, disabled people have long argued that nobody – disabled or non-disabled – is truly ‘independent’ (see Steve Graby and Anat Greenstein’s discussion of this here). We all rely on other people, services, and so on in order to go about our lives. Yet, within these systems different people are granted different levels of (relational) autonomy. Disabled people may require different things to non-disabled people in order to live autonomous (or ‘independent’) lives. These include adaptive technology, such a vehicles or wheelchairs, accessible environments and personal assistants (PAs). Having access to appropriate technology and services removes barriers in the lives of disabled people, granting disabled people (relational) autonomy. Being denied access to these barrier-mitigating tools, on the other hand, literally disables people, contributing to marginalisation and oppression of disabled people.

Days at the school in The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds begin with the children sitting and meeting with the teachers and other children, before going off to play. In the episode featuring Daisy we view a scene where the teachers and children, apart from Daisy, are at one side of the classroom, getting ready to leave the morning meeting. Daisy sits at the other side of the room in her manual wheelchair, seemingly without a PA. A request is made publicly from a teacher to the other children: “Can somebody get Daisy for me?” At this point there is a jostle between the children over who will get to push Daisy, in her wheelchair, out with the others. As a viewer, it seems that Daisy has no say about which child, if any, should be pushing her chair, if she wanted to leave the classroom, or be there in the first place. On viewing that scene, I was compelled to Tweet: “‘Will someone go get Daisy’… will someone get that kid a PA! #slo5yo”. Yet, to my surprise, twenty minutes further into the programme, we see that Daisy has (what is referred to in the show as) a ‘one-to-one helper’ nearby who she can direct to assist her in getting around. By denying her the use of her PA in this scenario, or even asking whether she minded another child pushing her, in this scene we see Daisy publicly stripped of any autonomy.

It is not only the way that Daisy is discussed in the programme, but also the physical environment that disables Daisy. In another scene we see Daisy frustrated as the other children play in an inaccessible sandpit and on a climbing frame. As viewers watch Daisy try to catch the attention of the other children (“Jet, come here”; “Eden”; “Ellie- let’s play mums and dads”), the psychologist analysing the show responds that “Daisy really finds that she’s having to work hard to maintain friendships”. But what if the playground was more accessible, enabling Daisy to play with the other children? What if the children (and adults!) had the role of Daisy’s PA explained to them? Indeed, it is on the accessible roundabout that we see Daisy most easily playing with the other children.

The game that Daisy is most often seen wanting to play is ‘families’. At one point this role-playing includes Daisy telling Ellie-May that she is pregnant. Yet, when a task given to the children involves looking after a simulation baby (a doll that need to be fed, changed etc.), Daisy is nowhere in sight. It may have been that Daisy herself chose not to be part of this task – or indeed a later task involving an obstacle course (which would have needed to be adapted for her) which she’s also not part of. On the other hand, perhaps it is not surprising that Daisy isn’t included in the task with the babies, as I highlighted in my previous blog, the children are given the task in boy-girl couples as if to emulate a (problematic) nuclear family. Disability Studies scholar, Robert McRuer argues that heteronormativity (the assumption and normalisation of heterosexuality) is wrapped up in ideals which value an ‘able body’. Therefore, to include Daisy as a parent in this task, would have broken the guise of heterosexual normality. By not including Daisy as a parent, Channel 4 missed an opportunity to present disabled children as possible future parents.

Daisy gets upset at points through the show. This is understandable within an unfamiliar environment, particularly one in which you face so many barriers. It’s also not unusual, many of the children get upset at some point during the programme (there is a lot of crying in this particular episode!). Yet, Daisy’s upset is treated differently to the crying of the non-disabled children. Sad music plays. One of the psychologists comments, “I think she’s really struggling”. The other children are asked, ‘why do you think that Daisy is upset?’ Despite the problematic backdrop, it’s here that my favourite part in the show takes place, as one child, Starr Rocco, replies, “she needs help, all of the children needs help”. And that is the best understanding of the principles of The Independent Living Movement that we get through the programme. Daisy, just like the other children needs help – and this help includes creating an environment which values and enables her to take part. The adults in the show could learn a thing or two from that 5 year old.

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