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Representation in Media by Beth Dillon

It was being on the cusp of high school when I felt like I really started to need representation in media, and having been a keen reader all throughout my childhood, books were my first introduction. The first one I read, which at the time I classed as a ‘disability book’ (I grew up with How to Train Your Dragon, which I only realised recently was disability representation), was ‘Another Alice’ by Alice Peterson. This mildly traumatised  12 year old me who was delusional that everything was going to get better and who desperately wanted none of her friends to find out and I didn’t venture into anything disability related for a long while with the exception of the 2014 Tumblr era, which usually had teenagers falling in love and were absolutely nothing like real disability, chronic illness life. The book which got me back into seeking out representation was ‘ Being Heumann’ but Judy Heumann, which is all about the disability rights movement, which for the first time had me feeling that disability was not such a bad thing and also made me feel like all of the struggles I was experiencing were not unique. Recently representation has now exploded. There are more memoirs, essay collections, fantasy stories and children's books than ever, many of which I am yet to read. The one which has a place in my heart is ‘The Secret of Haven Point’ by Lisette Auton, a middle grade book aimed at those 9 and upwards. This book, for the first time, gave me a sense of belonging and is now a huge comfort book. I wish we had books like it when we were younger, both to see ourselves in a story but also for our peers to read, for them to have a touchstone and to learn lessons about disability. 

Then, plot twist, I lost my hearing. There was a scattering of deafness in some of the other disability books I had read, such as in ‘Far from The Tree’ but I am struggling to think of any other representation I had come across growing up. This was just before Rose Ayling-Elis was on Strictly Come Dancing in 2021, and seeing someone who was happy and demonstrating what can be achieved when access is good really meant a lot. Around this time, deafness has had an increased prominence in the media, and I’ve enjoyed watching the representation grow. Films such as ‘ The Sound of Metal’, ‘CODA’ and the TV series ‘Deaf U’ have normalised deafness, especially among young people. There is also a lot more day-to-day representation, BSL is often in the NEWS, and it seems there are more films about deafness than other disabilities. I wonder whether this is because deafness is one of those mediums well suited to visual modalities like film and TV. And perhaps also because it is an easy ‘non obstructive’ way of including disability representation, especially if a character speaks rather than signs. 

As someone who bloody loves a book, naturally, I have gravitated towards them. One of these is Raymond Antrobus' ‘The Perseverance’ poetry which I was given as a birthday present. This showed me that deafness is one part of a personality but also reflected the emotional side I was feeling much more than fiction did. There are also excellent children’s books by him, such as ‘Can Bears Ski?’ which features a bear with hearing aids and is now one of my cousin's favourites. That’s not saying there isn’t excellent fiction – see ‘True Biz’ by Sara Novic. I didn’t know anyone deaf, and these provided an emotional support, where I could see I wasn’t the only one feeling these things.

My latest representation challenge has been work. There is representation out there in the real world; there are some fantastic disabled doctors, too many to list here, whose advice can be found a plenty in Facebook groups, sketchy YouTube videos or on British Medical Association and General Medical Council disability forums. However, there are lots of days when I want someone who ‘gets it’ in my pocket, who can be found easily on TV (or Netflix, I’m not fussy), or in between my fingers on paper pages. And representation would be beneficial for my colleagues too. Whilst the majority are wonderful humans, it would still make my life easier. I was told by ENT, unprompted, I might add, that the only careers within medicine I could do with my disabilities would be pathology (looking at bits of tissue and conducting post-mortems) or at a push radiology (dark room all day alone, erm no thank you). Whilst writing this, I wonder whether the fact that he landed on pathology as something I could do, was this is the same speciality that the wheelchair user in Silent Witness, a mainstream BBC television show, works in. Although we are never introduced to her as a doctor or see her in a patient-facing environment. So if anyone wants to write something, you’d have at least one customer!

"Myself on My Shelf": A Watercolour Painting by Beth

Image Description: A scan of a watercolour painting of 13 different book spines all lined up. The books include Far From The Tree, Sound, Another Alice, Disability Visibility and The Secret of Haven Point to name a few.

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