On the fringes?

The mainstream media gives disabled people precious little coverage

Disability is regarded by many commentators as being a fringe concern and we receive precious little coverage in the mainstream media, in comparison with many other sections of society.

On the one hand, disabled people would not welcome the obsessive treatment that is given to Islam by the national press, but it would be nice for our existence to be at least acknowledged once in a while.

This neglect is compounded by the attitude of many employers and service providers, who resent making changes to their business practices for what they see as a tiny minority of the population.

In many cases, the only time that we are discussed is to ask the question, ‘Have disability rights gone too far?’ It is surely premature for the backlash to begin before widespread acceptance has yet been achieved.

It is a truism that there are far more disabled people than most people expect and there is an oft-quoted statistic that one in five of the UK population qualify for protection under the Disability Discrimination Act.

However, this figure is easily dismissed by assuming that most of these people have impairments which are regarded as relatively minor, such as back problems, dyslexia or depression.

Such a view is highly patronising and seriously underestimates the extent of exclusion faced by members of these groups. In any case, even if we grudgingly ignore them, the ‘disability problem’ stubbornly fails to disappear.

For example, 3% of British people have visual impairments that cannot be remedied with glasses, 2% use wheelchairs, and 1% will be diagnosed with schizophrenia in their lives.

We are not hiding. These numbers seem surprising because very few organisations have workforces even remotely reflecting these proportions, and most high street shops cannot be accessed by a lot of disabled people.

Even if there was a reason to visit the city centre, many people are completely unable to get there by public transport. Meanwhile, the total collapse of community cohesion combined with a general inability to cope with unusual behaviour causes many people with mental health difficulties to become socially isolated.

Although the encounters that we have on a day-to-day basis can sometimes be a reliable indicator of the composition of society, in this case they produce a dangerously distorted picture. I have given up any hope that TV with ever do enough to correct this perception.

When it is argued, to choose one example, that websites need not be made accessible to blind people, because not many of them use the internet, this is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse.

To quote a sentimental Kevin Costner film, ‘If you build it they will come.’ Being located in a deep pit, the Eden Project did not find it easy to provide access, but it has been rewarded with thousands of extra visitors, and the number of wheelchairs on show is a striking contrast to other tourist attractions. To someone who is not used to it, they seem to be everywhere.

It will only be possible to get a realistic perspective of the size of the disabled population when the same can be said of every single building in the country. Just one inaccessible shop does more to create segregation than a million veils.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.