Channel 4 ‘breaching UN convention’ with ‘freaks’ language


Some of the country’s leading disabled activists have accused Channel 4 of breaching the UN disability convention by referring to disabled people as “freaks” and “beasts”.

They are furious that the broadcaster used the term “freak of nature” in trailers publicising a documentary on Paralympic athletes, and that a new series in which people with facial disfigurements will share a house with people who are “obsessed with beauty” is set to be called “Beauty and the Beast”.

The timing of the letter will be an embarrassment for Channel 4, coming as it prepared to start the countdown to its wall-to-wall coverage of the London 2012 Paralympics with a weekend of Paralympic-themed programmes.

The letter will be sent to senior figures at Channel 4, including its chair and co-chair Lord Burns and Lord Puttnam, as well as Lord Coe, the chair of London 2012’s organising committee, and Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport.

The activists say Channel 4 has breached five articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, including the rights to live free from degrading treatment, to respect on an equal basis to others, and to live free from exploitation, violence and abuse.

They argue that the language encourages the idea that disabled people are “less than fully human” and so “encourages violence and abuse against disabled people”.

And they say it could put off disabled young people from participating in sport, while the trailer for Inside Incredible Athletes will also encourage audiences to view the Paralympics coverage as a “freak show”.

Those who have signed the letter include Jaspal Dhani, chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC); Julie Newman, acting chair of UKDPC; Dr Ju Gosling, co-chair of Regard; Stephen Hodgkins, director of Disability LIB; Rachel Hurst, director of Disability Awareness in Action; and Tara Flood, chief executive of the Alliance for Inclusive Education and a former gold medal-winning Paralympian.

Beauty and the Beast is likely to be aired early next year, with each episode following a person with a facial disfigurement and someone “obsessed with beauty”, who will be sharing a house.

The charity Changing Faces has worked closely with Betty, the company producing the series, and said it was “supportive” of the programme, which will provide “a means of exploring our obsession with beauty and our prejudices around disfigurement”, although it has raised concerns about the title.

Channel 4 said the “beast” referred to “the beast of prejudice and beauty fascism” and not the disabled people featured in the series.

Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, a former Paralympian, said she was not concerned by the “freak of nature” trailer, which she thought was part of a “bold” attempt by Channel 4 to develop “a whole new and different language around disabled people”.

She said: “What Channel 4 are trying to do is push Paralympics out there in a way that has not been done before. There are some people who will find that uncomfortable because it is different from previous coverage.”

Alison Walsh, Channel 4’s disability executive, said their “prime purpose was to try and draw people” to Inside Incredible Athletes and “generate a buzz about it” and that because of the “very competitive market” you sometimes “have to take a bit of a risk”.

She claimed the phrase “freak of nature” – spoken in the trailer by nine times Paralympic gold medallist Lee Pearson – was a “deliberate attempt to cast our athletes in the same light as Olympic athletes”.

Walsh said her own views as a disabled person should “carry some weight”, as should those of former Paralympian and Channel 4 presenter Ade Adepitan, who was also happy for “freak of nature” to be used.

She added: “It is quite hard for a lot of people to be very angry about the trailers when the athletes featured in the trailer are comfortable with the concept and are saying the lines.”

And she said Beauty and the Beast was “a good title”, based on the information she had been given about the series.

26 August 2010