Stories, Stereotypes and Unconscious Bias
Written by Michèle Taylor MBE | Director of Change, Ramps on the Moon
Thinking about stories can be really illuminating and powerful when I work with arts and cultural organisations tackling ableism, promoting Disability Equality and elevating the place of disabled people in our mainstream arts landscape.
Leaving his post with the Race Relations Council, Colin Prescod is reported to have said recently that Unconscious Bias Training is “nonsense”. I can’t speak to the best ways of fighting systemic racism, but I do know that exposing the stories about disability that we are all continually ingesting has proved effective in supporting people to interrogate their unconscious bias towards disabled people.
Think for a moment about books, plays and television programmes; think of current examples, classics, material for children, and then ask yourself who the disabled, deaf and neurodivergent characters are? Chances are you have come up with a list of characters many of whom fall into one of three lazy tropes: the villain, the victim or the superhero. Think about other representations of disabled people in the media, the road safety billboard which shows a wheelchair as an obvious emblem of the terrible consequences that could follow a failure to buckle up front and back. Or the newspaper adverts playing on our sympathy in order to persuade us to donate to Children in Need or the RNIB.
These are stories about disabled people and about disability that affect how we think, and I believe we need to be rigorous in checking the stories we have internalised, the stories that, unbeknownst to our conscious mind, impact our behaviours, our language, and our fundamental beliefs. There is some strange mental gymnastics required to accept at face value the poster that uses disability as a cautionary tale and then to live our lives affording equal regard to the lives of disabled and non-disabled (not yet disabled?) people.
What stories about disabled people do we perpetuate, believe, and elevate, and what stories about disability do we allow to shape our attitudes to disabled people?
It seems to me that these are fundamental questions that we all need to engage with regularly (and I don’t exclude myself, a disabled person, from that). Only by doing so can we avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping. Walter Lippmann, the American writer and political commentator said that stereotypes are “the pictures in our heads – impressions that reflect subjective perceptions but stand in for objective reality”. The problem with stereotypes is that they are a barrier between us and the individuals behind them.
So personally, I think a well-designed, well-delivered, compelling, stories-based programme of Unconscious Bias Training is not nonsense when it comes to tackling ableism; in fact, it’s essential.
Michèle Taylor is the Director of Change at Ramps on the Moon, a collaborative partnership led by the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, and six National Portfolio Organisation theatres funded by Arts Council England, which aims to enrich the stories we tell and the way we tell them in theatre, culture and arts by normalising the presence of deaf and disabled people both on and off stage.
The work of Ramps on the Moon is fundamental to the sector in transforming perceptions and representations of disability in the mainstream. At an unprecedented time of instability, uncertainty and change within the arts and cultural sector, more funding is needed to support and sustain organisations, collaborations and initiatives like Ramp in the Moon, who have such a vital role to play in engendering equity, diversity and inclusion. If you are interested in learning more about the work of Ramps on the Moon, or are interested in collaborations, ideas exchange and co-development or co-learning practices, please get in touch with Michèle here.