Monday, 1 August 2011

Disablism on Top Gear

I like cars.  In fact, I think it's fair to say that most people who know me have at least an inkling that there is a part of my heart devoted to all things with wheels that go brum.

I feed this love with websites, magazines (although only occasionally...have you seen how much they cost?) and television.  As a non-sky subscriber, my choice of car related television is relatively small.  I love the BTCC, and do watch F1, but my love of cars is not really about speed as such.  I enjoy design, tech, culture and all the other little things that combine to create the deified concept of 'car' in my heart.  Television programmes dealing with cars outside of motorsport are even fewer, though.  In fact, it's fair to say there are only two - Fifth Gear and Top Gear.

Fifth Gear tried to become Top Gear minus the clever photography.  That put me off and I stopped watching ('though I must say, things have improved from what I saw recently).  Top Gear has always been less about 'cars' than I'd like.  But this has got worse over the years, and increasingly they have courted controversy to gain ratings and the kind of rep sort by 13 year olds in a 'not as rough as they think it is' secondary school.

For my sins, I have drawn Deborah into this world of idiocy and she has borne it with grace and perseverance.  She has even done her best not to roll her eyes and throw things at the television.

But last night things changed.

This series I've been increasingly fighting the draw to watch the programme but this has been made difficult.  They featured the Eagle Speedster and re-engineered Jensen Interceptor (two of my favourite vehicles of all time) forcing me to watch at least two episodes.  Last night featured a test of two electric vehicles (Nissan Leaf and Peugeot iOn).  I am also a fan of these vehicles, but knew already the report would be flawed.  It was.  I'm tempted to list the flaws, but honestly my correct information will not change the damage done by Clarkson.  He claims that no one pays attention to him because of his bufoonish ways.  Rubbish.  People take his word for gospel.  I've already seen people quoting five year battery life etc.  Damage is done and I can't change a thing.

But this is damage that can be defended by the huge car companies who supplied them the vehicles.  It can be defended by the large number of people who actually drive electric.  Indeed, there are already a lot of messages on twitter and the internet in general explaining how an attack on the electric car was shrouded by faux impartiality.

In comparison to this, however, I've only seen a couple of references to their use of two disabled parking bays in said piece about electric vehicles.  Picture me lying down on the sofa, my feet in Deb's lap.  I was quietly grumbling about the inaccuracies of their maths etc.  And then boom.  Jaws hit the carpet.  They didn't?  They did!  How?  Why??

Four disabled parking bays, prominently displaying the markings.  I don't know if it's just my imagination (I can't check the programme at the moment as I'm away from a stable broadband connection) but I can even remember the angle of the shot emphasising the wheelchair logo.

Obviously this was a potentially illegal act.  But even if this is the case, it's never 'just' that.  It's an attack upon the vulnerable.  And that's something which more and more has been a staple of their 'humour' (which the BBC has been so quick to defend).

In trying to get Deb to watch the programme, I explained that Top Gear, though insulting of many people, was actually quite pro disability.  They'd featured a blind chap driving the reasonably priced car around the track.  They'd talked to a disabled driver at the Nurburgring.  I'm not sure I can think of any other examples...but you know, that's not bad, right?

But no.  Not only do they use the disabled parking bays, in summing up with 'electric cars don't work', the camera tracks across to the mobility scooter driving along beside them.

Deborah recently wrote about the challenges of using mobility scooters whilst holding hands.  In it she wrote that around here we have very little negative attention.  After writing this, we had a 'humourous' comment or two aimed at us by a man with all the brains and charm of...well...Jeremy Clarkson.  And this shot of the cars and the scooter was much the same thing.  It was a snigger.  These things just don't work.  Rolling their eyes.  And I'm sick of it.

After the segment finished, we turned off the television.  Over the years I have watched every episode of the 'new' format Top Gear.  I will not watch another episode ever again.

So this morning I decided to write this blog post.  Deborah's writing one of her own at the same time.  But when I went online to see what the response had been, what did I find had been the final segment of the programme?


Yes folks, they were featuring proper cripples.  War heroes.  Men who laugh in the face of access.  And these heroes were going to undertake the Dakar Rally.

If you think I'm being silly here...that maybe this story offsets the harm done with their snide anti-disability messages in the electric car piece...then take a look at this message lifted from a random forum;

"The nature of their injuries is horrific and if you missed the programme tonight then make a point of watching a repeat of these astonishing, heroic men overcoming injuries that would render lesser men hopeless cripples."

The message of pathetic cripple vs heroic cripple has been solidified.  If you're not attempting the Dakar Rally having been physically disabled in defence of your country, then you're a hopeless cripple.  A parking bay is really just enabling decrepitude.  If you want to access M&S to buy a new set of undies, try travelling across Argentina and Chile first, eh?  Just as the misinformation about electric cars has been spread far and wide, so the misinformation about what it is to be a 'good' cripple has spread.  And we don't have a huge car company to defend us.


  1. Please do not take this the wrong way but i feel that you are taking this all to heart a little too much. Especially the ending regarding pathetic cripple vs heroic cripple. I dont think thats what they meant at all. You have to admire the courage of anyone who has to battle through with any kind of disability, and i dont think that anyone on top gear whether it be producers or cast would want to make anyone with a disability feel inadequate. I think their message was mearly that these men have been through so so much, more then anyone i know has been, and yet they show courage in the face of their disability. I believe that actually its your insecurity regarding your disability that makes you so upset with them... and this is notmeant to be a critisism just an observation.

  2. @spacedlaw - Indeed.

    @notmydisability - Firstly, I must add that since writing this the, Andy Willman has written to say that Jeremy Clarkson and James May did not want to use the disabled parking bays and were assured that the markings would not be visible. It was, therefore, he says, a mistake of the production team rather than the presenters. Also, there was no illegality involved, because it was private land and permission was granted, and further spaces were available.

    However, this does not answer the panning shot focusing on the mobility scooter. And it certainly doesn't answer the juxtaposition of the two stories.

    Let me try to explain why I feel it is so damaging. Recent political rhetoric and media coverage has done great damage to the image of people with disabilities. Every other story about benefits uses damaging language, tarring every disabled person as a potential drain on society.

    Using a disabled parking bay illegally, then, becomes ok because why should we respect these drains on society? And that's what we apparently see happening in this scene in Top Gear.

    To move on from this to worshipping 'heroic' disability (and I do not dispute that these men are heroes) creates a harsh division between worth and the worthless. I will never become a soldier. I was not disabled in the course of some heroic struggle. And so I am clumped with the worthless. Had the article been one in which the soldiers went shopping for specialist equipment and needed to use disabled parking bays, then perhaps the overall image would have been less damaging. But I stand by my observation that the programme spreads a damaging message and that this is a bad thing.

    Yes, I have insecurities. I feel insecure because the world in which I live is made less safe through the propagation of messages which make it ok to at best mock and at worst attack disabled people.

  3. I myself have been considered disabled in the past. I am lucky that now i have recovered substantially enough to be back at work. While i was so poorly i was getting benefits and rlying hugely on other people for help, but i was also working on my education and striving to be the best i could be, so i wasnt a drain.

    Maybe i am the eternal optimist! I try to always see the positive message in things, and although i can see your point, i think that maybe you are reading too much into it.

    However - i admire your views and overall way of tackling something that you feel is wrong :) and hey if we all agreed the world would be a terribly boring place!!!


  4. apologies for the typos. Apparently my hands do not wish to cooperate with me today!

  5. . Oh they seem to have cut my post in half. Before that i said;

    I do not feel that the government message is that all disabled peole are a drain. I think that as long as you are working towards something and contributing, like it seems you are, then you are not. What is a drain and what needs to be seen and dealt with are the people that say they are too disabled to work and then have children / do nothing to contribute. That needs to be addressed

  6. I have a problem with calling anyone a 'drain'. Who decides what is and isn't a drain? I have been lucky to have been able to work on my education. But it has taken me much longer than would usually be the case. And the education I have chosen is in the humanities and, some would argue, is therefore not a productive profession. If I had been any worse, I may not have been able to achieve my qualification. Would I then have been a drain? And if I was, what is the logical conclusion? I can't see any other answer than I should be put to death.

    But then there are people without disabilities who are in paid employment who go through life doing next to nothing. We all know these people. But they aren't vilified. They just bimble along in a lazy way.

    To achieve as disabled people, we need motivation and, often, a great deal of money and support. The money and support is being reduced. This will make any kind of achievement less likely and so create even more people who are 'drains' under the definition given. It's self defeating.

    I also think that it massively disadvantages those with mental illness and it terrifies me what that could result in.

    PS - there's never any need to apologise for typos. I call it creative writing.

  7. Hello stephen,
    It's been a very long time!

    I noticed you had posted a comment on the movie blog I write (I only read it today as I dont get notifications of messages there???!) so I only just saw it, even though you sent it a long time ago.
    I'd love to know how you're getting on in life, so if you're up for making proper contact, please drop me aline :
    PS, great blog!

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