sat 18/05/2024

Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain, BBC Two review - documentary fails to deliver | reviews, news & interviews

Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain, BBC Two review - documentary fails to deliver

Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain, BBC Two review - documentary fails to deliver

Worthy programme flawed by the omission of the learning-disabled

Cerrie Burnell digs deep into the past and meets present day disability activists

What a television programme gets called is not always the choice of the people making it, but it certainly is the choice of its broadcaster. In the case of Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain, the relevant people at the BBC may come to regret giving an otherwise decent documentary that title.

Over an hour, Cerrie Burnell, an actor born with the lower part of her right arm missing, explored in detail the history and present day discriminations against people with physical disabilities in the UK. 

She interviewed disabled people and several wheelchair-using campaigners, who had fought for equal access, mainstream schooling and independent living; all of them were very impressive. Burnell herself vividly described being fitted with uncomfortable, ineffective prosthetic limbs as a child, negative attitudes from her tutors at drama school and the outcry from prejudiced parents when she appeared as a regular presenter on CBeebies. But the programme-makers did not interview anyone with learning disabilities, despite there being several high profile figures who could have been included (actors like Sarah Gordy and campaigners like Gary Bourlet, for example). 

This omission was particularly galling given the programme’s title; it was as if learning disabled people were still silenced, still hidden away from view. It wasn’t as if they weren’t mentioned – there were frequent references to terms like "feebleminded" and footage from the eugenics movement propaganda films of the 1930s that aimed to prevent "defectives" having children themselves. In search of history, the programme took the familiar route mapped out for this TV genre. The BBC covered similar ground in David Hevey’s three-parter, The Disabled Century. This time around Burnell met an archivist who had studied institutional care at the Sandlebridge Colony, with its wealth of photographic records from the early 20th century. She detailed how the industrial revolution led to dumping those who could not work into institutions. Places like Sandlebridge may have been set up with ideals, but over the years, they evolved into warehouses for the "mentally deficient". Sandlebridge became the Mary Dendy hospital and Burnell interviewed two elderly brothers who discovered in 2007 that they had an older sister who had been confined there for 70 years without their knowledge. 

Parents of children with Down Syndrome were briefly mentioned as effective campaigners for inclusion in mainstream education. But where were the voices of learning disabled people today? There’s no shortage of them available to be interviewed and able to speak for themselves, as demonstrated by Saba Salman’s Made Possible, an excellent collection of essays written by people with learning disabilities who describe their lives today in a very positive way. But such voices were silenced by the programme’s desire to tell the stirring stories that came out of pioneering work at Stoke Mandeville hospital, the Paralympics and the Charter for the 1980s movement. 

It’s always inspiring to hear from great campaigners like Alia Hassan (above right) and Baroness Jane Campbell (above left) about their  battles for equal rights against the odds. It is uplifting to see Judy Hunt describe her late husband Paul Hunt, who in the early Eighties was one of the pioneers of the social model of disability, which argues that society imposes disability on physically impaired people by the way they are isolated and excluded from participation in the world. I also particularly enjoyed the archive from the 1990s showing disability campaigners’ attacks on the patronising telethons that portrayed disabled people as objects of pity and which constituted for a long time the only representation that broadcasters felt was worth putting on screen. 

Micheline Mason and her daughter Lucy were great on their human rights campaign for disabled children to be included in mainstream schools. But there was no time in the programme for any acknowledgement that sometimes special schools can be the best place for some students with physical disabilities, as well as some with learning disabilities and autism. Recently BBC Wales demonstrated this in the excellent three part series, A Special School. And while there was a brief attempt to bring the situation of disabled Britons up to date with a reference to austerity eroding independent living, the programme failed to mention that as of 2020, large scale institutions where learning disabled people are kept, sometimes against their and their families’ wishes, are still very much a feature of Britain. 

There are over 2,000 people in the UK with autism and/or learning disabilities in expensive (and to a great part ineffective) Assessment and Treatment Units, despite repeated abuse scandals, which the media have covered, but they were not mentioned here. Instead we were given the impression that institutional care was a thing of the distant past. But large-scale psychiatric hospitals like St Andrews, founded in 1838, are still housing autistic and learning disabled people, despite coming under scrutiny by the Care Quality Commission and the Charity Commission. It was a shame that Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain did not find time for these stories or the fact that people with learning disabilities are six times more likely to die of Covid than their unaffected peers, but mostly it was a shame that an otherwise good programme about physical disability had such a misleading title.


I agree - great to see some of these key figures on film (including Paul Hunt's wife Judy - given wrong name here), but I agree. Thought it was a strange omission of the high toll of Covid 19 on the LD community. Good programme, though, and my non-disabled allies were moved.

Thanks very much for your comment Elizabeth - and I've corrected the name error.

Shame to have a review pan a good documentary because it wasn't able to cover every form of disability that exists. We should be pushing for more documentaries that increase representation, rather than assuming that one film can cover everything.

Could you find out from BBC presenter if  they would allow me to script of conversation between activist or email adresses as it would prove useful for college project we are doing on hidden disabilities

Sorry Anne, I don't have any direct access to the BBC presenter - suggest you contact the BBC yourself and see if they will give you a transcript.


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