Modern slavery and disability in Ambridge: human too?

I’m writing this blog post in response to a post on the Academic Archers Facebook page, that was written about the story line which is exploring modern slavery on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers.  I have copied the post in full below.  It reads as follows:

The ‘slaves’ have the nearest thing to security they have ever known. Discuss!

Does anybody seriously suppose that Blake, Kenzie and Jordan’s lives will improve once they are ‘freed’?

They have a roof over their heads, food at regular intervals, a structure to their lives, a reason to get up in the mornings, even though they may be overworked and underpaid.

There are people who are Ill equipped to deal with life’s everyday decisions and responsibilities. They form the bulk of the prison population.

The ‘slaves’ have the nearest thing to security they have ever known. Discuss!

We, Archers listeners, have known for a while now that Blake, Jordan and Kenzie, who are identified as having learning disabilities and/or mental health issues, have been manipulated by builders, Philip and Gavin Moss, and are being held in a secret location near the rural village of Ambridge.  Blake, Jordan and Kenzie have no control over where they live, what they eat or where they go – they are modern slaves.

And yet, in the Facebook post above, their status as slaves is brought into question with the use of quotation marks. The author suggests that people who ‘are ill equipped to deal with life’s everyday decisions and responsibilities’ can’t really be considered in the category of ‘slave’ at all. In other words, the post invites the group members to join a discussion about whether people with learning disabilities and/or mental health issues should have full access to human rights, including the right to live freely.

Responses on the thread were quick to point out that similar arguments about slaves having ‘food at regular intervals, a structure to their lives, a reason to get up in the morning’ were used by colonialist slave traders.

And yet others have rejected this critique and pointed to the call to ‘discuss’ as evidence of the post being ‘just’ a provocation.

As  a number of commentators point out in the thread below the original post, if the comments had been made in reference to people of colour, rather than to people with learning disabilities, the post would have been identified as racist. 

And yet, when a moderator described the post as ‘ableist hate speech’, this response was branded as unreasonable by other group members who objected to possible ‘no platforming’.

And so it seems that in 2020, it is possible for people to insist that,  in the context of the lives of people with learning disabilities, it is simply OK to debate whether or not Blake, Kenzie and Jordan would be better off if their human rights were not upheld.

These debates are not new, nor are they limited to the pages of Facebook.  

The philosopher, Eve Feder Kittay (2011), describes a long tradition of  discussion of social justice made with reference to the lives of people with learning disabilities.  These debates have, as we saw in the post above, often resulted in people with learning disabilities being consigned to the category of ‘human nonpersons’ – people for whom it becomes impossible to argue for social justice. The post argues that Blake, Kenzie and Jordan are “ill-equipped to deal with life’s everyday decisions and responsibilities”,  and in doing so, they mark the young men as lacking autonomy and capacity. And as Rawls (1980: 546) asserts, social justice is only for “those who are fully active and morally conscientious participants in society.” In social justice talk, whether by philosophers or Archers fans, it seems the lives of disabled people with learning disabilities are often relegated to the margins (Berube 2010). 

And while the defenders of the author of the post point to the call to ‘discuss’ to mitigate against the charge of disablism, for me, the call to discuss is, in and of itself, problematic.  In Butler’s terms, it is an “act of normative violence” (Butler, 2004: 56), that is, the casual invitation to discuss Blake, Jordan and Kenzie’s human rights reinforces the damaging idea that people with learning disabilities are not quite human. 

As the mother of a young person with a learning disability, a young man, the same sort of age as Blake, Jordan and Kenzie, it saddens me that we are still arguing about whether people with learning disabilities can be seen as fully human.   We should not even be having to have these debates.  But, when theses issues arise, we need to challenge them and to do this well we need to listen to people with learning disabilities themselves.  

Please watch this film made by Sunderland People First making a compelling argument for being human too. 

References


Berube, M. (2010) Equality, Freedom and/or Justice for All: a response to Martha Nussbaum in Kittay, E.F. and Carlson, L. (Eds) (2010) Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell pp.97-110

Kittay, E.F. (2011) The ethics of care, dependence and disability, An International Journal of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of the Law, 24 (1): 49-58

Rawls, J. (1980) A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Press.

2 Replies to “Modern slavery and disability in Ambridge: human too?”

  1. Excellent, brilliant and a clear (argument?)
    Being a white traight able bodied middle class male the whole stream washed over me and i read a few posts without comment then left.
    Your thoughtful response made me look again and take your points into consideration, for which I thank you.

    Best wishes
    Michael

    Like

  2. Thank you Nicola. Thankfully most respondents have understood my intention was just to raise this topic for discussion

    My post was in no way intended to suggest that any form of slavery is OK, or that Blake, Kenzie and Jordan should not have the right to live freely, merely that they are likely to be abandoned to fend for themselves in the inadequacies of care in the community.
    I have been much impressed by the care and sensitivity with which the story planners and scriptwriters have drawn us into the nuances of this storyline, Gavin’s increasing pangs of conscience, compassion, guilt and remorse, the builders’ lack of understanding of their own victimisation.
    I am no stranger to those with mental health difficulties, having been very close to friends and a relative occasionally sectioned. I am shocked you implied I might have thought the builders to be anything other than fully human .

    Like

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