This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.
Background: this post is about the Life series that just finished airing on the ABC and which is affiliated with Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Life at 1, Life at 3 and Life at 5 are available on ABC iView for a little while longer for those with Australian IPs and to whom it is accessible.
It’s not uniformly positive, but I was a bit more impressed with the handling of disability on Life than I was of breastfeeding or obesity. It’s quite possible I’m not as sensitised though.
As one would expect statistically, when you select eleven families and follow them for four years, there are several families with members who have illnesses or disability. Sofia’s father Anthony was treated for lymphoma just prior to Life at 1, so that’s only briefly treated and shown in a few still shots of baby Sofia visiting Anthony in hospital. Anthony is shown in hospital again briefly in Life at 5, receiving test results after a false recurrence scare. But the families who have members with disabilities during the series most prominently are Loulou’s and Daniel’s.
Daniel is the second child of Rodney and Kathryn, and in Life at 1 he is shown visiting his brother Jamie in hospital. Jamie was about three at the time and had a brain injury recently acquired in a near-drowning. He was almost always shown in Life at 1 and Life at 3 seated in a slightly reclined wheelchair, with little or no limb movement shown (in Life at 1 he is also shown in Kathryn’s arms in a couple of scenes, and once in bed with Daniel touching him). In Life at 3 he was described as also experiencing high levels of chronic pain, and at the end of the episode, there is a second segment returning to Daniel’s family for Jamie’s funeral (which was filmed and broadcast), as Jamie had died of pneumonia aged four and a half.
I was pleased that the circumstances of Jamie’s accident weren’t dwelt on very much (other than the fact that it occurred in a backyard pool, no details of the accident are given), it would have seemed trite to insert a long pool safety lesson. At least to me, the narration seemed generally to portray Jamie as a person in a family as did Jamie’s parents, although Rodney has a piece to camera in Life at 1 in which he discusses avoiding Jamie.
The main concern in Life at 1 with the treatment of Jamie was, to me, the extent of “what about Daniel?” about the portrayal. There’s quite a bit of “what about [child]?” in the discussion of the families generally. In this case it’s playing into a cultural narrative of concern about a disabled child focussing mainly on their abled sibling. The family themselves express some similar concerns, Rodney and Daniel’s grandmother more than Kathryn.
Kathryn is herself disabled, with a vision impairment. This is treated fairly neutrally: there are small sequences in Life at 1 showing her dressing Daniel by feel:
[Kathryn is pulling a red t-shirt over Daniel’s head.]
Narrator: Daniel will not only have to adapt to life with a disabled brother. His mother is completely blind in one eye.
Kathryn: Where’s your head?
Narrator: Over the past two months a cataract has formed on Kathryn’s good eye. Her sight is now extremely limited.
Kathryn: I can see but most of it is feel. Most of it’s my hands, knowing what to grab.
In Life at 5 she is shown teaching Daniel to help her with crossing roads and with bus travel. As is shown a little in the segment above, it’s again almost entirely considered in light of Daniel: is it a good challenge for his development, or too stressful?
Life at 3 Part One also describes disability. Both of Loulou’s parents have had depressive illness between Life at 1 and Life at 3, Louise’s is described as having grief following from miscarriages after Loulou’s birth and then post-natal depression and Shannon’s as an acute episode in a chronic condition related to a motorcycle injury.
There’s a moment of problematic framing in the discussion of Louise’s depression, in which a decision about medication is framed as the “brave” choice:
[A close-up of a cake being cut is shown.]
Narrator: By the time Loulou was one, Louise had been assessed for post-natal depression.
[Louise is shown in front of the cake, look around at adults attending Loulou’s birthday party.]
Louise: Everyone for cake? Yes?
Narrator: She was borderline, and the doctors recommended medication. But Louise bravely tried to soldier on and said no to the drugs.
Later, after Loulou begins childcare:
Narrator: The depth of her anxiety made it clear Louise needed help. She took her doctor’s advice and went on to anti-depressants. By the time Loulou turned two, Louise was back on track and emotionally stable.
Shannon’s acute depression episode occurred shortly after, and the narration leaves that alone more so that Shannon can himself consider the impact of his illness, although again at least the portion shown is largely “what about Loulou?”:
[Shannon, a pale-skinned man with close-cropped dark hair is shown speaking to camera inside a brick walled building with light coming in through the windows and surrounded by vehicle parts, where earlier he has been working on a motorbike.]
Shannon: That was a big step for me. “You have a mental illness, a depressive mental illness, that you will need to deal with and be conscious of and shield your daughter and your partner and and anyone else who could be collatoral damage from for the rest of your life.” That was tough. That was really tough.
What did you think? I think this could have been worse with either a more tragic air or the Fighting Fat episode’s constant refrain of “risk” but that this is still a particularly problematic area for the show to be keeping its tight focus on the particular impact on the abled child when talking about family members with disabilities.