A short film, Hen Night, explores the reality of living with a disability in the pandemic – and highlights the need for more stories about disabled lives across the board. Creators Frances Ryan and Vici Wreford-Sinnott speak with Vogue about their revolutionary project.
BY OLIVIA MARK
It is the night before the first national lockdown and Jessica – a loved-up twentysomething trainee teacher – is tipsily recounting her last-minute hen do, crammed into the final hours of freedom. This is the opening to Frances Ryan and Vici Wreford-Sinnott’s short film, which tells the story – in a compact 20 minutes – of a young disabled woman’s life today and her continued struggle to be seen by society and helped by the state. “It’s 2021 and cultural prejudice around disability still assumes disabled people have rubbish, pitiable lives,” says Ryan, on whose book, Crippled, Hen Night is based. “It was important to show Jessica countering that – she loves her life, it’s only when her government support is pulled that that changes.”
“There has historically been such a big problem with the way stories about disabled people have been told in film and on television, shown as needy and tragic, in often pathetic circumstances,” says Wreford-Sinnott, who wrote and directed Hen Night. “Such stories perpetuate the myth that disabled lives aren’t worth living, and that we have no agency in our own lives. I’m actually from a very diverse community of disabled people, from all walks of life, all cultures, living rich, colourful lives, with fully rounded three-dimensional personalities! Our shared experience revolves around discrimination and misconceptions about who we are, and about being poorly served in terms of support and services.”
Here, Frances and Vici explain how Hen Night came to be, how the pandemic has impacted the disabled community, and why it’s high time representations of disabled lives on-screen need to change.
How did Hen Night come about?
Vici Wreford-Sinnott: The story goes back a couple of years now, pre-pandemic. I contacted Frances about a play of mine which was touring nationally in 2019, about disabled people’s experiences of austerity, and I complimented her on her book Crippled which had just been published. We began a conversation about putting something on stage inspired by the book. We both wanted the story to reflect real experiences, whilst reaching a broad audience, and we were in agreement about presenting a young twenty-something disabled woman in receipt of a social care package to be able to live independently. It’s certainly not the way the story is usually told – support towards independence is often presented as the welfare story of older people, and we wanted to dispel some of the myths around that. We didn’t want our character to be presented as a victim of her condition, again a very common trope, but to share that with the right support in place disabled people are entitled to live fulfilling lives.
It is rooted in the pandemic, but touches on the evergreen issues experienced by disabled people – misconceptions, prejudice, discrimination. What did you want to say with Hen Night?
Frances Ryan: We’re all hearing so much about the “social care crisis” but it’s framed like it just affects our nans. We wanted to show this stuff matters if you’re young, too – thousands of young people rely on it and are having it taken away, along with their social security. It could be your friend from uni, your office mate, or even you.
VW-S: Hen Night is an ambitious little film – as disabled women we don’t get broadcast very often, and we almost exclusively are not in control of the story and how it is told, so we had to maximise this opportunity. In this piece I’m shedding light on three stories all at once. First, there is the story of Jessica, a young disabled woman who, despite her family’s early misgivings about what kind of life she could expect, has been able to create a good quality life with independence and support at its heart. She is a likeable, modern woman with hopes and dreams just like everyone else – she is currently training to be a teacher and dreams of being a writer – and is on her way to making some of them happen, but we can see she is weighed down by the limitations placed on disabled people. Second, through Jessica, we see how disabled people are treated as a community – she has been encouraged to make other people feel comfortable with constant smiling, members of her family want her to make do and mend, and not rock the boat, and just generally not have unrealistic aspirations. And then finally for me, there is the story about civil society and questions around whether this is really what we expect of a 21st-century wealthy country and how 14.1 million of its citizens are treated.
It also conveys what some of the costs have been to disabled people in the pandemic. What has it highlighted about the way society and the government views and treats the disabled population? How have you felt during this time?
VW-S: This has been a genuinely terrifying time, not just because of the threat of the virus, which is bad enough – we’ve lost so many amazing people too soon and others are battling life-changing long Covid – but also because it became clear at a very early stage that disabled people, who were re-named as people with underlying health conditions, were pitched as having inevitable deaths. A two-tier system of protection and care developed almost immediately, with many people having Do Not Resuscitate orders put on their lives before they had even become ill. No particular science was applied to this policy, just a sweeping assumption of hundreds of thousands of people being less worthy of treatment, and certainly no compassion was exercised. And now with a so-called “return” to life as normal – whatever that means, it wasn’t great before and we’ve had 18 months to acknowledge that and see other ways forward – is another two-tier world, perceived as safe for some and not for others. I am continuing to shield, except for a couple of extremely well thought-out and protected outings, and will continue to do so. But there is very much a feeling of being left on the sidelines yet again. I know that we have to function as a nation, but we also have to value and prioritise life, we have to be much more strategic in our planning for living with Covid, protecting our communities to survive all the changes, direct and indirect of the pandemic. Still far too many people are dying.
FR: Coronavirus didn’t necessarily create new inequalities but it embedded – and shone a light on – those that have always existed, including society’s poor treatment of the disabled community. I spent the year reporting on the impact of the pandemic and it was striking to me the issues we were seeing reinforced the idea disabled people are viewed as expendable by governments. We saw this with how social care was removed for many in lockdown with little fuss and the rhetoric that “only” people with health conditions were going to die. At the extreme end, we saw this with young disabled people with Covid having Do Not Resuscitate orders put on them against their will.
What, in your opinion, is behind the lack of scripted pieces by, and made by, disabled women? And how can this be improved?
FR: Disabled women are essentially facing double discrimination in any industry – triple if you’re a disabled woman of colour, or trans, or working class. Some of that is practical, like a studio not being accessible, and some of it is cultural. 3.6 per cent of all TV executives are disabled people, so the people commissioning often don’t look like you or have any experience of the things that have shaped your work. We need to change the sort of people telling stories, but we need to change the sort of stories that are told, too. That means telling disability stories that aren’t tokenistic or full of tropes but also enabling disabled creatives to speak beyond disability. Real progress comes when disabled women are hired to write about crime, sex, and period dramas just like any other writer.
VW-S: I am someone who has spent almost 30 years changing the narrative around disabled people and creating new disabled characters to populate the cultural landscape through my work. I’ve supported hundreds of other disabled artists to do the same, in various ways, and seen the creation of phenomenal work. There have been some small improvements in the theatre world but really, on a national cultural scale, I don’t think anyone fully appreciates the true misunderstandings and misrepresentations of disability there have been for hundreds of years. The broadcasting industry is scandalously far behind, where old-fashioned thinking about disability is entrenched. We need to see people in positions of power educated, and we also need a bit of a shake up of who the people in power are. We need to see disabled producers, commissioners, showrunners, writers, directors and purse-holders. We need to see disabled-led productions fully financially resourced on the same scale as non-disabled work.
There are fantastic characters, stories and exciting ways the stories are told but because as a society we perceive disability as a tragedy, and as a problem, there are also perceptions that the only stories to be told about disability are pretty misery-inducing – this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are definitely stories of pain and struggle – often against the system, but there are also stories of joy, laughter, celebration, or intrigue, of nail-biting, edge-of-the seat gripping drama – we just need the investment in our work, meaningful investment, and the productions will explode to be the best that they can be and definitely equal to anything else on our screens.
The film ends with a quote: “As up to 70 per cent of us will become disabled as we age, it makes sense to begin to look at disability differently and understand it better.” What can we do as a society to view disability differently? What perceptions need to change?
FR: Disability is essentially the one minority group anyone could join so the “othering” that still exists makes so little sense – disabled people have the same wants, interests, capabilities as anyone else because they could be you. But I don’t think the fact that anyone could become disabled should be the reason non-disabled people care. As I say in Crippled, disability rights don’t just matter because you may one day need it – it matters because other people need it right now.
VW-S: There is a huge disconnect in the ways that we think about disability. We all know disabled people – we might not think of them in that way, and they might not label themselves as such due to the negative stigma attached to the word – and they are people who we love and respect – family members, neighbours and colleagues. We adapt things to ensure they can be part of life. However, because disability is positioned societally as a deficit model of a human being, where lives are barely worth living, and one which is presented as a massive financial drain on the treasury, we have also been sold a story of this useless homogenous lump of people who do nothing, contribute nothing and are a burden. The pandemic has seen division multiplying at a vociferous rate in this country, to the point where people are perfectly comfortable to say that disabled people should be drowned at birth, that disabled people should just accept that everything needs to go back to normal and if they die that is an acceptable cost on social media. That will be a minority view, I hope, and I have heard many vile things across my lifetime, but the fact that people are so comfortable saying it is still shocking.
I do want to add, that although I do think there has been divisive fragmentation in society, where contempt is easily vocalised, we have also seen communities come together to support each other, we’ve seen grass roots survival and solidarity on a national scale – and this is why I remain optimistic. I have to be optimistic or it would be hard to get up each day. Change is possible. And I’ll keep fighting for it through the stories I tell.
‘Hen Night’ is available to watch onBBC iPlayer now
Source: Vogue, September 2021