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Images and the Public Consumption of Disability: On the UN Film “It’s the Same World”

View It’s the Same World on the UN Audiovisual Library website.

The postwar era was defined by the specter of destruction and violence – a daily environment that lasted far beyond the end of hostilities in 1945. Disability, like the rubble in Europe and Asia, was also a social and physical legacy of war that redefined national and international political systems. The international community needed to implement new policies and programs to deal with the millions of injured veterans returning home. Thirty years after the war, and following the success of other yearlong awareness initiatives such as the International Year of Women in 1975 and the International Year of the Child in 1979, the UN decided to approach the question of the world’s largest minority with the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP) (Baar 2018, 182-203). The UN commissioned a film to coincide with the year, in an effort to present the world with “a plea for full participation and equality for the disabled” and a message of disability prevention and consciousness-raising (It’s the Same World 1981). The result – 1981’s It’s the Same World –was the latest in a long line of UN short documentaries from the era that sought to promote what Glenda Sluga calls “an international outlook among a transnational public” through cinema (Sluga 2018, 138-157).

Film production at the UN was often a multi-agency affair that needed to reconcile the distinct and overlapping interests and budgets of the different agencies and private companies. The Joint United Nations Information Committee (JUNIC), which oversaw inter-agency cooperation in developing and disseminating public information, organized funding and developed content for It’s the Same World. The UN often outsourced production for its films to private production companies – It’s the Same World was the work of Dick Young Productions, New York City-based producers that proved to be the UN’s go-to company for short documentary films in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Credit: UN Photo/Sally Dimartini.Caption provided by UN: A blind boy being taught to swim in New York City. [1979]01 January 1979New York, United StatesPhoto # 313791Permalink to UN Photo Library: https://www.unmultimedia.org/s/photo/detail/313/0313791.html
Depicting disabled children and societal interaction through rehabilitative sports. Photo presented as part of the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons.
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The film begins with a close-up shot of a young girl shyly looking into the camera. As the camera pans out, she begins to sing and dance, performing a choreographed sequence with three others, and the voiceover declares that they are all deaf. A haunting electronic soundtrack is interspersed with the disembodied sounds of deaf children and later, the cries of babies. Over the course of twenty minutes, the film cuts from one village to another, hopping around the globe, and offering brief, stylized glimpses of what it describes as the lives of disabled children. A discordant organ plays over one scene, as lepers, shrouded in darkness, pray and sleep. One child walks toward the camera, leaping into the frame. The scene cuts to a silhouette of a child, her head craned back as she takes medicine against a moonlit backdrop. The scene is macabre in its composition. It is reminiscent of the visual language of freak shows – the long tradition of depicting the disabled as objects of morbid fascination. A scene from a Lebanese amusement park where a deaf boy “pantomimes” his aspirations, complete with carousel music only adds to the film’s carnivalesque exhibition of its subjects. The voiceover explains that the boy is uneducated, making a living selling Chiclets at an amusement park to buy a ticket to his favorite ride, and seeks to go away with the camera crew – a life with seemingly no purpose or meaning, and one that the film interprets as meriting nothing but escape (It’s the Same World 1981).

The voiceover and social workers in It’s the Same World emphasize the need to ensure that the disabled ultimately become “productive” – a pedagogical and institutional effort to give them opportunities to become “useful members of society” (It’s the Same World 1981). This goal is the result of what the film offers as a solution to the “problem” of disability: harmony, presented through the image of happy blind kids playing with “normal” kids in Indonesia (It’s the Same World 1981). This is a consistent theme in the film: to define and create the material, tangible value of the disabled within societies. Through an inherently clinical documentary gaze, the film imposes definitions and sensibilities on communities and societies where self-consciousness and self-identification of “the disabled” as a distinct political group, with common goals and interests, had not been realized. Few of the film’s subjects are adults – the vast majority are children, with their sentiments and aspirations expressed through caretakers, social workers, parents, and other adult authority figures. The sentimentality of the voiceover and the authority of a narrator far removed from the lives of the children depicted demonstrates an inherent imbalance in power and agency between the film’s “vulnerable” subjects and the observer – the viewing audience, the film’s producers, and the commissioning organization.

This imbalance in power is codified in the film’s outline: “The narration will suggest solutions while the images present the problems” (Dick Young Productions). The narrator holds the sole power of assessment in the film, providing the context through which the viewer interprets the subjects. The faces and images of “problem” are from the villages and societies of the Global South – the montage of disabled children in poor and disadvantaged communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The only Western disabled faces come at the film’s conclusion, in the form of a surprise reveal. First is a cameo by Terry Fox, the young Canadian who had lost a leg to cancer and had entered public consciousness when he set himself the challenge of running across Canada. Then, the film attaches a body to the narrator of the film, revealing the narrator to be blind singer-composer Tom Sullivan.

Yet, while the two white men have more agency in the film (they have speaking roles), they serve as no more than poster children – defined by others as representatives of a diverse and fluid group. As Monika Baar notes, “‘elite’ or ‘privileged’ members of [‘vulnerable’] groups… often became the international spokespersons of their own group and made appearances in UN media, because they had access to unusual opportunities, like travelling abroad or an education in a Western country” (Baar 2018, 182-203). Privilege and greater access to celebrity and recognition provided both a larger voice and the burden of having to speak for an entire community.

UNAV LibraryThe film’s tendency to simplify its subjects in its sweeping montage is reflected in the production outline’s bare-bones checklist for the film’s cinematography: “Ramps. Wheelchairs. Special Schools. Facilities. Handcarts, canes, crutches, caretakers, cautions, sympathy, misconceptions…” (Baar 2018, 182-203). These are decontextualized fragments, images, and vague concepts meant to elicit reactions and be easily digestible and consumed by the gaze of the non-disabled viewer. This imagery does not exist in isolation.Much as Young’s outline for “It’s the Same World” had begun with a list of different fragments of what he and his production team saw as a disabled person’s life, his script for 1981’s “Journey for Survival,” on water access, begins with a similar montage of decontextualized images and tropes. His vision for the film is populated with “dead animals,” an “African woman with starving baby,” a “water-bearers montage,” and a “Tanzanian woman. (Young, 1981). These tropes persist in the UN’s films because they are easy for the audience to identify and understand. They provide a specific moral and emotional framework that narrates the problem in need of attention, and guides the audience’s reactions (See Fehrenbach and Rodogno 2015, 4). The filmmakers’ guiding vision in the outline reveals as much: “None of the film will be ‘educational’ in the traditional sense of facts, programs, and statistics. Instead, our intent will be to reach the viewer’s mind…through his or her heart” (Dick Young Productions). The film, and its portrayal of its subjects, was intended as an exercise in eliciting visceral audience emotions, not as an intellectual appeal.

Young’s initial draft did not pass the UN’s internal channels without generating controversy. Charles W. Morrow, the director of the World Health Organization’s Division of Public Information in Geneva expressed concern about the film’s simplistic take on disability. In a telegram to Doss on June 20, Morrow noted,

We are concerned that emphasis on disabled child – opening scene – crippled beggar – blind piano player – perpetuate [sic] stereotypes. Message that greater access should be provided for disabled of course provides quote easy out unquote avoiding difficult question of true change in attitudes towards disabled. It should be noted in this connection that no repeat no society is made up of quote normal unquote people (Morrow 1980).

Morrow had tapped into one of humanitarian imagery’s glaring contradictions. Of course, sentimental images of innocent, disabled, and vulnerable populations could evoke the sympathies of the audience. But would this sympathy be self-serving, inviting pity rather than translating complex self-reflection into institutional change?

For the few who spoke out in criticism of the IYDP, the answer was clear. When the United Nations declared 1981 the International Year of Disabled Persons, Ian Dury, English rock musician and a survivor of polio spoke out against the categorization of “the disabled” inherent in the concept. His 1981 song “Spasticus Autisticus” offered perhaps the most hard-hitting criticism of a collective yearlong exercise meant to raise awareness for “disabled people.” The lyrics spoke to a dynamic of gaze and projection: “Hello to you out there in Normal Land/You may not comprehend my tale or understand/As I crawl past your window give me lucky looks/You can be my body but you’ll never read my books” (Dury 1981). Dury’s reference to a “Normal Land” was a direct address to a society where “disability” was defined in fundamental juxtaposition to a concept of normalcy. It was a reference to the UN’s own language and rationale for the IYDP – that disability was above all else a medical problem that needed fixing, rather than one that necessarily required a reimagining of social structures. Furthermore, it was a condemnation of what Dury saw as an exercise in collective, patronizing self-affirmation for a concerned Western public, who could not comprehend the individual experiences and needs of the disabled, but nevertheless sought to speak for the group and assess so-called solutions. Images and film campaigns to raise awareness, bolstered by the participation of token disabled celebrities, offered a “window” and a fleeting glimpse into the lives of the disabled. The resulting image was of crawling disabled bodies, met with pity – those “lucky looks.” The backlash against Dury’s song was swift – the BBC banned it from its airwaves soon after release, citing offensiveness – confirming the very self-serving nature of the IYDP the lyrics charged. As one journalist wrote in retrospect following a performance of “Spasticus Autisticus” at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics in London, “Evidently we prefer our disabled people to be tastefully grateful for our sympathy, rather than trouble us with what it’s like living with a difficult body” (Raheem 2012). While the general public in the West was ready to participate in an awareness campaign, it was less willing to understand the systemic social, political, and quotidian circumstances that the disabled community continued to confront.

Humanitarian imagery was never intended to go beyond the visceral, and It’s the Same World serves this function well. As Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno note in Humanitarian Photography: A History,

Humanitarian imagery only rarely gestured at political causation. And if it did, it would not – likely could not – convey political and social complexities. Indeed, the effectiveness of humanitarian rhetoric appears to depend on its apparent simplicity and directness of emotional address. It focuses viewer attention on suffering, framing it as unjust yet amenable to remedy. It erases distracting political or social detail that would complicate the duty to act. In this sense, humanitarian imagery is moral rhetoric masquerading as visual evidence. As such, humanitarian photography was, and is, politically and morally charged terrain (Fehrenbach and Rodogno 2015, 6-7).

It’s the Same World’s lack of interest in “political causation” was perhaps due to the very political process through which the films were produced and developed. UN films from the era required pre-approval from national governments that had consented to filming within their borders. For example, the WHO’s 1984 Film on Leprosy was cleared for release by the Government of India only after the organization had ensured any mention of droughts in the Tamil Nadu region was “kindly… deleted” (Balakrishnan 1984). Content was privy to the politics and special interests of individual national governments that sought both material aid for humanitarian causes and preservation of their image abroad. Thus, films like It’s the Same World were products of curation, told through the eyes of multiple institutions, not its subjects. Any complexities were edited – actual political and social detail scrubbed from the script – to accommodate the demands of different political actors and as a matter of convenience. As Morrow had hinted in his telegram, the systemic and institutional structures that perpetuated discrimination against the disabled were thus left unexamined in the film. Introspection invited the prospect of collective responsibility for oppression and intolerance, and the producers sought not to complicate viewers’ conscience and moral position.

UNAV LibraryWhile the International Year of Disabled Persons was met with criticism over insensitivity, It’s the Same World was received relatively warmly. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in 1980. It was Dick Young’s second of three consecutive Oscar nominations for UN documentaries he produced – His first, Remember Me, made for the International Year of the Child, had been nominated the year before; the third, Journey for Survival, the year after. That It’s the Same World’s registered with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – long Hollywood’s gatekeepers and cultural arbiters – suggests the film’s relevance (or at least resonance) in the mainstream, beyond the realm of public health administrators and officials. Furthermore, it was a harkening back to the historical relationship between Hollywood and the UN during the early years of the postwar era (Sluga 2018, 138-157). UN communications staff was swept up in the excitement of the film’s exposure. In a letter to Charles Morrow, Leila H. Doss, a Director in the UN’s Department of Public Information, gushed at the wide public attention to the film. She wrote, “I understand that when it was shown in Canada, the switch-board of the television station was jammed with calls for several hours…. The Canadian distributor says he’s had more success with this than with any other he has handled” (Doss 1981).  Morrow too, who had previously expressed concern about the film, was pleased with the outcome, praising its message of “prevention” and “appropriate rehabilitation” (Morrow 1981).

The Western audience that saw It’s the Same World in 1981– those who had called into stations in Canada or seen the film in Europe and North America – were members of a culture where images of disability, the maimed, the crippled, and the invalid were images hidden and traditionally reserved to shock and induce pity. As witnesses to postwar decolonization and violence, and living only half a decade removed from the Vietnam War, the public’s vision of the disabled was informed by images meant to elicit visceral reactions: the recurring image of a young Third Worlder with the cleft lip, disfigured, misshapen body, or missing limb from a landmine, and the image of a maimed soldier – a once proud, strong man stripped of his faculties. These were ultimately stories of people in faraway places, in very specific and relatively uncommon situations; stories meant to assuage an insecurity with bodies and self – the perpetual fear of knowing that one’s precious mobility can be stripped at any moment. As the film notes, disability “respects no borders, nor do they know political, social, or economic boundaries” – disability can strike anyone (It’s the Same World 1981). And thus, It’s the Same World and its images of children elicit a sense of voyeurism – one that stems from historical morbid fascination with the disabled body. It’s the Same World, and by extension, the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons, was ultimately the product of the able-bodied West’s collective need to reaffirm a completeness of self amidst suffering, disabled bodies. Its enthusiastic reception by a predominantly Western audience provided a sounding board that reaffirmed both the UN’s internationalism to the global public and the potential of media to extend the UN’s visual identity.


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