The Ablist Witches

Over the last two days, there have been some rumblings around the new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous and much loved children’s story The Witches. I have not seen this updated version, but I am aware that many people are saying that the depiction of the witches in this film adaptation is insensitive to disabled people with limbs that are different from the norm or deformities.

I have a different hand and my toes are different from the average. My feet are deformed but most people will not notice this. I notice it because some shoes make my feet sore. This is why I wear old lady summer shoes with extra padding because otherwise the shoes would hurt my feet and cause sores to appear on the bottom of my feet which are not conducive to walking. I also have facial scarring which has faded Yet I was a teenager with very apparent facial scarring and differences.

How do I feel about the new film adaptation of The Witches?

I am unaffected. If no one in the media had made a fuss, I would never have thought about the film. I have never before made any link between The Witches and ablism and stigmas against disabled people and people with deformities – which is how I refer to myself.

I was called names in the street when I was a teenager because of my facial scarring. It hardly affected me. My other deformities often go unnoticed. I do not have differences that are more noticeable like those of comedian Alex Brooker or Paralympians. However, I have worked alongside people with more noticeable facial and limb differences. I went to college with a young woman who had three digits on each hand.

I have recently moved to a city in the north of England. One of the first things I noticed was that here, in this city, people with different arms, legs or amputations have no problem having them out on show here. In my first week here, I saw a Chinese student with an arm missing wearing a T-shirt. Several weeks ago, I saw a young lady in booty shorts with a metal leg. The landlord of a local bar has three digits on each hand. He serves drinks to everyone who comes into the bar.

Attitudes towards disabilities and people with limb difference or deformities have changed. Part of the reason they have changed is because of the damage done to soldiers’ bodies in recent wars. Thanks to the amazing medical advances, more soldiers are surviving bombs and other horrendous incidents and so we see these brave people on our TV screens and in our communities. We have had the invictus Games led by Prince Harry. We have the Paralympics. We have comedians like Alex Brooker on TV. We have disabled people in TV dramas and soaps as well as presenting nature programmes and children’s TV programmes. There is a lot more visibility today.

Yes, some people are always going to make unkind comments. Today, I do not get comments in the street about my facial scarring because it has faded somewhat, but I do get comments about wearing glasses. Some people are shouted at in the street for being overweight. There are always going to be people who make unkind comments. However, they are not the majority. The majority of people are kind and the majority of people are more understanding than people were twenty years ago.

Things are not perfect, but we are moving in the right direction in the UK. I have been forced out of jobs for being disabled, but not for having a different hand, feet or facial scarring. Those issues have never arisen in the workplace, except for how difficult it was for me to wear gloves in some situations when I worked on hospital wards. The glove of my different hand used to fill up with water when I was assisting a patient to wash or shower.

I am not discounting other people’s experiences, but I doubt that children will make a connection between The Witches and disabled people. The Witches was originally made into a film starring Angelica Houston in 1990. There was no outcry then, nor when the book was written in 1983. Roald Dahl’s children’s stories are known for their grotesque depictions of people – and in no way am I calling people with different limbs or no limbs grotesque. I am using the classical meaning of the word. Other children’s books by Dahl such as James And The Giant Peach, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and The Twits all have grotesque characters. Films aimed at children over the last few years since Harry Potter have featured and even focussed on the grotesque.

I will not watch The Witches – both versions of the films – because people removing their faces to show another face underneath grosses me out. I get grossed out easily. It was the same with the second Bill and Ted film. There were robots disguised as Bill and Ted and they pulled off their faces. I stopped watching the film because I myself have a particular sensitivity. I would not tell other people to watch it.

We have to let writers write. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it or read it. Write something better. I am writing a trilogy around characters who all have two of the disabilities I have and they go out and save the world. Their disability is a part of their lives, just as is their racial backgrounds, religions and sexual orientations. Their immutable characteristics are simply immutable characteristics. The story is what they do.

My advice to other disabled, deformed people or people with limb difference is to build up your self esteem. Everyone is called names. It is not pleasant and it is not OK, but it happens to everyone. Build up your self esteem. Do sports, do drama, achieve in academia, achieve in the workplace. Build a life for yourself. Like me, you may have to consider the needs of your disability every day, but you can live a full and wonderful life.

About catherinehume

Catherine Hume: Writer, social care worker and a liver of a life less ordinary.
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