This draws on my doctoral research on the ways that disability and disabled people are represented in the British press. I have conducted focus groups with disabled and non-disabled people and individual interviews with disabled and non-disabled journalists.
In this blog I focus on the story of Katie Thorpe, a teenager who has severe Cerebral Palsy which affects her both physically and intellectually. In 2007, Katie’s story stirred controversy in Britain. What I am interested in most is how the British press represented Katie’s story in strikingly different ways.
One newspaper article about Katie Thorpe began with the headline: ‘I want my girl to have the “Ashley Treatment.”’ Ashley X was a severely disabled child in the United States whose parents wanted doctors to give her oestrogen therapy to prevent her from growing so that it would be easier to care for her. In this newspaper article, Katie Thorpe’s mother, Alison, built on the Ashley X case by arguing that her daughter, Katie, should have a hysterectomy as she would not be able to understand menstruation nor to cope with the discomfort it can cause. Alison also criticised the professionals and ethicists charged with making the ultimate decision about the hysterectomy in the article. Caroline Davis, the article’s author, wrote that Katie Thorpe’s mother said:
“She was fighting for her daughter to have a hysterectomy. She criticised “so-called professionals” and ethicists who made crucial decisions from comfortable offices far away from the reality of living daily with a severely disabled child.”
Davis portrays Katie’s family as victims because they have to care for Katie. She quotes Alison as saying, about Katie:
“She is unable to do anything for herself at all, which includes feeding, she is doubly incontinent, she is unable to sit up. I think of myself as Katie’s mum first and her carer second, but that does become very difficult and muddled at times and it’s very, very hard to be a mum when you have to do the sort of things to your teenage daughter that I have to do on a daily basis.”
Personally, I feel Katie’s mother capitalised on the opportunity to be so public about what she and her partner have to do for her daughter. It must certainly be very difficult to care for a severely disabled child. However, there are many other parents in similar situations who manage these challenges without publicising them.
Davis also cites Katie’s mother’s opinion on why she thinks medical intervention is justified for her daughter:
“I think medical intervention can be justified if the child can be given an increased chance of enjoying the life they have…If that person is enjoying her life then I think it shouldn’t be for us to intervene just because someone is sitting on high morals in a hospital a long way from what is really happening.”
Katie’s mother seems very adamant about what she believes is best for Katie. She wants to be in control over Katie’s life. She may find it difficult to accept help from others.
In her article, Davis uses a quote from an interview on BBC Radio 4, in which Katie’s
mother heavily criticised the professionals who had made comments about Ashley X:
Listening to the reactions from consultants and so-called professionals in the UK I’m afraid just makes me extraordinarily angry…I have to say I really don’t think they have a clue. Yes, they see these children in their surgeries for a few minutes at a time. But they don’t live with children like Katie, they do not live with them on a daily, hourly basis. They don’t have to do as I and many other parents like me have to just to give their child an existence.
Here, Katie’s mother is criticising paediatricians who have extensive knowledge about Cerebral Palsy. Some will have empathy for the parent and child. Katie’s mother seems to be criticising them because she is not getting what she wants from them.
Caroline Davis also interviewed Peter Reynolds, who is the partner of Katie’s mother. Peter told her that Katie’s mother could not manage to care for Katie on her own:
“If I wasn’t there, Alison couldn’t cope on her own. Katie has just got so big and heavy…The carers who come here are not allowed to lift unless there are two of them. We have a hoist, but it is broken.”
Peter Reynolds seems to emphasise with Katie’s problems. It is also clear that Katie and her family are not receiving appropriate support. The article leaves me wondering if they have asked for the help they need as there should be no reason for the family to have a broken hoist.