Teaching by Television; by Gemma Bryant

Getting Taught by Television:  The Value of Television Drama in the Education of Genetic Disorders
It’s strange where thoughts can lead while working on a blog.  I’ve said before that my Osteogenesis Imperfecta one was inspired by friends who have the condition, and I very naturally thought of them when Call the Midwife decided to make it the focus of an episode.  This got me thinking about the fact that the series is no stranger to tackling genetic conditions as part of its storylines, having done the same with cystic fibrosis and featured characters with Downs Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy (which is genetic in a minority of cases, about 2%).  Furthermore, spotlight has also been shone on myotonic dystrophy following the revelation that it is possible that any of Steve MacDonald’s three children – two as yet unborn – could have it on Coronation Street.  While I can only think of these two instances as examples of series’ that depict genetic disorders on British television, that in itself raises an important question:  Given the significant number of people living   with a genetic disorder, could and should there be more representation of such things on television in order for the media to be truly representative of society?
Or is it a disservice to those who live with them for genetic disorders to be the subject of sensationalised drama?   Although fictional, it must be remembered that sometimes that drama is reflective of real life.  If you thought, for example, that the storyline in Call the Midwife was accurate due to the fact that it was set during 1960, you’d be wrong.  Medically explainable fractures are still mistaken for child abuse today, and so, despite the historical setting, the episode brought to light a very real problem some parents are forced to face.
Perhaps the more universal difficulty shared by parents of a child with a genetic disorder is having to live with the increased caring needs that the child has, possibly coupled with guilt about the fact that they are responsible for the predicament the child is facing, both of which are explored by the series at different points.  Consequently, it may be that parents – or indeed those who have a genetic condition – feel their voice is being heard as a result of some of their potential struggles being illustrated on screen.
However, sympathy and empathy are not the only things that the media can elicit from its consumers.  The realisation that someone is being educated about something which they previously had little or no knowledge of is a powerful one and can simultaneously eradicate ignorance, entertain and inspire people to make a difference.  Although you may assume that I’m talking about volunteering or fundraising, the difference made does not have to be as significant as that, though both are obviously appreciated.  Sometimes it’s about having just a little bit more understanding of an issue so that one is able to relate to, and possibly assist, affected parties, or even pass that knowledge on to others, merely by suggesting they should sit and watch it.
There is also the issue of accessibility.  By this I mean that television is a great leveller in terms of understanding.  Granted, people can, and will, take different things away from what they are viewing, but it’s a medium that transcends backgrounds, genders, disability, age and many cultures.  Obviously content is created with certain audiences in mind, but even the most cursory of comments can lead to thought-provoking conversations that enlighten people, something that is more likely than ever as a result of the ever-increasing number of ways in which to consume television.  Given the undeniable rise of platforms such as Netflix, it is hoped that this is a trend that continues as, assuming that the portrayal of the characters and issues concerned is sincere, I see no better way to educate the masses on genetic disorders, whether that is their existence, the reality of living with one, or another related issue.  In the words of Alfred Mercier “What we learn as a pleasure we never forget” and if entertainment is not enjoyable, then it isn’t worth watching.  However, if something is enjoyable it is likely that lessons will be more easily learned and as a result genetic disorders will be better understood, by virtue of the fact that information can be shared on a greater scale than otherwise would have been the case.

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