The BBC’s Ableist and Racist Coverage of Prof. Jason Arday

On February 23rd, 2023, the BBC did a story on Prof. Jason Arday, a Black sociologist set to become Cambridge’s youngest Black professor. Here is the link to that story so that you can read it yourself and so you have context for why I am extremely angry at this coverage:

Let’s begin with where things go wrong: The very beginning. You cannot even get past the title without going straight into deficit based language. The article opens with “Diagnosed with autism and global development delay in his early years, Jason Arday was unable to speak until he was 11 years old and could not read or write until he was 18. Now aged 37, he is about to become the youngest black person ever appointed to a professorship at the University of Cambridge.”

Was there a reason to BEGIN with his deficits? Would they ever covered an abled this way? Would they have ever started off with “Here’s a list of ways that we consider you deficit and how you overcame that”? No they would not.

Let’s go deeper into why this particular greatly angers me as someone who became a speaker at the age of 6. This is such a deficit based view of nonspeakers. It phrases nonspeaking as something to overcome and that being a nonspeaker is seen as highly undesireable. Notice that they put it next to illiteracy, which is also seen as highly undesireable. The language around illiteracy is around elimination or eradication of it and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they put it side by side with nonspeaking. That’s how they view nonspeakers: Elimination or eradication is seen as the ideal rather than accepting the large diversity in communication.

Let’s also talk about the UK’s education system. School is mandated until age 16 (age 18 for England). Their bachelor’s typically runs 3 to 4 years, their master’s 1 to 2 years and their PhD 3 years. That means that if you started university at age 18 after completing your A levels (pre-university education) that you could do a bachelor’s and finish at age 22 and then do an MPhil + PhD (combined master’s and doctorate, 4 year length) and finish at age 26. Here’s why I highlighted this- Cambridge is a university that attracts top minds. Why is 37 the youngest Black professor? The UK does not have tenure, so that’s not even an excuse there.

Think on the above reader. I will come back to his age, but let’s move on to the very next sentence: “Although he could not speak, the young Jason fervently questioned the world around him.”

Number 1: Deficit based thinking, but number 2, this was actually the most infuriating sentence to read in the entire article. Want to know why? As someone who is an unreliable speaker and used to be a nonspeaker, people were surprised that nonspeakers can think. It’s so ableist that it makes me want to vomit. Nonspeakers think. It’s utterly a gross framing of “despite this deficit, they can think. Amazing!” Just *shudders*.

Moving on, the article next talks about Prof. Arday being inspired by Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and that he was moved by the suffering of others. Notably absent from this entire article is the UK’s racism, Cambridge’s racism, or any of the ways the UK contributed to South Africa’s racism. I know the focus of the story is on Prof. Arday, but I bring this up because there’s several points in which they could have highlighted the UK cultivating some of the issues he faced, but chose not to.

Next, the article discusses his mother and Sandro Sandri supporting him. Notably absent is his other family members, the general lack of support he got, how his schooling went, most of his struggles before be became a speaker, or any of that. This is another way in which nonspeakers are devalued again. I can promise you as someone who was also diagnosed autistic with a specifier that I was delayed that you generally get neglected by the wider public and are often subject to torrents of abuse along with neglectful and abusive teachers. I’m not saying that Prof. Arday did have this happen to him, but the sheer omission of covering any of his schooling makes me question what did happen to him during this time period.

Now, I’m going to quote the article on the next part: “Growing up in a relatively disadvantaged area and then working as a school teacher, he says, gave him first-hand insight into the systemic inequalities that youngsters belonging to ethnic minorities faced in education.”

Hello there UK’s classism and euphemisms. Note the multiple euphemisms: There’s a class euphemism (relatively disadvantaged) and then there’s a race euphemism (systemic inequalities). BBC, that’s called classism and racism. The UK deliberately underfunded those areas and then had systemic racism by embedding it into the social fabric of the UK and then pretending that it didn’t exist. Note that racism is not used once in the article. I will be highlighting this again.

The next part of the article discusses Prof. Arday’s lack of mentorship when he was writing papers about sociology. Glossed over is academia’s own classism, racism, elitism, and massive abuse. Also glossed over is why did no one mentor him. No seriously, if his friend and others knew that he was interested in this, why did no one offer to mentor him or give him resources so that he could have gotten the support that he needed? Yet another way in which classism, racism, and ableism show up yet again and the BBC does not highlight these aspects.

The article then states that he went on to do 2 master’s and a PhD. Was this also done without mentorship? If so, that’s a massive failure on the UK’s part, especially since you are suppose to have a mentor during your PhD! If not, they should have stated that he did have support during this.

Now here comes one of the most damning statements that the BBC did not elaborate on: “There are currently five black people who are professors at the university.”

FIVE. I repeat: FIVE. Cambridge is a big university. Five Black professors. Let’s think on this. If you survey all of Cambridge’s professors and if you have 5 fingers, you can count all of the Black professors on your hands. If you had a euro for every Black professor at Cambridge, you would have 5 euros. I don’t know how to highlight how violent it is to state this and not immediately state Cambridge’s racism. For example, a news article in 2021 highlighted that “There are higher drop out rates among Black undergraduates than white students and Black students are three times more likely to graduate with third-class honours.” for STEM majors at Cambridge [1]. For those unaware, unless you do significantly better at a different course or do lots of research, a third-class honours shuts you out of graduate school in the UK. Now, sociology and STEM are obviously different, but the point I’m showing is that this problem is everywhere at Cambridge.

The article then highlights that only 155 out of over 23,000 UK university professors are Black. I’m now going to highlight Prof. Arday’s age of 37 along with the fact that racism was not used once in the article. How are you going to highlight that less than 1% of university professors are Black and not even talk about racism? Or that 37 is the youngest Black professor they have out of 5 in Cambridge? Or the fact the UK is deporting refugees to Rwanda and has incredibly high xenophobic and colonialist attitudes towards Africa? I mean, you even brought up South Africa, you could have used that as a segue to the UK’s violent history towards Africans and towards Black people. Alas, they deliberately omit this to attempt to pass it off as a feel good story rather than a story of weaponized harm towards autistic, disabled, nonspeakers, and Black folks.

The article then states that Prof. Arday has an interest in improving representation of minorities in higher education. I hope Cambridge actually gives him the resources to do that. Prof. Arday states “Cambridge is already making significant changes and has achieved some notable gains in attempting to diversify the landscape.”, but nowhere in the article does it state what changes they are doing or how. Seeing the Cambridge Analytical data scandal along with some of my UK friends reporting extremely high ableism from the university does not give me much hope that Cambridge will truly implement the changes Prof. Arday wants and will instead use him as a scapegoat.

The article ends with “Doing this right is an art — it requires real diplomacy and everyone has to feel inspired to work together. If we want to make education more inclusive, the best tools we have are solidarity, understanding and love.”

Okay. This ignores historically how the UK has operated: Lack of solidarity, lack of understanding, and high amounts of hatred. This is not me criticizing Prof. Arday, this is me criticizing the BBC’s doing weaponized harm against multiple groups (such as to transgender folks) and refusing to take responsibility and blame deflecting. This is me seeing them do this same behavior to Black, disabled, autistic, and nonspeakers. This is why I hate the BBC so much and keep in mind that this is my shallow take. I haven’t gone into the fact that while Cambridge has reported on him being appointed that I couldn’t find him listed yet on Academic Staff [2].

Who are you looking for? A search bar is below and below that shows 3 academic staff. Ayesha Ahmed- Senior Teaching Associate, Farah Ahmed- Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, and Julie Alderton- University Associate Professor.

This is what the faculty of education’s academic staff page looks like without specifying in the search bar.

Who are you looking for? I searched Arday, which pulled up no one. I also searched manually and also did not find him currently listed.

When I searched for him, it came up empty. If you are going to make a news article about appointing someone, you really should make sure that they have their own page!

So anyways, this is the long winded article I made about the BBC’s ableist and racist coverage of Prof. Jason Arday. He deserves so much better than this. If you want to check out some of his research, I linked it at the end. For example, he has a paper titled “It’s the end of the World as we know it: Racism as a global killer of Black people and their emancipatory freedoms”.[3]

I am adding a paragraph here that I did not add on Medium. Why did they whitewash his research so much? Why did they not discuss so much of the harm that the UK does? This is what you have to watch out for with media coverage. Were you aware of one of his papers being titled “Dismantling power and privilege through reflexivity: negotiating normative Whiteness, the Eurocentric curriculum and racial micro-aggressions within the Academy”?[4] Like this omission of him obviously talking about this and whitewashing this to death is just one more reason that I will not trust the BBC. BBC, your omission of the word racism when he explicitly does research on racism is extremely damning and this is how I’m ending this article.

Medium Article:





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