Only in the last 60 years or so have people begun to talk openly about sex, but one group is often left out of the discussion.
In this brave documentary, producer John Blades playfully explores the subject of sex and the disabled. Blades, who himself is disabled, openly talks with sex workers and their clients about the sexual needs of the disabled community and the power of touch.
The Too Hard Basket is an ABC Radio National 2009 Production.
John Blades hosts an experimental music show in Australia called Background Noise and is a freelance radio producer. In 1982 he began an experimental and avant-garde music program called Hot Dog You Bet. Then, in 1998 he was invited to co-present the avante-garde music show, Background noise, which he is still doing today. In 1993 he began work on a radio feature for the ABC’s Radio National. Since then, Blades has worked on seven feature documentary programs. The Two Hard Basket was his seventh program for the ABC, and the most personally important program he has made.
BEHIND THE SCENES with John Blades
From what we understand, most of your career has been focused on the music side of radio, was this the first documentary you produced?
I began working on radio documentaries for the ABC in 1993 when I was invited to take part and do interviews for a feature program. Subsequently working freelance, I made six documentary feature programmes for the ABC between 1993 and 2003. The Too Hard Basket was therefore my seventh documentary. The programs previously were on a broad range of social and music subjects such as a four-part series on the history of music in horror films from the 1930s to the 1990s (called Horror Rhapsody), since film music is a major interest for me about which I have some considerable knowledge.
My work in radio has been generally special interest up until I stopped working as a structural engineer in bridge design in 1998. Structural engineering is my profession. Since 1998 I have worked in volunteer community radio as I did between 1982 and 1985 on the Sydney community radio station 2 MBS FM. The current program which I co-present with Richard Fielding is called Background Noise.
Was it frightening to put this piece about a very private issue, into the public sphere?
Following the acceptance of my proposal by the acting arts editor at ABC Radio National he told me that he thought it would be a difficult program for me to make. Although at times confronting, while putting the program together I was totally focused on exposing this issue to the general public and thereby improving the quality of life for people with disabilities, enabling freedom for us with this issue in the public arena. This was the driving force and what I kept thinking of every time I encountered personally private elements. I did not find it frightening but rather exciting and a great sense of satisfaction. At the beginning of the program I had two choices: to remain very private and anonymous and not to disclose the very private aspects or to be very upfront and honest and tell all. I opted for the latter because I believe as a radio listener myself, that listeners respond much more positively and warmly to honesty.
What was the hardest thing about producing this documentary?
The hardest thing was actually the practicality of making the program. Piecing together a large number of components which we laid out on the whiteboard in the production studio. Quite magically all the components fell into place. Music is very important to me and I believe in radio features and film it can be very powerful in helping tell the story and add texture to the narrative. I had actually worked out the music I wanted to use well before the final production stage. I could actually hear the program in my head. The music is often one of the hardest and most challenging considerations and is often not considered. In terms of my own story the most difficult thing was to decide how far to go for a Saturday afternoon audience across Australia. I decided to go all the way and have a warning about adult content in the introduction by the presenter. It was also a challenge to find a female with a disability who had seen a male sex worker. The executive producer Claudia Taranto was determined that the program needed this.
What has been the most gratifying thing?
Completing the program and realising the inherent power of it was the first gratifying thing. And then of course listening to it as it went to air across Australia was really humbling. Following the broadcast of the program I have been overwhelmed with the absolute deluge of beautiful and very touching responses. I have received over 50 e-mails myself and the ABC have received 24 responses on the website. They keep coming as more people hear the program. And internationally from England, Europe, Asia and now America is really unbelievable. And it makes me realise even more that I have created something very powerful. I have had many words verbally from people with disabilities thanking me for providing freedom for them. One mother of a young disabled fellow said that they had been acutely aware of this issue but never known how to deal with it and now they do and so thankful to me. This is so heartening. One response on the ABC website begins with "Thank You Thank You Thank you...". These touching responses are really quite overwhelming. A lady with MS in a wheelchair approached me to ask specifically if it would be possible for her to have intimacy with a close male friend , considering her having a leg bag (for bladder emptying as I do). I relayed my personal story and said that it was absolutely possible and she should proceed and she was immediately greatly relieved and as if a great burden has been lifted. For disabled people I summarise the responses as being for us with the program and subject in the public arena a great cloud has been lifted.
Did you have any difficulty convincing the ABC that this was a documentary that needed to be heard despite its adult content? Or are Australians just more open minded about this kind of thing than we Americans?
The Acting Arts Editor at the ABC responded very strongly to this proposal. He believed it was a program that needed to be made. In Australia the subject of sex in able-bodied people is the subject of many television and some radio documentaries, but disability and sexuality has been neglected quite ashamedly. With a warning at the start of the program in Australia many difficult subjects are tackled in radio features. That also goes for television. We have a very strict censorship body but strong stories of import to humanity are dealt with openly. Freedom of information is a driving force behind the broadcast and televising of a range of programs with strong material. Australians are intrinsically conservative. I believe this program deserves to be heard by everybody. There should be no censorship as they are very human issues and with warning people can just turn off and choose not to listen. The language of human sexuality is just a fact of life. The words intercourse, orgasm, erection and ejaculation are just part of the human experience. They should not be censored. With this in mind maybe you could reassess your decision not to broadcast the program.[Third Coast decided to podcast the program, but felt is was too risque for American broadcast audiences]
In your research, did you come across anything about what kinds of sexual services are available in other countries, such as the United States, for people with disabilities?
We did not look at the United States but some European countries such as Spain where there are brothels that cater for people with disabilities and Denmark where there has been a scheme for government to pay for essential services for people with disabilities with sex workers specialised in working with people with disabilities (such as Kylie and Saul in The Too Hard Basket). In England brothels are illegal and people with disabilities have often had to travel to Europe for sexual services. Although in England it is not illegal to see a sex worker in your home. I would be very interested to know about the situation with sexual services for people with disabilities in the United States.
It seems like you had a good deal of personal experience with the issues being dealt with in The Too Hard Basket before starting on the documentary, but what would you say you learned from the process?
The making of The Too Hard Basket could be a documentary in itself. It was a real journey which began with my own story and sexual connections. I learned many things about making a radio feature documentary. You need to give time and space for interviewees to develop their own personalities. For a 55 minute documentary four main voices (Kylie, Dr Gary Fulcher, Saul and myself) is about the maximum and provides the foundation. Other voices should only be of short duration. Working out the start of the program is very important and it provides a diving board into the subsequent construction. Something unexpected to grab the attention of listeners is a very effective tool for the beginning of a program. Beginning with something unexplained but somewhat mysterious keeps listeners' attention. It is useful to work out music as narrative for a few sections early on. Once all the sections (interviews, vox pops and environments) have been recorded it is very effective to write them all out on a whiteboard. The title of the program does not need to be worked out at the beginning as it can come out of something someone says in the interviews. As in my case where The Too Hard Basket is used as a description of the subject of disability and sexuality and the way society and the media has dealt with it in the words of both Kylie and Saul. It is very important for everyone to speak carefully and not too fast to allow for easy digestion by listeners. I also learnt more than ever previously the great importance of the good understanding and working relationship with an executive producer for a radio feature such as mine with Claudia Taranto for this program. We worked together seamlessly and I have worked previously with an executive producer who was very difficult and disagreeable and this really made putting the program together a trial rather than a pleasure.
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