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The Undateables: a frank review

Regular contributor, Deborah Caulfield, tells us her opinion on The Undateables, a three-part series following a group of people with disabilities as they navigate the world of dating.

Having neither impressed or entertained me, I consider Channel 4’s “The Undateables” to have been, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a potentially damaging and cynical exercise in the exploitation of disabled people. The overtly patronising voice-over described participants as “extraordinary singletons” who “we follow as they take their first steps into the world of dating, sharing their highs and lows in their quest for love”.

“Looking for love can be tricky. It’s a big step for Sam.”

The Undateables was neither documentary nor reality TV. It was a down-market gawp fest for those who could watch it feel better about their lives. It was a cold manipulation of the needs and desires of a particular section of society’s social rejects and outcasts, people who are most often shunned and excluded through no fault of their own but because they don’t meet the socially expected good-looking criteria.

The programme worked on, and fed into, the notion that disabled people and people with facial or other ‘disfigurements’ are just like ‘us’ inside. “Everyone needs to be loved” we‘re told. I agree, but not everyone needs to go on a date. Do they?

Dating is a stupid activity. Dating is to relationships what interviews are to job – unreal and irrelevant. They’re embarrassing and stressful even in perfect circumstances, never mind accompanied by a chaperone, camera crew and an audience of oglers. For people who are shy, have low self-esteem or are too oppressed to know they’re oppressed, it is hard to think of a worse way to address their loneliness, or sense of isolation, than this.

So how was it that these twelve people were enticed or induced to participate in this ludicrous exercise? Someone took the decision to go ahead. Backsides were no doubt well covered against potential accusations of exploitation. Consent forms were signed. By whom, I wonder? Was professional independent advocacy provided? One doubts not.

I object to this programme in so many ways that it is hard to articulate the reasons why. Others may have put it better. For example, UKDPC regarded the programme as voyeuristic, saying it sensationalised the issues, portraying disabled people as “desperate to seduce.” UKDPC said the programme raised questions of dignity and representation, that it was “harmful to our overall image, and risks increasing prejudice.”

With all that I wholeheartedly concur. And then some.

Parents were overly present in some episodes, giving advice, encouragement and in one case, a lift in the car to the date. It was to mum that another participant went running after his successful date. There was a sense that this level of parental intervention in the lives of their adult offspring is perfectly OK and has no unwanted side-effects.

Participants were shown mostly upbeat, putting on their glad-rags, buying flowers and in one case, writing a poem. If there were any bad or sad moments, we didn’t see them. Some of the participants were shown in pubs having a drink and a laugh with chums and workmates. One can’t trust that these scenes weren’t set up.

The Undateables was a lucky opportunity for some free advertising for certain dating agencies that were involved in the programme. I won’t collude by naming them here. Unsurprisingly, they were a cheery bunch, ever optimistic that there is someone out there, somewhere, for everyone.

Disabled people don’t need this kind of twaddle. Outsiders founder Dr Tuppy Owens wrote:
“…the whole thing was a set-up, using the agency as a vehicle. It’s not a proper documentary, just reality TV. Disabled people should not be treated in this way, and it makes us wonder about other ‘documentaries’ — are they all fiction?
According to The Guardian, the second episode of The Undateables reached an audience of 2.7 million.

For my money, if this is the best they can do, I hope Channel 4 and other TV programme makers soon get bored with disabled people and go back to ignoring us. However, with the upcoming Paralympics, I suspect there is more to come.

The programme is available online for an unspecified but limited time at the Channel 4 website. If you’re not sure whether to watch it, here is a taster from Channel 4:

By Deborah Caulfield

We’d love to know what you think about “The Undateables”, so leave your comments below, email us at editor@disabilityhorizons.com, and join us on Twitter and Facebook.

Also visit our Relationships & Sex and Lifestyle sections for more articles like these.

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