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Disability representation in the media

Disability Horizons contributor Sarah Ismail writes about the portrayal of disability in the media and provides an analysis of the current state of affairs.

When I was asked to write an article on the representation and portrayal of disabled people in the media, my first thought was ‘where do I start?’

In my last article for Disability Horizons, I mentioned the progress that’s being made in representing and portraying disabled characters in fictional books for readers of all ages. But the media is a much bigger and, in some ways, a much more complicated area. It is impossible to cover everything there is to say about this topic in one article. So for now, I’d like to look at the progress that’s been made in recent years with the representation and portrayal of disabled people on TV.

First, everyone’s guilty pleasure – soap operas. Last year, Eastenders featured wheelchair-using student Adam Best. I’m not a fan of Eastenders, but when I asked friends and family who watch the programme what they thought of the wheelchair user, they didn’t seem to like him much! I was secretly pleased about this – it gave me the impression that the character of Adam Best was being shown as an ordinary young person with an ordinary personality. I wouldn’t have been pleased if a programme as popular as Eastenders had  focused too much on his  disability, or had shown him as someone who spent all his time at the hospital being treated for it.

Adam Best was played by David Proud, a disabled actor. This gave me even more pleasure, and some pride in the producers of the programme. Not only did they portray a disabled young person as being just like everyone else, but they gave a mainstream role to a talented disabled actor. In this way, not only did non-disabled viewers learn that disabled people are just like everyone else, but young disabled viewers who dream of getting into acting were also allowed to realise that one day, disability or not, they might just get a part in Eastenders, too!

Earlier this year, Hollyoaks introduced permanent wheelchair user Pete Hamill. Reading about his role also gave me pleasure and pride – he’s the head of Hollyoaks High School. He’s in a position of authority over others- so the character acts as a role model for disabled viewers who want to go into teaching. Even better, the part is played by disabled actor Peter Mitchell, better known to me as Dan from Cast Offs.

Which leads me perfectly on to my next point. When Cast Offs was screened in 2009 on Channel 4, it was a completely new concept. Six disabled characters played by six disabled actors, thrown together on a desert island to take part in a Big Brother style reality show. Yes, the programme looked in detail at how they dealt with being, and becoming, disabled, but it also portrayed them in a positive light. The characters were normal young people – they fell in love, got pregnant, got married, fought, broke up and made up. It was Big Brother meets Home And Away meets Skins – oh, and everyone’s disabled.

Another guilty pleasure that most people have is Britain’s Got Talent. I was very pleased recently when I discovered that James Hobley, an 11 year old dancer with autism, was participating in this year’s competition. I’d already heard of James, who featured in last year’s BBC Three documentary Autism, Disco And Me, which was about how his talent for dancing helped his disability.

I’m very pleased that the producers of Britain’s Got Talent gave James the opportunity to participate in the show. I’ll be even more pleased if he gets far in the competition, or becomes as successful as the last disabled participant – a certain Susan Boyle. However, even if this isn’t his big break, I hope that James is portrayed as a young, talented dancer who happens to have autism – and not as a child who has autism and happens to be able to dance.

Finally, I’d like to look at the progress that the BBC has made in portraying and representing disabled people in recent years. They recognised the talents of Cerrie Burnell, a beautiful woman who started out as an actress, when they gave her a regular job as a presenter on children’s channel CBeebies in early 2009. The only problem was that she was born without an arm. When some parents complained that she was scaring their toddlers, the BBC gave her a very good amount of support. As far as I know, she still has the presenting job. I’m very pleased about this, because seeing a disabled person regularly on TV will hopefully teach all her viewers that difference is not wrong, but is just a part of life.  Toddlers who are taught this from so early in life will hopefully grow up to be accepting and sensitive people.

In recent years, BBC Three has shown several programmes about disability issues. As well as last year’s season of programmes about autism, there was Dancing On Wheels, which was basically Strictly Come Dancing for wheelchair users.

In the last year, they have also screened Love Me, Love My Face and So What If My Baby Is Born Like Me?  Both these documentaries featured Jono Lancaster, a young man who was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare genetic condition. Both programmes covered in detail the problems that Jono has faced throughout his life as a result of his condition. They followed him as he tried to help children and families who share his disability. But they also showed him as an ordinary young man with very good looks and a beautiful girlfriend, who wants what most young men want – an ordinary life with children of his own.

Then, of course, there are the BBC’s disabled journalists – Frank Gardner and Gary O’Donoghue. They are never far from our screens, but their disabilities are never mentioned when they present news reports.

Of course, nothing’s perfect, and there’s still room for improvement in this area. So we can only hope that the good progress that is being made continues for many years to come. Who knows, maybe one day no one will even blink at the sight of a disabled person on the box!

By Sarah Ismail

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