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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.


  1. I thought the series was really lovely. I do agree that the voice over woman was patronising, totally patronising. But I thought the participants were lovely and it really showed them to be the sweet people they are.

  2. Quote”The Undateables was neither documentary nor reality TV. It was a down-market gawp fest for those who could watching 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.”

    I found on the series that most people where always surrounded by their family and friends on social outings

  3. “Consent forms were signed. By whom, I wonder? Was professional independent advocacy provided? One doubts not.”
    I agree with much that you say here, but the above quote seems to take a lot of agency away from the individuals who appeared in the doc.  Why do you assume that they were somehow unable to make an informed choice? I know someone who was filmed but did not end up being in the doc, and he in no way requires advocacy to make decisions for himself.

  4. well done for sticking with it Deborah. That’s commitment that is. I gave up towards the end of the first one.  Did anyone get laid? Did we get to see them doing it? Isn’t this what everyone really wanted to see? So, voyeuristic and hopeful. Fetish porn with keep your clothes on. Or, was it more like a fairy tale? I mean i found it very sugary, very sweet. Not a good fairy tale at all. The grimm stuff was left out. Why am i writing this? I shouldn’t be. As the sex pistols said, never mind the rounder bits

  5. Certainly a frank review but also a partial and unbalanced one –“enticed or induced”? Implies that the contributors were not able to make a rational and informed decision to take part. “Dating is a stupid activity” ? The people in the films clearly didn’t think so and nor, judging from the social media response, did most of the 3million viewers for each episode (inluding 4OD viewers). UKPDC made outrageous and insulting claims that the programme “portayed us (people with disabilities) as seducers” but have been unable when challenged to say where in the series such a portrayal was made –not much credibility there then. Independent advocacy  – great when it’s needed – but are you suggesting it should be compulsory for people who are able to clearly demonstrate their own independence and to understand and sign consent forms. Sorry Deborah but I think this was less of a review and more an opportunity for you to patronise the people who took part in these excellent films and in so doing patronise people with disabiliiteis in general.

  6. We at Outsiders were told by the woman who’s called “Disability Officer” or some such title at Ch4, that, even though Outsiders had not been selected to be featured as the agency in the programme, we would gain enormously from being in the online Help page. Researcher Adam Pearson had come to our Independence Day event and collected the phone numbers of my non-disabled friends and colleagues, because they said they would date disabled people. He then set about hounding them to be part of the programme. Thus they had “used” Outsiders (without paying) to try to get subjects, both disabled and not, for the show. Thankfully, none agreed. Sadly, though, we got very few people finding us on the Help page, and gained very few members indeed.
    Surely there are enough glorious stories to tell about disabled people, relationships and sex without making them up? I don’t understand why Ch4 has to be so tabloid.

  7. It’s very hard knowing what to think. I find myself near forty with little relationship experience. I just feel that the construct of society in almost every way is against the disabled. I live with a brain injury. I can pass for looking normal but there is still major judgements that happen with potential partners. I really feel very hopeless at the prospect of a relationship. In Australia the disability pension is reduced once living with a partner. That I have to become finacially dependant on my partner is, I feel, a massive discrimination against the disabled. It basically says, at the end of the day, “If you chose to be in a relationship with a disabled person you will be taxed at a higher rate.” As if it isn’t extremely hard to find a relationship anyway.

    TV shows like this are really trivializing the issue. I suppose that’s what tv does. If they can be taken to court for breaking the law in regard to discrimination I hope they are.

    I wonder at times if it would be better to have a community thats for the disabled. I have never really felt comfortable normals, feeling so unlike “normal” people. It seems like there are judgements that come into play that just are.

  8. I think the issue of consent is a valid one. I believe it is wrong to use people for an experiment that will benifit others essential. There is so much money made in advertizing these days. So too I feel it is wrong to use the poor because they are more appt to be manipulated into doing things that are not what they would wish to do. Even if the people were not paid in this show it is still using people for it’s own gain. I am really surprised realtiy tv isn’t held to stricter regulations. I think they would essentially fall under psychological experiments and there are heaps of cases that show it is wrong to conduct experiments in certain ways.

  9. You are entitled to your opinion, but it’s a shame you didn’t ask some of the contributors, such as my daughter Sarah who appears in Series 2. After her stroke at the age of 18 she has aphasia and found socialising very difficult. It was her own decision to appear and since then she has received many hundreds of messages and raised awareness of her condition as a result. It is voyeuristic, in fact we enjoy following the stories of other people in the show, at least three have found lasting relationships after meeting partners on blind dates on The Undateables. We have met and formed friendships with other people who appeared on the programme and I can honestly say that the film crew were compassionate and understanding with my daughter and did not push her to do anything on camera that she was uncomfortable with. We feel proud that the programme was BAFTA nominated and also reached a young audience who have become aware that anyone can acquire a disability.

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