Entertainment & Culture

Disability and entertainment: where are all the disabled people?

Hayleigh Barclay is delighted to join in with Disability Horizons to offer a monthly article on entertainment. Hayleigh has a Masters in Creative Media Practises and is currently undertaking a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and she’s going to use her expertise to open up the world of entertainment to Disability Horizon’s readers. This month, readers’ questions are answered.


For this month’s column, I opened up the subject matter to you, my lovely readers, to ask the questions that are burning up at the bottom of your stomachs. Luckily for me, I received a reply about a week ago and it went something like this:

“Why aren’t there more disabled people in all those mediums, and why no disabled presenters and no actors in roles that aren’t necessarily there to highlight disability issues? We are ordinary people, who do ordinary things. When I turn on the TV, I’d like to see more people who are like me or who are in any way disabled, and I’d like to see it in my life time. People would have thought the media would have come much further than this by now!”

Thank you, kind stranger for your inquiry (by the way, I paraphrased your question); it has allowed me to get my Nancy Drew on and do some investigating. I feel that I have become a mixture of Agony Aunt, kickass detective and the Oracle (see previous article) all in one. It’s nice, I’ve suddenly become interesting!

I have been racking my brain to think of – or to remember – well-known actors and TV presenters who have disabilities and I have to confess that eventually I had to ask my BFF, Google, to share the wisdom. There will come a time I fear when Google will ask me to delete them from my contact list, apparently I am becoming too needy, but enough about my technological tribulations…

The fact that one of my readers feels that disabled people are still underrepresented poses a problem, not only for the media, but for society as a whole. Long gone are the days when people with a learning disability or using a wheelchair were kept indoors or were placed in institutions away from citizen’s eyes, however stigma still remains towards those with disabilities.

Throughout my research, I unfortunately have come to the conclusion that the media is still very much behind the times when it comes to hiring disabled, on-screen talent. It would be too blasé of me to villainise the production companies for this lack of representation, perhaps there is an underlying factor at work here. For example, in 2009, the BBC received complaints from concerned parents after employing Cerrie Burnell as a presenter on a bedtime show on CBeebies. Ms Burnell was born with one arm and some parents felt that this was too scary for their little darlings. Plus, and this is where the violins come out, it would mean that parents may have to discuss the issue of disability before their children are fully ready.

I would like to point out that as a child born with a disability (as I was) I had to talk about the issue from a very early age and no long term therapy sessions have been needed! I think your children will be fine if you explain to them that the world is full of different people and there is nothing to worry about. By the way, isn’t it parents who tell their children about The Bogieman or that Santa won’t come if they are naughty? That is the real scary shit!

It should be noted that some parents were in favour of having a disabled presenter as it offered positive role model for the children, especially those with disabilities. To these sensible parents, I would like to say on behalf of those with a hope for rational society, thank you.

There, rant over. I might invest in some herbal tea at some point…

Despite the last example, there are some (not many) notable TV and film personalities who have a wide range of disabilities, such as;

Tom Cruise (actor in Top Gun, Mission Impossible, Rain Man) and Quentin Tarantino (director of Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained) – dyslexia

Christopher Reeves (actor in Superman) – paralysed after horse riding accident, however continued to work afterwards

Michael J. Fox (actor in Back to the Future, Spin City, The Good Wife) – Parkinsons Disease. Has continued to work throughout the progression of his condition. My particular favourite role was as Dr. Kevin Casey in an episode of Scrubs, whereby he played a character with OCD

Kim Tserkezie (actress in Balamory, Writer and Producer) – paraplegic

Sarah Bernhardt (actress in Camille, The Clairvoyant, Mothers of France) – leg amputation. If you want to know who this French actress is, she is who Nicole Kidman’s character in Moulin Rouge aspired to be

Adam Hills (comedian and presenter of The Last Leg) – prosthetic right foot

Ade Adepitan (wheelchair basketball player and presenter from London 2012 Paralympic Games) – polio at the age of six, resulted in loss of leg.

I think the above list proves that it is possible to work in the entertainment industry and have a disability. Some of the people mentioned were born with their disability and others contracted it later in life. Either way it doesn’t matter, as talent has won out and that really should be the point after all.

The question at the beginning posed why are disabled actors brought in only to highlight disability issues and I have to agree with this question. If a good story needs to be told, then why should a disabled actor not be considered for the part? I have a disability, but I also have blue eyes and depending on my mood, I am either blonde or brunette. These attributes do not define me and having a disability should not impose upon an actor with a disability being able to audition for a part.

On the bright side, the producers of Eastenders seem to have had the same attitude when they hired Lisa Hammond, who has a restricted growth condition, and at times uses a wheelchair. Ms Hammond was brought in to play the role of Donna Yates, who originally was written without a disability. Hammond impressed producers so much with her audition that they employed her and re-created the character to include her disability. At some point, I will probably have to write an entire article dedicated to Lisa Hammond / Donna Yates as the character is a firm favourite of mine.

Yes, some of her storylines have included disability issues, such as relationships, but it is her witty, sarcastic and feisty personality that defines the character. Can you imagine if Hollywood or the British film and TV industry took a leaf out of Eastenders’ book and opened up the doors to possibility? It could redefine the image of the romantic lead and the action hero. Okay, we may get to play the villain sometimes (how many Bond baddies had a disability?) and yes, it may be more fun to be a bad girl… I forget my argument again… Oh yeah, opportunities to be open… But if a super sexy heroic vampire had a disability, I wouldn’t be turning the TV channel or refuse entry into the fan club… Or be forgetting to plan our wedding! The only thing that would matter would be size – of the fangs, of course!

Things may be set to improve as in 2014, Tony Hall the BBC Director General stated that he aims to have the amount of disabled characters on television rise four times the amount as it currently is, within the next few years. Channel 4 and ITV are taking similar approaches to representing minority groups, including people with disabilities. Here is hoping that progress continues and that our diverse culture is easily viewed on-screen. As they say, life imitates art, maybe it is time for art to imitate life.

By Hayleigh Barclay

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