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The Great British Sewing Bee represents disability without mentioning it

The 2022 series of The Great British Sewing Bee, a BBC reality show that sees 12 people compete to be the best sewer, features a contestant with a visible disability but does not refer to it. Sewing enthusiast Gill just happens to have an upper limb difference.

UPDATED: 10/06/2022 – Gill was eliminated from the show at episode seven and gave a moving farewell speech. Read more below.

The programme is on its eighth series and hosted by new presenter Sarah Pascoe who has taken over the role from former presenter Joe Lycett. The judges are fashion designer Patrick Grant and professional sewer Esme Young.

Who is Gill on the Sewing Bee?

Gill first tried sewing when her husband bought her a machine three years ago and it was love at first stitch and she’s never looked back.

The 44-year-old from Doncaster works as a public health intelligence analyst, insisting that her love for numbers helps her in her sewing.

She taught herself to sew, starting with a headscarf from a 1970’s duvet cover, which she’s yet to wear out in public.

She describes her style as “Audrey Hepburn-inspired if you squint and don’t look too closely”.

Gill makes clothes for herself, her two stepdaughters, her husband and work colleagues. She’s even branched out to making a dog coat for her greyhound rescue Maureen.

Gill speaks about her disability 

Although never mentioned on the show so far, Gill has a visible upper limb difference, in which her right forearm is missing.

Taking to Instagram on December 3rd 2021, Gill wrote it’s “taken her 44 years to acknowledge” she’s someone with a disability:

“Today is #IDPWD (International Day of Persons with Disabilities)… I have a disability. This might sound strange, I mean look at me… I’m visibly different, I have what is described in my medical record as ‘Major loss of lower two-thirds of right arm. Severe and significant loss’. Let’s skip over the fact I didn’t ‘lose’ it, it’s not something I left at the supermarket or in a toilet cubicle!“

Gill continued: “I live in a two-armed world, everyone I see has two arms. I’ve never met anyone in real life who looks like me and until recently I’d never seen anyone like me in the media. Pretty much every daily activity is constructed around having two arms. Think holding a glass and turning the tap on to fill it with water, think pulling the zip up on your coat, think tying your shoelaces. Of course, I do all these things.“

 

She also wrote in a different post on January 11th that she was no longer going to wear a prosthesis: “I’ve decided to stop doing this for a number of reasons. This is personal to my own experience but I’ve realised by wearing a prosthesis I was hiding my disability, and that didn’t make me feel good about myself. So, no more hiding for Gill!“

Gill’s Sewing Bee challenges

The Great British Sewing Bee contestants and judges

In episode one, which aired on Wednesday 27th of April, Gill and the other contestants competed in three tasks.

For the first task, the group had to make a mini skirt and Gill came in sixth. For the second task, they created loungewear and Gill came seventh.

For the final challenge, Gill made a Kate Middleton inspired wrap dress. She did really well, with Patrick saying: “It’s the absolute epitome of elegance… You’ve done quite an incredible job on this dress”. Gill replied: “Am I dreaming?”.

Gill went on to compete for six more weeks before being eliminated on episode seven.

After the announcement, she explained how she had “loved every minute” of her Sewing Bee experience. Speaking in front of judges Patrick Grant, Esme Young, host Sara Pascoe and her fellow competitors, Gill tried to hold back tears as she explained:

“It’s been life-changing for me in a completely unexpected way. Before coming into this I would always wear a prosthetic limb and I have done for the whole of my life.

“Coming into this I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do that. It’s kind of made me realise that I don’t need to do that anymore,” the 44-year-old continued: “So you’ve kind of like set me free.”

Disability representation on reality TV

Gill is one of many people with a disability to feature on a reality TV show. There have been several disabled dancers on Strictly Come Dancing, campmates on I’m a Celebrity, contestants on Britain’s Got Talent, cooks on MasterChefa participant on Love Island and many more.

But a common theme with many is the mention of a disability. But that’s not always the case. The Great British Bake Off has also visibly represented disability without mentioning it.

In 2018, amateur baker Briony May Williams – who has an upper limb difference that she calls her “little hand” – competed on Bake Off and made it to the semi-final.

Like Gill on the Sewing Bee, Briony’s disability was never mentioned and it was only noticed by viewers halfway through the series.

Briony Williams making custard on Great British Bake Off

Speaking to Disability Horizons in 2020, Briony told us how she managed to not make her disability the focus point while on Bake Off:

“I asked them not to mention my disability because I wanted to be treated like everyone else. I wanted to show people that even with my “little hand”, I could succeed.

I just wanted it to happen organically, and for people to notice and then have that conversation, rather than making a big deal out of it.

I wanted to be seen as one of the bakers, and not to be slapped with a big label from the beginning. I just wanted to go through on my own merit.”

Read our full interview with Briony May Williams on Disability Horizons.

Since then, Bake Off has included more disabled contestants – Marc Elliott in 2020 and Lizzie Acker in 2021 – and recently TV presenter Sophie Morgan took part in Celebrity Bake Off for SU2C.

Watch Gill and the other contestants on The Great British Sewing Bee on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC One and catch up on BBC iPlayer.

By Emma Purcell 

More on Disability Horizons…

Emma Purcell

Editor & Writer at Disability Horizons. Blogger at Rock For Disability. Loves live music, comedy, acting, chocolate and is a Harry Potter fanatic.
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