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What Soaps Can Teach Other TV Shows About Disability Representation

February 17, 2022

Soaps aren’t always known for their realism, but they have accepted a fundamental truth in recent years – that they should represent disabled people’s lives more honestly and accurately. Unfortunately, it’s a truth that other forms of entertainment have yet to learn fully.

History is littered with shallow and damaging stereotypes about disabled people, especially in TV and film, and they have consequences for their real-life counterparts.

Two-thirds of British people feel awkward around disabled people. Much of the disability imagery society consumes is inaccurate or offensive (and that can include soaps). The media often represents disabled people as burdens, or tragic victims – until, miraculously, they can be fixed and are okay.

The soaps themselves have to take responsibility for the damage that has been done to disabled people across the generations. But Soapland has evolved – and seems to have made a conscious effort – to include disabled characters with multi-layered storylines and to employ disabled actors to play them.

In recent years, storylines haven’t concentrated exclusively on a character’s disability or used it to further a plot. It’s exciting to see characters with disabilities living with them and not having their entire identities consumed by that single aspect.

The first disabled person I saw on TV was Emmerdale‘s Chris Tate (Peter Amory) in the ’90s. The character, played by a non-disabled actor, negatively shaped my relationship with my own disability. The portrayal only seemed to reinforce the already powerful negative stereotypes.

The audience didn’t see Chris struggle to get into a building or through a doorway, which might have raised awareness and positively influenced the attitudes of wider society, but they did manage to show his other struggles. He always seemed to be bitter about his disability, and I feared I would be too – it consumed his life, and that legacy remains with me. It wasn’t representation – it was harmful tokenism.

As Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the University of Sheffield notes: “Disabled people aren’t the sum of their disability or impairment. They are partners, lovers, mothers, fathers, employees, friends and family members, and everyday people with everyday lives – with joys and worries just like anyone else.”

EastEnders’ Frankie Lewis (Rose Ayling-Ellis) has managed to pack a lot of joy and worry into her time on the soap. Ayling-Ellis has also increased representation for the d/Deaf community through her time on Strictly Come Dancing.

Frankie has shown that her disability is an essential part of her identity without being a barrier to being an everyday person or an EastEnder. What’s more human, or more quintessentially Walford, than scrapping and squabbling like the Mitchell brothers with a sibling until one of you locks the other in the boot of a car?

Soaps are unique as they offer audiences long-term engagement with characters and storylines. As a result, we can learn more about them over time, years or even decades of their lives, including the impacts of their disabilities. We see their relationships unfold, flaws and faults and motivations emerge – their histories are untangled and examined. We see life happen to them, and events shape them.

We have seen Emmerdale’s Ryan Stocks (James Moore) navigate many life events since finding out about his Dingle heritage. However, his disability, cerebral palsy, hasn’t been minimised or erased.

The recent loss of his adoptive mother has been significant. Disabled people are often put into boxes with firm labels and told how to act and react, so to see such raw, debilitating, human despair on screen was meaningful and significant.

The same is true for Coronation Street’s Izzy Armstrong (Cherylee Houston). The character has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and has presented the harsh reality of the pandemic and its negative impact on disabled people. She has been brutally cut off from everyday life and must rely on snippets of human connection via video calls.

Unfortunately, this cruel isolation remains the reality for many disabled people, even as we see others return to the world more fully. Coronation Street must continue to explore and examine the lasting impact.

It’s essential to show the realities of disability. Disability shouldn’t be removed from representation, but nor should it be the single defining element of a person’s story or personality.

It’s about making sure that disabled people are seen as more than stereotypes – disability co-exists with every human emotion and every human experience – sibling rivalry, grief, isolation, a thirst for vengeance.

After all, Hollyoaks’ Summer Ranger (Rhiannon Clements) is not defined by her shortened left forearm but by her not-entirely-successful revenge and murder plots. She might be the Sideshow Bob of British soap, but she achieved a great deal: assault, kidnapping and jilting someone at the altar.

It’s what soaps do so well – better than any other type of television, in fact: they treat disabled people as human beings who are impacted by their disabilities but not defined by them.

Disabled people are multi-layered and multi-dimensional. So, it has been essential to see the focus shift from disabled characters being empty vessels into which non-disabled audiences can pour all their expectations and biases. But, unfortunately, it’s a lesson that other types of film and television have yet to learn.

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