Unreality TV

The BBC has announced a three-part plan designed to significantly improve representation of – and opportunities for – disabled people on and off air  This blog by Dan Burden, SIA’s Head of Advocacy and Campaigns, examines the current respresentation and inclusion of disabled people on TV.

A recent survey has finally revealed the nation’s favourite disabled TV personality. I can now exclusively reveal that nine out of ten people chose Ade Adepitan, while the other 10% chose that woman off the Malteasers ad.

Yes, gone are the days that disabled people on TV were the sole preserve of benefit scroungers and super villains. Now there is a wide range of disabled people available for your viewing pleasure – and sometimes they are even played by real disabled actors!

SCI characters continue to grace our screens, miraculously stumbling to their feet again and again in the perpetual merry-go-round of recycled soap opera stories.

However, the advent of reality TV has really brought disabled people to the fore. Now the viewing public can much better understand the reality of our lives by watching disabled people doing the same vacuous nonsense as everyone else. Yes, we have to do it on our own special programme (The Undateables) rather than mix with real people (First Dates), but at least we are getting more airtime these days … and sometimes ‘we’ aren’t even Paralympians!

Of course, when I say ‘reality’ I don’t mean the reality of disabled people going to work, raising families or generally living their lives. Don’t be silly, where’s the entertainment in that?

No, the reality I mean is assembling a crack team of disabled Avengers to take on some insane challenge, all so that the viewing public can gawp at us from the safety of their own sofas. If there is one thing guaranteed to make my paralysed toes curl, it is the sight of a bunch of disabled people on TV dragging themselves up a hill in Papua New Guinea or hiking across the Russian steppe in a tuk tuk.

It’s not that their antics are particularly cringe worthy. I mean, fair play – I can’t even get into half the shops in town without an elephant and a team of Sherpas. It’s rather the notion that, when we do these things, we do them in a special limbless, sightless, wheelie club rather than as part of an inclusive society with our non-disabled brothers and sisters. No offence, but if I really, really needed to travel the length of the Congo floating on some bark, I probably wouldn’t be asking to do it with you lot. Who would bump me over the kerbs for a start?

Does it really take such a leap of faith to just give disabled people some regular jobs on the box? Just to normalise disability a little bit, gently breaking the public in to the fact that we do exist and one day they may bump into us in Tesco.

What about reading the news? And when I say the news, I mean the real news, not some special disability news just because the newsreader’s got one arm or lost an eye.

“…and that is the main news, on a truly momentous day for mankind. Now over to Linda for the Disability News.”

“Thanks Owen. Earlier today a tea club in Weston-super-Mare got a bit of a surprise when Noel Edmonds popped in to say hello…”

It can’t be that hard can it? I mean, since when was being able to stand up a prerequisite for reading off an autocue?

I would like to say that it’s all doom and gloom in terms of disabled people and the media, but 18 years on from my injury, I feel like we’re finally seeing progress. Some of the more forward-thinking channels run popular schemes to get more talented disabled people into the industry. Perhaps it is only when you have disabled people behind the camera, in front of it or, most importantly, writing the stories, that we will finally see some more accurate portrayals of our lives.

Until then, just a team on Eggheads would be a start…

This blog first appeared as an article in the December 2019 issue of FORWARD Magazine.  More details regarding FORWARD and how to subscribe.