What does the disabled narrative look like in TV over the last couple of years? Generally I think there has been mostly improvement, definitely over the last 3 and a bit years.
Let’s start with ‘Special’ on Netflix. ‘Special’ is a show about a disabled young adult, written and played by Ryan O’Connell, who I don’t want to say struggles, but I have to. He struggles with his disability and he is a gay man as well. and the character has ableism too. It’s an awkward watch, I admit that, but it’s also a really real and relatable story of the journey of a disabled person trying to live his life. Overall, I can see why people have difficulty with it. It’s not an easy watch, but it is a realistic comedy drama of a disabled person and his life. So for that, I have no problem with it. I have seen and felt worse watching other TV shows like ‘Little Britain’. Matt Lucas plays a wheelchair user who says ‘I want that one’, an impression that a whole generation ended up repeating as a joke, then seeing him getting up and running about behind his carer’s back is magic. It’s funny, but it’s not a good representation of disability and it doesn’t give the audience a great insight into that kind of life. I mean, Matt and David you are great and it was okay 10 years ago but, I would choose ‘Special’ any day over ‘Little Britain’.
I have much more of a problem with ‘Sex Education’ on Netflix. The show as a whole is fantastic, and I love it, but in the second season they introduce a wheelchair user, Isaac, played by George Robinson. Fantastic really, a disabled person playing a disabled character, yay well done, finally some much-needed improvement. However, I still have a but. The character is perfectly cheeky, and a swine, which is perfectly fine to show but it still has connotations of disabled people being bad and from hell. I blame James Bond for this narrative of disabled people because all James bond villains seem to look disabled and slightly screwed up. That’s the narrative I get from Isaac in ‘Sex Education’ – that disabled people are evil, and possibly from hell too. I am not saying that disabled people can’t be dicks because they can, but do all these narratives have to be so extreme? You’re either special or from hell, as if the devil owns our souls.
Let me go on to ‘Speechless’, a show about another disabled person and the main character. Micah Fowler plays JJ, a wheelchair and communication aid user. He is disabled in real life but slightly crippling up more for the show. In real life he can talk a bit, but not to the point that I would be angry about him playing this role. So I don’t feel it is wrong or that he stole the part from a more disabled person. We can get a little too fussy about that, and we could end up losing the general argument that disabled people should be playing disabled characters. It’s a slightly different subject but, if we go down that path, disabled people will never play James Bond or Doctor Who or Emma or Mary Poppins. Anyway, back to ‘Speechless’. It’s perfect. I would say it’s the only TV series that shows us the social model of disability. It looks at life and doesn’t say this is a poor disabled person, pity him, give him sympathy, which ‘Special’ still does to a degree. ‘Speechless’ is actually what it’s like being disabled in my experience, so for that I love it.