Michael McEwan: It’s been a good year for representation of people with disabilities on TV

Ben Wray

CommonSpace columnist and chairperson of his local disability group, Michael McEwan looks back at 2018 on the box, and finds representation of disabled people and their abilities has improved

WHEN I look back at this year it has been a good one for raising awareness about disability and mental health issues through the medium of television.

The first comedian with a disability won Britain’s Got Talent. Lee Ridley Aka The Lost Voice Guy, who has cerebral palsy affecting his ability to speak, uses a voice synthesiser to communicate in his act. Runner up Robert White, who is a musical comedian, has Asperger’s.

Their performances were down to their talent for being funny, not their disabilities. The final was watched by an average of 8.7 million viewers, the highest figure for the show since 2015.

READ MORE – Michael McEwan: How society is starting to adapt itself to the needs of autistic people

BBC1 series The A Word follows a young boy and his family coping with the revelation that he has autism. Filmed in the Lake District, commissioned back in 2015, the six part series began airing on the 22 March 2016. In May of that year the BBC announced a second series which aired again this year. I hope it will continue as before, highlighting the milestones of children growing up with autism.

In November a short series called There She Goes Again aired on BBC. A comedy drama starring David Tenant and Jessica Haynes as the parents of a nine year old girl with chromosomal disorder.  The BBC 4 series was penned by veteran comedy scriptwriter Shaun Pye who drew from his own experience for the show. His daughter, who was born in 2016, has extremely rare, and so far undiagnosed, condition.

This year on Strictly Come Dancing, the show continues to make waves for disability as Paralympian Lauren Steadman is not letting her lower arm amputation hold her back from her success on the show. This is the second year where someone with a disability has gone far in the show, with fellow Paralympian Jonnie Peacock spent 9 weeks on the dance floor in 2017.

READ MORE: New online programme launched to support women and girls on autism spectrum

Not confined to one channel, on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here the Chase’ Governess Anne Hegarty opened up about her Asperger’s on the show, revealing she didn’t get diagnosed until 2003 when she was 45.

And the Invictus Games for injured, wounded and sick serviceman and women, returned in Sydney.  They are honoured with a very prominent founder and ambassador in Prince Harry, who has in the past discussed his own mental health openly.

How disability is portrayed on TV has a big influence on public perception. If it is not well researched it can lead to misinformation and prejudice. That’s why it’s so important to represent the ability and not just try to define the disability.

READ MORE – ‘A sea change’: Campaigners welcome news that @ScotGov won’t use private sector in disability benefits assessments

This is particularly important when portraying “hidden” disabilities such as autism and mental health conditions where there is no or little visual indicators to the viewer. Broadcasters have a responsibility in these cases to enlighten and educate.

I look forward to seeing more shows in future where people with a disability play an integral part in media and broadcasting, particularly as recent statistics indicate there are over 11 million people with a disability in the UK and around one million – one-fifth of the population – in Scotland.

Picture courtesy of Isabelle

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