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Yes, Disability Sucks But We Still Need Disabled Role Models On Our Screens In 2017. Where Are They?

08/02/2017 17:22 GMT | Updated 08/02/2017 17:23 GMT
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When did you last see a disabled person on TV or film?

Let me save you thinking time and try to answer for you:

Way back in the 1960s, there was Ironside, the long-running US court-room drama starring Raymond Burr as the wheelchair-bound lawyer of the same name. The deaf actress Marlee Matlin appeared on West Wing as the formidable Joey Lucas in all seven seasons of the hit US show. And there's the forensic scientist Clarissa, played by Liz Carr, in BBC One's Silent Witness.

I ask because if you are disabled (and there are 11 million people currently in the UK with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability), there are virtually no disabled role models in TV drama or in film.

Yes, thanks to the coverage of the Paralympic Games in London in 2012 and in Rio in 2016, we all watch and admire the paralympians, and I feel certain their extraordinary courage and prowess in the face of massive physical impairment inspires many people with disabilities. But, aside from 'Clarissa' (Liz Carr) flying the flag for UK disability, where is there a current disabled role model in drama or film?

What has made me ask the question? Because I am currently one of the 11 million disabled, although I prefer 'impaired;' my 'impairment' is physical and quite extensive and follows surgery for the removal of a brain tumour. Naturally, that has made me more sensitive to, and aware of, the needs of the disabled, and more aware of the wide range of disabilities, which tend to be conflated in a way that is not always entirely helpful.

I speak, I hope, as a temporary member of their world and I can tell you, it sucks.

Yes, successive UK governments have legislated to make life easier for the disabled, in terms of access (lifts and ramps etc), in transport and in the provision of parking spaces and ground-floor loos. I also know that the BBC is just one among many large UK corporations and businesses to have a disability-equality officer.

But I know this not because of the BBC's drama output; not because of the number of disabled people in 'normal' roles in BBC dramas ('Clarissa' apart), but because I happened to see the BBC's Disabilities Co-ordinator - whatever her actual title - when she appeared on Celebrity Mastermind one Christmas.

So, again, where are the positive role models on screen? I am not referring to people in production jobs, or featuring in news or documentaries talking about disability, but in dramas or films showing how a disabled person is leading a good, productive life, much as 'Clarissa' does on Silent Witness, as 'Ironside' did, and as 'Joey Lucas' did on West Wing.

Without those role models, a 'disabled' person is constantly forced to compare himself or herself to perfect specimens of humanity. Whether the character on screen is black or white, they are invariably perfect. Unless, of course, the storyline calls for imperfection or disability, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

We know that when young women are subjected to endless images of hyper-thin models and physical perfection, it makes them feel inadequate; we understand the impact it has on them emotionally. Yet in 2017, in TV drama and on film, we still portray 'perfect' versions of humanity on screen, exactly as Hollywood did in the 1930s.

It is time for a change; almost 100 years on from the hey-day of the Meyers and the Goldwyns, it's time for a change; it's time for a bit of diversity on screen. Yes, I use that much-derided word 'diversity' because its meaning is suddenly very clear.

The UK's embrace of those amazing paralympians amply demonstrates that, as a nation, we are capable of seeing a few 'imperfect' people in key roles on our screens without fleeing our living-rooms or cinemas in horror. So let's see a few more Clarissas, Ironsides and Joey Lucases, please...