Regular viewers of EastEnders will doubtless have noticed new character Donna Yates verbally sparring with Kat and Bianca amongst the market stalls. Played by Lisa Hammond, she is only the second character in the show’s lifetime to use a wheelchair. Chartwell Insurance, a completely independent insurance broker that offers a specialist, caring service for disabled customers, takes a look at some of cinema and TV’s attempts at representing people with disabilities.
Thus far, Donna has not made much of an impact on the Square, with the troubles of the market taking second place to the latest of the murder mysteries that form a regular part of the lives of the residents of Walford. She has shown herself to be a spiky, tough character, locking horns with other cast members on a regular basis. Hopefully over time she will be given meatier stories, once the need to spend each episode concentrating on Ian Beale looking sad has receded.
Coronation Street has had a wheelchair using character, Izzy Armstrong, since 2010. She was introduced the same month that it was announced that EastEnders was axing their previous wheelchair using character, Adam Best (David Proud).
Outside of soaps, long-running detective show New Tricks made a bid for the history books last year with the first sex scene involving a disabled character. Storme Toolis, the actor in question, welcomed the chance to play a real character. “Most disabled actors get cast in the role of a victim: the victim of an accident or a car crash,or they’re the brunt of someone’s joke. It’s nice to be reflecting an ordinary person.”
While these three characters can hardly be expected to be representative of the 18% of the UK population classified as having some form of disability, the fact that they are played by actors with disabilities is noteworthy. Over the decades many people have complained about the use of able-bodied actors in portraying disabled characters and indeed this is still largely the status quo in America, with shows like Glee, Legit and the recent ill-fated revival of Ironside all doing this. Critics of this practice argue that by taking the few roles possible for disabled actors out of contention the pervasive erasure of people with disabilities from mainstream culture continues. Every year in the US, GLAAD publishes a report on diversity in the media. Last year’s report showed that only 1% of the characters in US primetime TV was portrayed as having a disability, although their figures were derived from counting shows that had not, at time of writing, been shown and some of which have since been cancelled following poor public reception.
Cinemability, a new documentary film examining the evolution of portrayals of disability in film and TV, asks whether these portrayals affect or simply reflect society’s attitudes. It would seem reasonable to assume that the answer is a little of both. Portrayals of disability have moved on from although arguably not by very much and not nearly enough as they should have. Hopefully over time the writers and producers of EastEnders will avoid falling back on tired and unrepresentative clichés and take the opportunity to explore further a type of character all too seldom seen on British TV.