What’s wrong with the representation of people with learning difficulties in the media?

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Simone Aspis examines what is lost when the voices of people with learning difficulties are excluded from the media

the author photgraphed at an inclusive education rally

Simone Aspis

Over the past decade or so the media has begun to take on board that they should diversify the representation of different groups of people including those with learning difficulties in their programmes and productions.

As we may expect several broadcasters have used non-disabled actors to play the role of people with learning difficulties. Mr Tumble the children’s show on CBBC features a clown played by a non-disabled actor Justin Fletcher, who signs in Makaton. A more recent example is The Word, which tells a story about a family living with an autistic boy called Joe using a non-disabled stereotypical character.

However things began to change when disabled characters, all played by disabled actors with learning difficulties have been or are currently featured in four main British Soaps – Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks. For instance Liam Bairstow the first actor with Downs Syndrome to star in the ITV soap Coronation Street played Cathy Matthews’ nephew Alex.

Since then disabled people with learning difficulties have increasingly featured in mainstream television soaps; Sarah Gordy playing the role of being a disabled young person with learning difficulties in a relationship with another disabled person as part of BBC’s Call The Midwife.

However, progress remains pretty limited when the only role that people with learning difficulties can play are as people with learning difficulties. I would like to see an actor with learning difficulties play a mainstream character role or roles that are not simply about being a person with learning difficulties.

Portrait shot of smiling Coronation Street actor Liam Bairstow

Liam Bairstow Resident Artist at MTG and Alex Warner in Coronation Street Photo © Les Parkinson

Some broadcasters have gone further in commissioning reality programmes involving the day-to-day lives of people with learning difficulties. The most well-known reality show on our screens for many years is Channel 4’s Undateables. After watching a number of episodes there seems to be a consistent theme; mothers try to teach autistic sons how to chat up their first date, accentuating the idea of women playing a domineering role and presenting their relationships in simplistic ways. After watching this year’s Christmas edition of Undateables I am becoming wearier of the stereotypical roles being played out between parents, men and woman with learning difficulties and autism and the non-disabled match-makers.

BBC’s The One Show featured people with learning difficulties living in Foxes Academy – a segregated hotel employment training scheme; and Channel 4’s Home Free was a documentary series about young people moving home to try independent living. Both programmes are about groups of people with learning difficulties – I yet to see a reality programme that features people with learning difficulties alongside their non-disabled peers.

Whilst, there has been some progress in disabled people with learning difficulties representation in the entertainment media, the same cannot be said for our appearance in news documentaries. Once upon a time, People First and United Kingdom Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC) spokespeople would be asked on a regular basis for an expert opinion.

production photo of actress

Sarah Gordy in Jellyfish at National Theatre. Photo by S R Taylor Photography

For instance, whilst working for the United Kingdom’s Disabled Peoples Council I had lost count the number of times as the Policy and Campaigns Officer that I would be asked to provide an expert opinion on a whole range of issues, anything from welfare reform, right to life and inclusive education. In these instances our personal stories were not only captured, but the broader context of the issues was often part of the feature.

However, since the turn of the decade, I have seen a sea change where World in Action, Panorama, and the Tonight Programme and to a certain degree Newsnight is presenting the issues that sit behind our stories, but rarely from the wider perspective.

For example the recent scandals around the treatment within the psychiatric system for disabled people with learning difficulties. Most of the time, we are presented with undercover filming of people with learning difficulties being abused by staff alongside individual parents’ journeys of getting their loved ones out of a profit-making Assessment and Treatment Unit. Too often the bigger issues such as the weaknesses in mental health and community care legislation that allows abuse within ATUs to flourish is scantly mentioned by the media so therefore the National Health Service England and public view this as a few people getting a rotten deal out of the mental health system, rather than a system that needs to radically rethink the way it engages with people with learning difficulties.

It’s not only the print and broadcast media that has stopped making progress. Unfortunately, social media despite many commentators saying it has made representation more democratic – i.e. anyone can publish anything they want on a platform and get their voices heard, thus no longer leaving a need for a traditional journalist.

In reality Social Media has not helped people with learning difficulties. Indeed it has made it much harder for us to get our voices heard, especially when the platforms and the communication flows from parents to journalists and vice versa. Further, it does not help when social media platforms feature stories centred on individual narratives. Parents write blogs about their own individual journeys of being challenged by the system, alongside descriptions of their children’s’ experiences. Parents, like journalists, fail to include any narrative about how the system is broken for everyone and what needs to change.

Increasingly, it has become harder and harder for people with learning difficulties to get the ear of the media because social media is a very crowded place that excludes our voices. A good example is the Mail on Sunday journalist who opted to find out what the Anti-ATU community wanted by working with a social media platform run by parents, instead of getting on the phone or arranging face-to-face meetings with people with learning difficulties. He communicated the communities wish list directly to the Department for Health and the Secretary of State for Health. Because many people with learning difficulties do not use social media, our voices were not included in developing the action plan.

There are lots of different reasons people with learning difficulties do not use social media platforms and the ones they use often have hidden power structures, whereby the moderators control the narrative and therefore whose voices will and will not be heard. I think the media (of all sorts) is becoming increasingly less democratic and representative of our voices. Social media has allowed editors, producers, journalists to narrate our lives without accountability, which they would have if they met us face-to-face.

I would like to see the media take a much more proactive approach where people with learning difficulties opportunities to narrative and discourse of the the issues which affects them. For instance what changes would people with learning difficulties like to see in the education, health and care system? Wouldn’t it be great if we had news presenter and news journalists reporting on world and national news stories? And that we see people with learning difficulties alongside non-disabled contestants in mainstream light entertainment programmes. Journalists need to stop being lazy and relying upon articulate parents twitter feeds for a string of quotes and contacts as this space has squeezed many of us out of the media. It is time that there is change where journalists return to meeting people with learning difficulties face-to-face, as social media can be inaccessible. There is one principle that the media must sign up to, “nothing about us without us”.


Simone Aspis is Director of campaigning and advocacy organisation Changing Perspectives You can follow her on twitter at @Sfaactive