Rachel Roberts looks at how far depictions of disability in TV drama have progressed in recent years…
Television is the modern-day mirror we hold up to society, so it follows that the way in which it portrays disability matters. 18% of the population has some form of disability, though of course that proportion includes many ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as arthritis and long-term mental health conditions.
Even so, it’s possible to argue that disability has been woefully underrepresented on television over the years. That’s certainly the view of Louise Dyson, founder of VisABLE – a talent agency for disabled actors, models and presenters that she has overseen since 1994.
“It certainly wasn’t founded in response to demand!” she laughs. “We had to create a market that had never existed. When I first started, I was absolutely confident that the business would succeed, but I wondered how long it would take. 21 years later, it finally feels like we’re getting there. I genuinely think there’s an expectation, not just an acceptance, of disability being represented on TV.”
Though already well established in the industry as an agent at the time, Dyson recalls struggling to get work for her clients during VisABLE’s early days. “Of course everybody paid lip service to the idea, but back then, the only time you generally saw a disabled person on TV would be in the proverbial charity begging advert,” she says. “They rarely used actors with a disability; it was almost always actors pretending to be disabled, whereas these days, many people get that that’s not really acceptable.”
Some media commentators have likened the practice of casting non-disabled actors in disabled roles as ‘cripping up,’ in reference to the former – and these days, unacceptable – fashion for ‘blacking up’. On this, Dyson is clear as to her position: “There is simply no reason for it if there is a disabled person capable of playing the role convincingly. It would be okay if we had an equal go at the non-disabled roles but we don’t, so if we don’t even get a proper go at the disabled roles, we’re left with nothing.
“In theory it shouldn’t matter, because actors are always portraying something that they’re not – but the reality is that we do not have a chance at most roles. The solution would be if casting directors were open to the possibility of a disabled actor for all roles.”
Murderers and drug dealers
Louise says she is mindful of TV companies who simply want to represent disability in a tokenistic way, by having a character with a readily apparent disability in the background of a scene. “We’re not terribly helpful in that situation, and urge the clients to consider the actors for proper roles, so they’re not simply ticking their box for diversity.”
In terms of the organisations she deals with, Dyson comments that, “The BBC is probably our biggest client, and has always had by far the best attitude when it comes to disabled actors because they have high expectations.”
The Beeb’s much-mocked sun and sangria soap, Eldorado, may have sunk without trace just a year after launching in 1992, but it did give us the first wheelchair-using soap regular to be portrayed by a genuinely disabled actor, when Julie Fernandez played Nessa Lockhead.
More recently, some flagship BBC series have had roles where a character happens to be disabled, but is not portrayed in such a way that this becomes their defining characteristic. There’s the sharp-witted Clarissa in Silent Witness played by Liz Carr, for example, and the fairly unpleasant EastEnders character Donna Yates, played by Lisa Hammond.
“In the past, TV programmes might have shown the disabled character as the victim or the hero, but that happens less and less these days – we’ve had people playing murderers and drug dealers, which is just what we want,” says Dyson. “It’s an obstacle that people have in their mind when they think of disability as the most important characteristic. The role of Clarissa in Silent Witness was a bit of a Holy Grail moment for disabled actors, because she isn’t ‘about’ her disability at all.”
Among Louise’s clients is Storme Toolis, who played the character of Holly Griffin in three series of the BBC drama, New Tricks. Like her character, the 22-year old actor has cerebral palsy but it’s a detail that’s never mentioned on-screen.
“I like the fact that Holly is just a normal, young girl with the usual problems,” says Toolis, who previously featured in The Inbetweeners Movie before studying drama at the University of Kent. “She doesn’t wake up in the morning and think of her disability, because that’s not how life is. She has a life, she has relationships, just like anyone.”
One New Tricks storyline saw Toolis’ character share a sex scene with her boyfriend, in what was a rare on-screen depiction of disabled desire. “People are often afraid of showing disabled people in a sexualised context,” she concedes. “I did get a very strong reaction to that storyline, which is good, so credit to the writers. I enjoy raising a few eyebrows – that’s what you want as an actor!”
Toolis is, however, realistic about the fact that able-bodied actors continue to play some disabled roles. “Do I agree with it? No. Do I lose sleep over it? No. There are commercial reasons why it happens, and until there are more well-known and established disabled actors, it will continue. But I think attitudes towards disability are gradually changing, just like with attitudes towards any form of difference, whether that’s race or sexuality or anything else.”
As well as starring on the small screen, Storme hopes to do stage work and is currently in the process of developing a theatre project. “I love Shakespeare, and as long as you can portray the emotions of the character, it shouldn’t matter if you can walk or not. It’s about connecting with the audience,” she says. “We do need to have more roles written specifically for disabled actors, but what I would really like to see is equal casting, where any role could potentially be open to a disabled person. Why not?”
Another successful young actor represented by VisABLE is Jack Binstead. The 18-year-old has played Leslie ‘Rem Dogg’ Remmington in all three series to date of the BBC Three comedy Bad Education and is also a fast-rising YouTube star.
Born with brittle bone disease, Binstead began wheelchair racing at the age of nine and quickly became a successful athlete, winning the London Junior Wheelchair Marathon. This led to him appearing on the Paul O’Grady Show, where his potential for television was spotted by Dyson.
A wheelchair user since the age of three, Binstead says he never thought of becoming an actor as a child, as there were no disabled actors for him to look up to.
“I had no role models as a young kid. I went to a mainstream school and all my friends’ idols were the generic footballers, like Beckham and Rooney,” Binstead remembers. “Then Ade Adepitan came onto the scene, the wheelchair basketball player and TV presenter, so he was like a role model to me in my later childhood. Without Louise noticing me there is no way I would have thought I could become an actor. So I hope I can become some sort of valid role model for young kids with disabilities.”
Jack now aspires to appear in Hollywood films, as well as continuing with TV work. He points to the recently launched Netflix series Daredevil as an example of disability being portrayed in a positive way – albeit with the show’s blind superhero protagonist played by able-bodied actor, Charlie Cox.
“Daredevil is obviously going to be a smash hit because you’re talking about a blind superhero, and that’s new – it’s exciting,” Binstead enthuses. “In action movie plots, the hero’s always sliding down buildings, being chased by the villain – it’s boring, it’s nothing new. But what would happen if the hero or villain has a disability? It may seem dull – thinking about them having to get the lift or something – but there’s so much a good writer could do there. We just need writers with imagination to do something really exciting around disability.”
I ask Jack what his main message would be for any aspiring disabled actors. “Don’t be afraid to go for it,” he says. “Things are changing, slowly but surely, and there are disabled actors out there doing amazing things at the moment. But you have to go out there and fight for it. It won’t come to you.”