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Reflections on disability representation in Channel 4's 'It's a Sin'

Cher_ScopeCher_Scope Scope community team Posts: 3,079 Disability Gamechanger
edited March 4 in Guest blogs

Today’s guest blog comes from the talented Melissa Parker, a writer and wheelchair user, living with Cerebral palsy.  Discussing Channel 4’s recent hit TV show ‘It’s a Sin’, Melissa reflects on what the programme tells us about disability representation on our TV screens and in society at large. 


Melissa smiling to the camera in a social setting

“It’s a Sin” is a program about the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s and 1990’s. I noted that a character was in a wheelchair, later I found out that a disabled actress portrayed her. I had presumed that she was a non-disabled person ‘playing’ disabled. I wanted to reflect on this quiet presumption.       

When was the last time you saw a non-disabled actor who was ‘cripping it up’? After I watched the show, I read several articles and interviews with Russell T Davies, writer of It’s a Sin. One quote stayed with me, “You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair.” I wouldn’t, but many have and continue to do so. The desire for authenticity is commendable, but it needs to go deeper.     

It goes to the heart of what it is to be disabled, the lived experience, as people with disabilities we carry around the effects of cultural stereotypes and harmful myths. A few months ago, I was told to, “get up and walk” by a drunk man in the street. A woman told me it was a shame that I couldn’t walk because “I had a pretty face”.      

I believe that these interactions are, at least in part, a result of how people with disabilities are represented in the media. As Gamson et al. suggested, we are overwhelmed with media-generated images of the world and use them to construct meaning about political and social issues. The lens through which we receive these images is not neutral but manifests and validates the opinions of those who are in charge. Thus, I would suggest that when it is trained on disabled people, the lens is distorted; it is a view through which we are frequently seen as pitiful, pathetic and unable to function as society members. As David Hevey noted, “The history of the portrayal of disabled people is the history of oppressive and negative representation.” This means that “disabled people have been presented as socially flawed able-bodied people, not as disabled people with their own identities.”     

The use of an actress with a disability in this role is progress. It is a supporting role that does not mention the character’s disability but instead makes it incidental to her role as a mother and, later, as an HIV/AIDS campaigner. As Davies himself remarks, “The part wasn’t written as disabled, Andria [Doherty] simply made it her own.”. How often do we, as people with disabilities, manage to achieve this? To see ourselves reflected as parents. As people struggling not with our disability, but the realities of living in the 80’s and 90’s during a silent pandemic? With few exceptions, TV shows commissioned with disabled characters often portray disabled people as objects of pity, their disability is still the main focus, not their identities. As though society, spoon-fed by the media, has decided that our lives must begin with diagnosis and end with a struggle, and please, I beseech you, try to make it inspirational. The unfortunate thing is, I believe it is working that the media is so accustomed to using us in this manner – as a plot device, as a place holder, as a cardboard cut-out of misery. That we, in turn, have come to accept it, not as fact, but as the status quo. I presumed that they would not make an effort to cast a disabled person in such a role. I believe this to be a learned and conditioned response for every character like Eileen, there are, historically, many more TV and film counterparts who are consumed by their disability. Therefore, they are devoid of personality, like a faulty run-away Dalek screeching, “pity me” as it goes. For every writer like Russell T. Davies, there are more who would put a non-disabled person in a wheelchair, and why not, they may ask, wasn’t it ever thus?    

It seems that until we have got disabled people in positions of power throughout the whole creative process in programme-making, we will not see real change. This is according to the Creative Diversity Network’s (CDN’s) latest Diamond report, which reveals there is still a significant lack of disabled people working in both on and off-screen roles. The report, which is the most extensive consideration of diversity in the United Kingdom’s television and is supported by UK broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4, found that disabled people make up just 5.8% per cent of contributions off-screen and 8.2% per cent on-screen. This low percentage is at odds with the figure for working-age disabled people in the UK which is 17 per cent and despite the fact that we comprise 18 per cent of the population. We are also the world’s largest minority.   

Figures from Scope suggest that there are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK. We have so many different roles in society, just like anyone else – we’re parents, we’re friends, we’re spouses – we’re Eileens, but we don’t see that reflected. Davies states that, “I’m now at the stage in my career where I’d never cast an able-bodied person in a disabled role.” A fantastic achievement which feels like a hopeful note for the future as we need people in positions of power to help us refocus the lens. For too long, we have lived in the heads of people who write for us but do not understand us. Thus, we have lost control of our lives and became who they want us to be. Our fictional counterparts may be hollow and passive, but we need to rally, we need to expect more. We need authenticity, both on and off-screen, as Davies notes, “the fight goes on!”. 

Over to you:

I'm sure we all agree that was a hugely powerful guest blog from Melissa (thank you!), and one that raises many questions.  Although I'd encourage you to ask your own, I'm wondering:
  • Has Melissa's blog resonated with any of your own thoughts on disability representation?
  • Do you agree with the analogy that disabled people are often depicted as personality free daleks on TV? 
  • How do you think we can we take the fight for equality on screen forward?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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Replies

  • Tori_ScopeTori_Scope Scope community team Posts: 3,685 Disability Gamechanger
    This is a really powerful and well-written piece. I also enjoyed watching 'It's a Sin', so would encourage everyone to watch it if they haven't already.

    I thought that this quote was particularly poignant:
    Thus, I would suggest that when it is trained on disabled people, the lens is distorted; it is a view through which we are frequently seen as pitiful, pathetic and unable to function as society members. As David Hevey noted, “The history of the portrayal of disabled people is the history of oppressive and negative representation.” This means that “disabled people have been presented as socially flawed able-bodied people, not as disabled people with their own identities.”

    I agree that disabled people's identities are often erased in the mainstream media, which is a real shame. Hopefully we'll see more positive, authentic, and responsible representation moving forward. 

    Does anyone know of any other examples of TV shows or films where disabled people are well represented?

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  • leeCalleeCal Member Posts: 3,251 Disability Gamechanger
    edited March 6
    Does anyone know of any other examples of TV shows or films where disabled people are well represented?
    I’ve always thought that ‘Monk’ the US detective series was a pretty good example. He solves crimes whilst battling OCD.

    going back years ago ‘ironside’ was also a good example too, a lawyer confined to a wheelchair who also solves crimes.
  • mikehughescqmikehughescq Member Posts: 5,760 Disability Gamechanger
    Ironside would be a terrible example surely? Played by an actor who wasn’t in a wheelchair and also revealed to be an inveterate liar. 

    Have to say I thought it one of the better blogs I’ve read on the subject. I often find myself explaining the ocular albinism element of my albinism by reference to Bond villains and the general cliche of albinism in films. Even now the analogy resonates, which is very sad.
  • Tori_ScopeTori_Scope Scope community team Posts: 3,685 Disability Gamechanger
    Thanks for sharing @leeCal! I haven't seen either of those, so thank you for the recommendation. 
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  • daz2daz2 Member Posts: 7 Connected
    edited March 20
    Sorry, only just seen these posts. I would say a semi-positive portryal of of a disabled character is the character Garrett in the US comedy Superstore. Although actor Colton Dunn is not disabled his character uses a wheelchair. Dunn said he wanted the character to be fun & cool and not highlight the character's disability. From a personal point of view I think he has succeded.
    I wrote my dissertation for my MA in Disability on the effect Oscar winning films featuring disabled characters has on people's perception of disability and found it was mostly negative. I also wrote a blog similar to this blog on disability in the media for GOV.UK. I can add here as a comment if you want to take a look at it Melissa or Tori?


  • lisathomas50lisathomas50 Member Posts: 3,583 Disability Gamechanger
    I would rather see people with real disabilitys playing the part as some of the soaps fo now which I think is realy good 
  • deb74deb74 Member Posts: 739 Pioneering
    it is really good that soaps have disabled actors in them and not just able bodied actors pretending to be disabled. We do need more disabled people on tv though. We need to be seen as people and not a separate section of society!
    One of the things Melissa said was that someone had said it was a shame she was disabled because she had a pretty face. I have had a couple of similar comments lately when I explain to people why I can't wear a mask. I have had a couple of people say oh I'm sorry. I don't know why people think we want their sympathy it is so degrading!
  • OverlyAnxiousOverlyAnxious Member Posts: 1,230 Disability Gamechanger
    leeCal said:
    Does anyone know of any other examples of TV shows or films where disabled people are well represented?
    I’ve always thought that ‘Monk’ the US detective series was a pretty good example. He solves crimes whilst battling OCD.
    Glad at least one member gets my avatar...I fear the younger members won't have a clue!  :D  

    If only we were all that productive while battling OCD.  :#

    In one episode they showed his brother who was agoraphobic...he managed to overcome it when his house burnt down, though I'm not sure that's a NICE recommended treatment option.  ;) 


    Part of the problem here is that different people react differently to these things though.  People in the OCD community are often not a fan of any program that stereotypes or belittles the illness that has taken their life from them.  Personally I just see it as a bit of entertainment.
  • OverlyAnxiousOverlyAnxious Member Posts: 1,230 Disability Gamechanger
    I did watch 'It's a Sin' and found it very gripping & immersive...  But I must admit I didn't even notice the disabled cast member.  Had to Google it when I read this thread...  I suppose that's a positive in that she didn't stand out as being 'noticeably' disabled?  There are a few other actors genuinely using chairs that I can think of straight away, Liz in Silent Witness, the lady with the market stall in Eastenders (may not still be in it) and Rem Dogg in Bad Education...

    It's got me wondering, are there any disabled actors that do play non-disabled roles?  Obviously you can't have a Mission Impossible type character played by a chair-bound actor, but you'd never know some people use prosthetic legs/feet while wearing trousers for example...
  • lisathomas50lisathomas50 Member Posts: 3,583 Disability Gamechanger
    @deb74 I know lots of nice looking  prople eith disabilities why should it make a difference just because prople have a disability doesn't mean to say they have to be ugly 

    It's so annoying and frustrating 
  • deb74deb74 Member Posts: 739 Pioneering
    Hi @lisathomas50. I thought it was a weird thing for someone to say. Some people have just got a understanding of disability I guess.
  • deb74deb74 Member Posts: 739 Pioneering
    Hi @lisathomas50. I have just looked at my last email and what I meant to say was some people have a weird understanding of disability. I didn't notice the mistake in my last message before I posted it. (joys of being dyslexic). 
  • lisathomas50lisathomas50 Member Posts: 3,583 Disability Gamechanger
    @deb74 no worries I understood what you meant  well done with your writing though I know it can be quite hard my partner and one of my children are dyslexic x
  • Jean EveleighJean Eveleigh Member Posts: 116 Pioneering
    Years and Years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Years_and_Years_(TV_series) ) one of the main actresses in this is a wheelchair user it wasn't until episode 3 or 4 that the reason for the wheelchair was even mentioned then it was never mentioned again she was a mother, sister, girlfriend, daughter, employee, self-employed and used a wheelchair and that was that.
  • Caz_ScopeCaz_Scope Scope community team Posts: 262 Pioneering
    Oh yes, @Jean Eveleigh - thank you for the suggestion.

    Years and Years - like It's a Sin, that's another series from Russell T Davies, as well. 

    You make a really good point. In both series, it's the personality of the character that is central to the narrative and the story, not their representation as a disabled person. 
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  • daz2daz2 Member Posts: 7 Connected
    Have a look at the film Run on Netflix. Keira Allen is a wheelchair user in real life.
    Good film.
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