In 2004, while I was working as a researcher on ‘The Weakest Link’, the BBC set itself a target that one in fifty of the contestants on its quiz shows should be disabled.
This low figure suggested a box-ticking exercise but it was certainly better than nothing. I played a role in persuading potential contestants that this promise was not too good to be true and one of the earliest of my recruits to be featured was a blind radio producer from Ayrshire called Michael Hughes.
He is now nine weeks into his stay in the Big Brother house, the second openly disabled person to have appeared on the show after Pete Bennett, who was the series winner in 2006. Another housemate this year is Darnell Swallow, who is black but whose light skin is the result of albinism. Although this would not feature in a list of stereotypical disabilities, it is certainly something which, historically, would have made a television production company reluctant to cast somebody. The selection of two disabled applicants so soon after Pete’s victory indicates that this is no longer merely tokenism.
This development is refreshing for two reasons. Firstly, it is great that disabled people are no longer considered to be ‘too hot for TV’ but there are also subtler benefits. In contrast to Pete, Mikey is incredibly boring and, should he be nominated by his peers, the chances of him surviving a public vote are slim. In the past, disabled people have been portrayed as brave and heroic or as tragic charity cases, and it is reassuring to see the message that some of us are as unremarkable as the rest of the population and that we do not need to be patronised if we spend our days moaning. An interesting debate on another reality show, BBC Three’s ‘Britain’s Missing Top Model’ concerned the two finalists, Kelly Knox and Sophie Morgan, of whom Kelly was regarded as more attractive but Sophie was seen as a better role model and an advocate for disabled people. She was popular with two judges and was highly tipped to win the event but Kelly’s eventual selection was surely the right result. No such contest for non-disabled people would be quite so explicit about trying to produce a role model and the whole idea strikes me as condescending. Contrary to the views of some TV critics, I was also pleased in a warped way that the producers did not blanch from drafting an extra judge in the last minute, just as any other show would do.
It may seem odd that I am discussing reality television on a website owned by an august publication such as the ‘New Statesman’. However, this is not an area in which snobbery holds much water. It might be expected that it would be the highbrow intellectual media, such as the makers of worthy documentaries, that would take the lead in the inclusion of disabled people but this is simply not the case. The problem is that programmes designed to be worthy rarely succeed in this goal when they are driven by out-of-date values and stereotypical assumptions about disabled people. The real need is for disabled people to appear in programmes which are not specifically about them, like characters in a drama whose disabilities are incidental to the plot, and, for some reason, this is something which the supposedly intelligent elite seem to find particularly difficult to get their heads round.
Indeed, many of them show their true colours by criticising the more inclusive approach of Big Brother as a ‘freak show’. More cynically, it can be seen as a way for reality TV to justify its existence on publicly funded channels but, even if true, it has certainly done so.