Fireman Sam and How to Train Your Dragon feature the only disabled characters currently on long-running children’s television franchises.
Other characters crop up here and there – the Disney Channel introduced double-amputee Aussie explorer, Wildlife Will to its Doc McStuffins show, and it featured wheelchair user Johnny McBride (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) in The Proud Family – but both appeared for one episode only.
The BBC has a history of disabled characters, from Grange Hill’s Rachel Burns with cerebral palsy (played by comedian Francesca Martinez), to Balamory’s wheelchair user Penny Pocket. The broadcaster also has its visual impairment show Melody, and sign-language show, Magic Hands.
The public service broadcaster’s remit to “reflect a wide mix of children and presenters in terms of disability, gender and ethnicity”, means inclusivity is expected. What shouldn’t be expected, is the commercial sector’s relative lack of interest.
Camilla Arnold, creative director of Flashing Lights Media, the deaf-led company behind Magic Hands, argues that while the BBC is fulfilling its duties, no other channels are matching this. “[It’s] shocking – we’re in the 21st century! The other channels need to catch up as there’s a definite lack of representation.”
Among the major commercial producers we contacted, the Disney Channel, Zodiak Kids and Nickelodeon do not have a single current children’s show with a prominent disabled character.
FremantleMedia however, (responsible for the likes of The X Factor), does have its comedy series Strange Hill High which is aired on CBBC and includes Samia Speed (witty and in a wheelchair), school caretaker Murdock (with a bionic hand) and hero Mitchell Tanner (living with ADHD).
Getting away from ‘perfection’
But given that one in 20 children in the UK have a disability, this is pretty scant representation.
Dr Amy Holdsworth, lecturer in film and television studies at Glasgow University is one of the few academics looking at disability in children’s TV. She says that “gender and ethnicity are very high on the agenda, but disability has always been less visible.” Most representation “still relates to things like Children in Need, the charity ‘poster child’.”
The need for better representation, says Philip Connolly, policy and communications manager at Disability Rights UK, comes from “seeing people like ourselves on-screen.
“It is like an acknowledgement or recognition that we are all human. We need to get away from this idea of ‘perfection’, the handsome prince and beautiful princess – these stories have a powerful grip on the imagination and how children come to see the world.”
For Arnold, seeing a deaf character on Grange Hill was a turning point in her life. “I could relate to her … [It means] children no longer have to solely measure themselves against a non-disabled community because they are properly represented.”
She adds that better representation is also important for exposing non-disabled children to diversity to encourage them to be non-judgmental and encourage interaction.
The fear factor
Jenny Sealey, co-director of the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony and artistic director of sign language theatre company Graeae, agrees that the need for positive role models is “profound and necessary.” She recounts an email from a mother which said that the Fireman Sam character, Hannah Sparkes (who uses a wheelchair), “ helped her to explain to her child about her dad being a wheelchair user.”
Sealey believes there remains a great deal of fear and ignorance around disability. She has been asked by writers and directors keen to embrace diversity to consult on casting and storylines, but due to government cuts in access to work and the independent living fund “producers who hold the purse strings see employing [disabled actor and crew] as a financial risk.”
This could mean that producers are missing out on a commercial opportunity. The BBC’s Mr Tumble helps children with special needs through his use ofMakaton (a language programme for individuals who can’t communicate efficiently by speaking). Created by former BBC producer Allan Johnston,Something Special starring Mr Tumble (played by Justin Fletcher) has been Britain’s most popular children’s performer for over a decade, appealing to children of all abilities. While FreemantleMedia’s popular Tree Fu Tom series was originally developed by producer Dan Bays to help children with dyspraxia.
Magic Hands too, argues Arnold, has been hugely successful because it doesn’t just tick the boxes but appeals to both deaf and hearing audiences. She believes, “there is definitely commercial potential for channels to engage with an untapped audience.”
However, Connolly has a plea for writer and producers: go beyond wheelchairs. “Only one in seven disabled people are wheelchair users. So it’s important to present disability in all its diversity … [and] for the disabled person to be presented not as the vulnerable member of the band, but as the leader, the person who finds the solutions to challenges the group face. We need more stories like that.”