Soaps are starting to show the messy reality of coming to terms with disability

Hollyoaks has taken a bold step by tackling the emotional and psychological impact of disability in a new storyline, proving not just that soaps are the perfect platform to do so, but that they can show the honest, and often messy, reality.

Through the character of Joel Dexter (Rory Douglas-Speed), who is coming to terms with his Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis, the show sheds light on the oftenignored reality faced by many disabled individuals.

It’s also part of a decisive shift in television, as soaps delve deeper into the personal experiences of disabled characters, giving them more fleshed out inner lives and highlighting the messy and unapologetically ugly aspects of living with and accepting a disability – conveying that we’re only human.    

The storyline follows Joel as he grapples with overwhelming emotions after his diagnosis. He goes through shock, denial, anger, and sadness. We’re so often told to ‘get on’ with it — bury it, bottle it. But this is a right-in-your-face, unflinching human honesty.    

When Joel spits, ‘I’m not disabled,’ it resonated powerfully with my experience of rejecting the term — forcefully, bitterly, pushing it back. 

I’ve had Cerebral Palsy since birth, which leads to stunning pain as spasms rip through my body almost constantly, and I don’t talk about it often. Parts of the media and broader society push empty words and sentiments onto us: be brave, resilient, stoic, overcome.

As Joel notes from a hospital bed, it’s easy to see life in black and white, Normal and different—especially when it’s all you’re trained for.   

Rory Douglas-Speed, who plays Joel and has diabetes himself, is enthusiastic about portraying the transition that occurs in life. He vividly remembers the moment when his life took a turn.

‘I think everyone goes through that,’ he told me. ‘I remember feeling like my life changed in an instant. It was as quick as going to the doctor to discuss this.’

On the day he was diagnosed with diabetes, he was ‘absolutely devastated.’

‘I thought, “Oh no, my life has completely changed. I can’t do this. I can’t do that.” As an eight-year-old, I remember thinking, “I’m not allowed chocolate spread on my toast anymore,” and it was grim.’  

While the representation of disability in mainstream media has improved in recent years, many portrayals have remained superficial or one-dimensional. Disabled characters are often used as plot devices rather than fully fleshed-out individuals.

But humanising the experiences of characters like Joel and others’ challenges societal expectations, and shows it raw and unfiltered.

These perspectives reflect the complex and ever-evolving reality of coming to terms with a disability and navigating a society built on the notion that you are inherently wrong, and that your wrongness and reaction to it must be suppressed.    

Other soaps, such as Coronation Street, with its portrayal of Paul’s (Peter Ash) diagnosis of motor neurone disease (MND), also explore the fundamental and challenging aspects of disability.

This character has shown deep frustration with his symptoms that, as they get more serious, led to him fearing he wouldn’t be able to walk his twin sister Gemma down the aisle on her wedding day.

By delving into these deeper narratives, you show what it’s like to live in the experience.    

There was an important stripped-back scene between Paul and Izzy (Cherylee Houston) in which Paul questions her about living with a disability.

Of it, and the small important moments it represents, Cherylee Houston who, at 23, was diagnosed with 23 that she was diagnosed with the rare connective tissue disorder, Hypermobility Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, remarked: ‘It’s really lovely because what that did was show the non-disabled person’s point of view who’s just become disabled, and it also showed the non-disabled person’s point of view who’s watching it.

‘Going, “Heck, how do you cope with that?” And how is that transition? I think the biggest disabling things are the people’s opinions of it. Quite often, it’s the attitudes that are disabling.’

The importance of these storylines lies in their exploration of the messy aspects of living with a disability. Crucially, through Joel, we can explore the societal expectations that often discourage men from acknowledging disabilities, as they are taught to associate themselves with notions of strength, self-sufficiency, and toughness.

Johnathan Boam, the writer of the disability-focused episode ‘What’s your Normal?’notes that this societal pressure holds, and will hold, particular significance in Joel’s life, given he’s Warren Fox’s son—a notorious gangster.

I spoke to Mackenzie, who was diagnosed with Epilepsy in July 2019, one month after her 17th birthday.

For her, representation of what that can do to a person in any media is essential.

‘I convinced myself I was a problem, just holding my close ones back,’ she explains. ‘[I was] involved in a very serious relationship. I left my partner and moved away to a place where I could live and work safely and not “bother” anyone else.’

It remains an ongoing process. Mackenzie continues: ‘Present day, I have fully accepted my epilepsy. It’s not easy, and honestly, acceptance is an everyday choice. Some days it can be so hard.

‘But the journey from a scared seventeen-year-old, who felt like she lost everything she had worked for, to a 31-year-old disability awareness advocate, has been a unique experience that most people don’t have.’

As Dr Kirsty Liddard from the University of Sheffield concludes: ‘I’m always a bit cautious of “raising awareness.” Raising awareness is just one tiny part of the processes that can bring about change.

‘Action is also important. Inevitably, disabled people and actors sharing their personal experiences can add a depth to storytelling that can only come from lived experience.

By delving deeper into the emotional and psychological aspects of this experience, soaps are starting to confront the messy and ugly truths that disabled individuals often face.

‘It challenges the traditional superficial narratives and stereotypes and tells disabled and non-disabled people – we’re only human.  

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