Recent disability representation on TV

TV has often been criticised for its lack of representation, and inaccurate portrayals, of disabled people. In this blog, we highlight shows that have gotten it right.

The blog focuses mostly on the on-screen representation of visually impaired people, but it also highlights disabled people with other impairments and conditions too, and highlights what is being done to make these shows accessible

TV is one of the most consumed forms of media in the UK. In 2021, people spent an average of three hours per day in front of their TVs, so it’s a perfect platform for educating people and raising awareness of disabilities.

TV programmes represent a wide range of people from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of characteristics.

However, it has regularly been criticised for its lack of representation of disabled people, through not including disabled people in casts, or pitying and othering them when they are included.

It is thought that 18% of the UK’s population identify as disabled, but it is estimated that disability representation on-screen is as low as 6.8%.

In recent years, there have been notable examples of positive representation of disabled people on TV, and in this blog, we are highlighting those, focusing on examples in reality TV and talent shows.

1. Britain’s Got Talent

Britain’s Got Talent has been a force for good when it comes to representing disabled people in a positive light for many years. From disabled comedians to singers to dancers to magicians, Britain’s Got Talent has positively represented people with a range of disabilities showcasing a range of talents.

In 2024, our very own ambassadors Denise Leigh and Stefan Andrusyschyn performed on BGT. Opera singer Denise and pianist Stefan are husband and wife, and they are both blind. They regularly perform together, including at our annual Carols by Candlelight concert.

Their audition with Climb Every Mountain and semi-final performance of You’ll Never Walk Alone were breathtaking. Unfortunately, Denise and Stefan didn’t make it to the final, despite coming 2nd in the public vote of their semi-final, because the judges pick between the 2nd placed act and 3rd placed act, and the majority of the judges’ votes were for the 3rd placed act.

Denise and Stefan smiling and leaning towards each other.

Back in 2020, Sign Along with Us, a choir consisting of both children and adults, finished runner-up in the final. Sign Along With Us was founded by Jade Kilduff, whose brother Christian has a visual impairment and additional needs.

Their whole family access our Children, Young People and Families service, regularly attending our activities.

There are so many more disabled acts who have wowed audiences on Britain’s Got Talent; here is just a selection:

  • Jack Carroll – Stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy who wowed audiences in 2013 aged 14, and finished runner-up. He has gone on to many opportunities since appearing on BGT, including starring in Coronation Street
  • Lost Voice Guy (real name Lee Ridley) – Stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy, who uses an iPad to perform his routines. He made audiences laugh at every stage of the competition, going onto be the first disabled winner. He has continued making audiences laugh with his own stand-up tour, and releasing his autobiography.
  • Robert White – Comedic singer who has Asperger’s Syndrome. He was the runner-up in 2018. White performed on the same series as Lost Voice Guy, so the result meant that the top two of the entire series was disabled.
  • Calum Courtney –Autistic singer, who finished 9th in 2018.
  • Sirine Jahangir – Blind musician who participated in 2020. She came 2nd in the public vote of her semi-final, but this wasn’t enough to get to the final: due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions in place as a result, semi-finals were pre-recorded with the judges selecting one act to advance to the final. The public could then vote for one of the remaining acts to also advance: Sirine finished 2nd, with Sign Along with Us winning that public vote.
  • Eva Abley – Stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy who finished in 5th place in 2022.
  • Cillian O’Connor – Magician who is autistic and has dyspraxia. He finished in 3rd place in 2023.
  • Alex Mitchell – Stand-up comedian who is autistic and has Tourette’s Syndrome. He finished in 8th place in the final, having won the semi-final that Denise and Stefan were also a part of.

2. Love Island

In early 2023, Ron Hall participated in the winter series of Love Island (Love Island Series 9).

Ron is blind in one eye, as a result of a football injury he sustained when he was eight years old. Despite numerous operations, he was told that his sight in that eye would never be restored.

Ron Hall

Ron is the first partially sighted islander, and this follows Tasha Ghouri, who was on Love Island in summer 2022 as the first deaf islander.

Ron’s appearance on Love Island has been praised, with visually impaired actor Georgie Morrell, who is also blind in one eye, writing an article about its importance, and how Love Island is paving the way for more positive disability representation on-screen, with a focus on integration, meaning that their disability is not the main or only focus.

From Love Island Series 10 onwards, prior to them entering, each islander recorded a self-description video, in which they outline their physical characteristics including height, hair and eye colour, fashion style, race, and additional features such as tattoos and piercings.

For Series 10, There was also an audio described villa tour, with audio description by Love Island’s narrator Iain Stirling, for blind viewers to get to know the key locations within the series.

You can find all the audio described content on Love Island’s official YouTube channel.

Click here for an Access All episode about audio description on Strictly

3. Dancing On Ice

In 2020, blind Paralympian Libby Clegg participated in Dancing On Ice, making it all the way to the final and finishing in 3rd place.

She was partnered with professional Mark Hanretty, who adapted his teaching technique to accommodate Libby’s needs, including by using sound cues including numbers which helped her during her performances.

Libby Clegg

One of her highlights was performing a 45-second solo skate completely unaided. Libby also used her experience to educate people about her eye condition, Stargardt’s Mascular Dystrophy, and how that affects her sight.

4. Celebrity MasterChef

Also in 2020, TV personality and business owner Amar Latif was the first blind person to take part in Celebrity MasterChef.
Amar has Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye condition that caused him to lose 95% of his vision by the age of 18. He made it to the the semi-final, and a few months later participated in a one-off festive edition of the programme.

Amar Latif

Prior to Celebrity MasterChef, Amar admitted that he couldn’t cook, so spent three weeks learning to cook prior to filming.

Amar’s dishes were inspired by the Asian flavours of his mum’s cooking. He used his other senses like taste and texture to check if his food was cooked.

5. The Voice

Back in 2013, The Voice, the singing competition in which auditions are judged solely on the person’s voice, featured a blind contestant, who went on to win the show.

Andrea Begley, who also worked as a civil servant, auditioned and was then mentored by coach Danny O’Donoghue.

Andrea Begley

She chose to audition for The Voice because she liked the idea that she couldn’t see the coaches, and the coaches couldn’t initially see her so the only thing they could judge her on was her voice.

6. Strictly Come Dancing

While Strictly Come Dancing has not yet featured a visually impaired contestant, it has featured other disabled people.

In 2021, Rose Ayling-Ellis, who is a deaf actress, was crowned the first disabled Strictly Come Dancing champion.

Other disabled people to participate include Ellie Simmonds who has Dwarfism, and Jonnie Peacock who is an amputee.

Rose Ayling-Ellis

Amar Latif has appeared on the spin-off discussion show It Takes Two, and talked about the availability of audio description on Strictly Come Dancing.

Since 2023, the BBC has provided the audio description during live shows (after being introduced in 2020 but made available a few days later on BBC iPlayer). This means viewers with sight loss being able to embrace the magic of the dancing and costumes along with everyone else at the same time as everyone else. How fantastic is that!

The availability of audio description on Strictly has been a topic of discussion on the BBC’s Access All podcast; this included an interview with the audio describer.

Hopefully in the not too distant future, Strictly will feature a visually impaired participant.

Click here for an Access All episode about audio description on Strictly

7. The Piano

The Piano features amateur pianists performing at train stations across the UK. The two judges, singer Mika and panist Lang Lang select the best performer to perform at a concert, with all other performers able to attend the concert.

Lucy performing on a Steinway Grand Piano at The Royal Festival Hall; she is wearing a pink dress, and her teacher Daniel is sat with her.

In the first series that aired in early 2023, one of the performers, who went on to win the show, was 13-year-old Lucy, who is totally blind, and is also autistic and has a developmental delay as a result of a genetic condition. Lucy has been learning to play the piano from a very young age, after playing the keyboard from the age of two, blowing hospital staff away when they thought her performing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on a small toy keyboard was pre-recorded.

As well as highlighting Lucy’s piano playing skills, Lucy’s appearance on The Piano also highlighted how she learns to play the piano; she is taught by Daniel, a music teacher provided by The Amber Trust, a charity that helps blind and partially sighted children and young people access music-based opportunities.

Lucy performed her audition at Leeds Train Station, capturing the audience from the very start. For both her performance in Leeds and her performance at the Royal Festival Hall, she played traditional classical pieces.

After winning The Piano, Lucy had the fantastic opportunity of performing at King Charles III’s Coronation Concert that took place on 7th May 2023.

The Piano returned for a second series in 2024, and was an even longer series than the first one.

One of the performers, who performed at Manchester Piccadilly, was one of our very own service users: Shaun Hayward, also known as Sir Blimey.

Unfortunately, the judges didn’t select him to perform at the final concert, but it was great to watch him make his appearance on the show.

8. Race Across The World

In Race Across The World, five pairs travel from one location to another, and the fastest pair to complete the journey wins a £20,000 prize. Pairs are not allowed to use air travel, so must travel by land and sea.

Each team is given a budget per person, the budget being the price of a one-way airfare from the start  to the final destination.

Trish and Cathie stood on a river bank, with city buildings in the background. They are wearing outdoor clothing and have their bags packed.

Teams are given a jobs directory so that they can look for short-term work and earn money along the way, if they are running low on funds.

Series 3 involved travelling across Canada, from Stanley Park in Vancouver, to St. John’s in Newfoundland.

One of the participants in this series was Tricia (Trish), who completed the race with her best friend Cathie.

Trish has 10% vision in both eyes, caused by Uveitis.

While participants can’t use smartphones during the race, Trish was allowed to use a digital camera, to take pictures so that she could zoom in on them to read any information.

Trish and Cathie won the series, winning the £20,000 prize fund.

Final Thoughts

These examples highlight how disabled people can be represented positively on TV, and how disabled people can be included and given opportunities to fully participate.

It’s clear that progress is being made to cast disabled people on TV shows in a way that feels positive and authentic, and as a result, this results in better and more accurate education and awareness.

Hopefully, more and more shows will cast disabled people, and the time will come when disabled people appearing on TV is just the norm, and we won’t have to mark milestones such as ‘the first blind contestant’ and their disability will be seen as one aspect of who they are, and not their only defining characteristic.

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