Hollyoaks has a chance to get disability right with Sid's amputation storyline

·5-min read

From Digital Spy

Over the years, the phrase 'life-changing' has become a bit of a cliché in Soapland. Whether it's explosions or secrets, the fast pace of soap storylines often mean that despite the drama, lives aren't really changed forever.

We've all seen stories where characters make miracle recoveries thanks to specialist physios, the good work of Walford General, or Dr Karl Kennedy.

This week, however, Hollyoaks embarks on a challenging and truly life-changing new storyline for one character as Sid Sumner has part of his leg amputated after being run over while high on ketamine.

As Sid adjusts to life as an amputee, Hollyoaks has a big responsibility on its hands – to get it right when it comes to disability.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

With such sparse representation of disability on screen, it's important that Hollyoaks tell a truthful story and not one that falls into cliché or harmful stereotype. Sid's life will change, but having a disability doesn't mean his life is over. And with this subject, Hollyoaks has to get it right – because soaps have a history of getting it wrong.

An issue with using able-bodied actors whose characters become disabled is that initially the storyline is a negative one, understandably focusing on their feelings of loss and despair.

In 2011, Emmerdale faced strong criticism for its assisted-suicide plot with quadriplegic character Jackson, whose storylines played into damaging tropes implying death was more favourable than living a "worthless" disabled life. Charities and viewers condemned this type of storyline as not only being harmful but inaccurate too.

EastEnders' Ben Mitchell became permanently deaf this year and the show even used sound effects and a special episode to showcase the challenges he faced. However, after COVID script changes, Ben's hearing loss storyline was quickly concluded and EastEnders was criticised for glossing over Ben's struggle, instead rushing to "fix" him after his cochlear implant surgery.

Photo credit: Kieron McCarron/Jack Barnes - BBC
Photo credit: Kieron McCarron/Jack Barnes - BBC

More recently Emmerdale's Dan Spencer was told he might never walk again after a spinal injury. For viewers this meant many scenes of Dan, miserable, stuck at home and struggling to accept his new situation.

Alongside his financial struggles, his inability to work and unwillingness to reach out to friends put a burden on daughter Amelia, and this showed a relentlessly bleak outlook for disabled people.

We're in the early stages of Sid's storyline but already there's been an effort to avoid tropes of helplessness or Sid wallowing in his own self-pity.

Naturally his first reaction was a cycle of grief and denial, but Hollyoaks gave him agency by having him choose to sign the consent form for the amputation and seek out advice online.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

Arguably the life of a soap character is rarely a happy one and for those coming to terms with a new disability, a difficult adjustment period is understandable. But all too frequently this is the only side of disability soaps lean on for their storylines.

When stories only feature the emotional trauma and grief of becoming disabled, this perpetuates negative stereotypes and could skew how viewers see disabled people.

It's time for soaps to lead the way and change the narrative on how disability is portrayed on screen.

With Hollyoaks's current storyline it's crucial they don't brush Sid's injuries under the carpet and treat it like a plot device. However, the show has made it clear that this is the first chapter of a long-running storyline for him, one that will see him connect with Courtney, played by disabled actress Amy Conachan.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

Since her arrival in Hollyoaks in 2016, Courtney has been a refreshing portrayal of a disabled character on screen. Far from being a background character lacking storylines – a criticism which has faced Coronation Street for wheelchair-user Izzy's lack of prominence – Courtney has been given all the storylines of love, heartbreak and evil relatives that other characters in Hollyoaks experience. Her disability is referenced but it isn't the focus of her stories.

One way for soaps to avoid re-treading tired tropes and storylines is to hire disabled actors and creatives behind the scenes. Thankfully in recent years we've seen some efforts to improve diversity in casting, which means moving away from solely telling stories about the challenges of being disabled and giving these characters juicy soap storylines of their own. Long may this continue.

In 2019, Emmerdale's James Moore was the first disabled actor to win an NTA for Best Newcomer. COVID may have disrupted story plans but we're hopeful that his win will lead to Emmerdale giving him a greater role in future plots, especially given that he's part of the Dingle clan.

Photo credit: Stuart C. Wilson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stuart C. Wilson - Getty Images

This year EastEnders introduced Frankie, played by Deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis. Although she was originally involved to support Ben, Frankie's now playing a central role in Mick Carter's storyline dealing with sexual abuse. As the focus moves to Mick, we're hoping EastEnders keeps Frankie in the foreground.

With Sid already a prominent character in the show, playing a key role in the County Lines storyline and being an integral member of the teen group, there's little danger he will slip into the background. This gives Hollyoaks the opportunity, in time, to offer a more uplifting perspective that his life can be just as fulfilling and dramatic as his friends' lives.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

As Sid's story continues, we're hopeful that Hollyoaks's long-term intentions are to tell a truthful story about disability as the plot continues into next year. While soaps love a good stunt or shock cliffhanger, stories of disability deserve to be more than just a temporary plot device.

Soaps have always been influential when it comes to telling important stories about issues that matter to viewers watching at home. With disabled characters and actors given limited screen time across TV in general, soaps are the perfect medium to start changing the conversation around disability and represent their disabled viewers watching at home.

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