Hollyoaks has embarked on a challenging and truly life-changing storyline for Sid Sumner (Billy Price), who had part of his leg amputated after being run over while high on ketamine. The fact that it has been life-changing is realistic, human – and surprising.
With a few notable exceptions, Soapland is populated by disabled characters who have only experienced the effects of having a disability in a superficial, transitory, barely life-affecting way. Few have truly explored disability and its lasting impacts. There is, it seems, a set of expected outcomes for those who are disabled: cured, dies by suicide, leaves the soap, or at least lives off-screen.
As soon as the plot demands, the disability becomes merely a plot device, strapped onto the character’s identity. Of course, there have been improvements – Hollyoaks' Summer Ranger (Rhiannon Clements) is not defined by her disability – a shortened left forearm – but by her sinister activities: revenge, kidnap and journaling, however ill-advised the last might be in the circumstances.
But we rarely acknowledge the importance of characters with disabilities, for whom having a disability is just one part of their identity. Who might find it challenging to accept it or never mention it on screen – because disabled people don’t owe an explanation or a clean conclusion.
An important part of disability representation is variety: a disabled character shouldn’t fit into a singular stencil or blueprint. Yet history, including the history of soap, has taught us that we’re either superhuman, a burden or sexually unattractive.
For some having a disability removes humanity. Consider the Scope statistics: two thirds of British people (67%) say they feel awkward around disabled people. Some people feel so uncomfortable they avoid disabled people altogether.
As Charlotte Armitage, a specialist psychologist in film and TV cast care and Managing Director of the YAFTA Group, states, we need to "remove the negative perceptions and unconscious bias of others. We shouldn't romanticise or glamourise disability" as it can so often dehumanise disabled people.
But there seems to have been a general shift towards more compelling and relatable media. Sid’s moments of despair and grief, the blood that seeps through his jeans which he hastily tries to hide, the anguish in his voice as he articulates his difficulties: "I'm trying to live a normal life here, and every time that I do, I get reminded that I’m not."
These are deeply intense, compelling, human moments that should resonate with all of us.
Holly, who has a chronic kidney condition and is a long-time fan of the show, suggests that Hollyoaks does disability representation brilliantly because it doesn’t see disabled people as one-dimensional props but as living, breathing people living mundane lives. (Well, as ordinary as life can be when there is either a serial killer or a McQueen around each corner – equally frightening prospects.)
Holly believes that Sid’s storyline is a step in the right direction, “especially when it comes to ableism, discrimination in favour of non-disabled people, as this is something that people with disabilities experience every day and is rarely discussed in the media.”
Others are less convinced and take issue with the fact that William Price, the actor playing Sid, is not disabled. As Mik Scarlet, an access and inclusion expert and wheelchair user, says: "I'm so sick of disability being seen as a powerful story rather than part of a character. If yet another non-disabled actor is playing a newly disabled person, it'll be another waste of time."
He argues that it might seem like progress to cover such stories. Still, it is dangerous to include the same old tropes, a story arc that does little to tell a realistic, truthful story. There is no drama or jeopardy in it being a positive experience. There is a great deal of truth to this: generations of older disabled people have seen their experiences diminished, their pain sanitised, their worth questioned.
Sid is the latest in a long line of characters with disabilities who can improve representation. Many haven’t, and it’s difficult not to be world-weary. Mik has his doubts, "but who knows. Maybe I'll be wrong. Be amazing if I was."
Hollyoaks has shown real progress in representing Sid’s struggle and Summer’s darker pastimes. Other soaps could learn important lessons from them but more can still be done. For example, we need to commit to disabled actors for disabled roles, and we need to see disabled characters thriving and achieving their aims – criminal or otherwise.
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