Rethinking Disability: Emmerdale

Copyright: Emmerdale/ITV.

Emmerdale is one of the UK’s leading soaps, attracting on average around 5–7 million viewers per episode. I’m a Research Fellow in the School of Education and Institute for the Study of the Human (iHuman) at the University of Sheffield, and last week was invited to meet Emmerdale scriptwriter, Caroline Mitchell.

Excitingly, Emmerdale has recently introduced a new disabled character — Ryan Stocks. As Charity Dingle’s ‘secret’ son, Ryan enters the Dales in difficult circumstances, getting to know his biological mother and her extended family. Ryan experienced a difficult birth and was later adopted by Irene Stocks, the midwife supporting a then-young and vulnerable Charity. Like any other character, we will get to know Ryan through watching his intimate life unfold on screen. In the context of disability, where disabled characters are typically objectified and denied personhood, this is an exciting and radical prospect as fresh representations of disability make their way to mass audiences.

My recently published monograph The Intimate Lives of Disabled People (Routledge, 2018) explores the romantic, intimate and erotic lives of disabled people. With a broader interest in disability, media and representation (combined with a love of soaps…), I’m engaging in critical conversations about the development of Ryan’s romantic life and future in the Dales. Typical representations of disabled sexuality are often inaccurate and oppressive, with disabled (cisgender and heterosexual) men either being positioned as pitiful and inadequate or hypersexual and deviant. Such a binary fails to reflect the complexities of intimacy, sex and disability, and seldom characterises disabled people’s own lived experiences.

James Moore, who plays Ryan, is a disabled actor. Public attitudes towards disability are critically important and markedly mediate disabled people’s everyday lives in and across public and private spaces. Thus, it’s important that, as audiences, we see the nuances of disability — the realities of what it means to live in an ableist culture where disabled bodies and identities are routinely Othered and narrow ideas about ability revered. Without this, it’s impossible to understand disability, first and foremost, as a social and cultural entity shaped by social attitudes.

Importantly, public knowledges of and attitudes towards disability are changing all the time. For example, what is now over a decade of austerity politics (together with a supportive Right Wing press) has positioned many disabled people in Britain only as ‘scroungers’ and ‘spongers’ — citizens who take and drain and seldom contribute or give. Although grossly inaccurate, such constructions of disabled people and their lives matter — research shows that in the same era hate crimes against disabled people have risen dramatically as cultural hostility and resentment grow through such deliberate and purposeful scapegoating (Quarmby 2011). Thus, what we come to “know” of disability as a society can deeply affect disabled people’s lives in a multitude of ways.

I’m aiming to continue to work with Emmerdale. As both a disabled woman and disability researcher my hope is that my personal, political and research-informed understanding can help to embody Ryan’s intimate life and story in ways rarely seen on screen today. Radical representations of disability — and particularly of disability, love and sex — are rare, but Emmerdale’s desire to use critical knowledges, disabled people’s own voices and stories, and research to shape its storylines in this arena is hopeful towards this changing for the better.

Dr Kirsty Liddiard, Research Fellow in the School of Education and Institute for the Study of the Human (iHuman) at the University of Sheffield.