“You’re good-looking, you know. Your disability, the wheelchair – it doesn’t matter.” These were not the encouraging words of a support worker, but those of the girl I was about to lose my virginity to. The first time she said it, I was appreciative. However, after hearing it for the fifth time I began to block her words out. “Forgive me,” I thought, “but nothing could be further from my mind right now than that wheelchair.” I was 19.
As someone with cerebral palsy and, yes, a wheelchair user, I’m aware that a recent Observer poll found that 70 per cent of people wouldn’t consider sleeping with someone who had a physical disability. Given this, I was interested to see how Channel 4’s The Undateables would tackle the taboo of disabled people having sex with each other, never mind with the able-bodied.
Considering the channel’s position as official broadcaster for this year’s Paralympic Games, one would hope it would look to challenge the preconceptions that perpetuate the statistic – disabled people must be tolerated yet, in dating terms, are “separate but equal”. That’s the phrase they used to justified racial segregation in the USA in the 19th century.
Frustratingly, the series chose to shy away from the challenge, conforming to archaic attitudes by creating what at best amounted to condescending “feelgood” TV and, at worst, used disability as a tool for exploitative entertainment.
I may use a wheelchair but I’m not undateable, so for a start I didn’t agree with the programme title. But it was the assumption implicit within the programme, that disability dominates an individual, that damaged its integrity the most.
By paying particular attention to people who had learning difficulties, or conditions such as Tourette syndrome that affect social interaction, the series has chosen to highlight differences and cast mainstream integration as an impossible dream – irrespective of personality or the type of disability.
We should be preaching integration and acceptance rather than segregation. Instead we were supposed to laugh and cry as “the disabled” tried to love like “normal people” in a simplistic, childlike way. Although I frequently make fun of my disability, there’s a difference between satirising people’s perceptions and reinforcing them.
This false distinction justified the frequent use of specialist disability dating agencies to match up participants. In reality, it’s not the disability that defines who a person can or cannot date, but the personality – a point highlighted best by Penny, a young woman with brittle bones. After an uninspired match-up with, predictably, another wheelchair user, she blurted: “I’d rather date somebody who isn’t disabled. I think they’d be livelier.”
Rather than take the opportunity to explore her opinion and confront the more pertinent questions around disability and sexuality, which would inform the viewer, the show quickly shifted to another participant. I can empathise with Penny’s words. She meant somebody who was self-assured, free of the shadow that some disabled people let strangle them. The challenge, for every disabled person, is to ensure his or her outlook and personality keeps them out of the dark.
The Undateables did little to make this battle easier. If this is what Jay Hunt, the chief creative officer at C4, had in mind when she stated, “It’s more important than ever that Channel 4 is prepared to challenge the status quo, to provoke debate and, above all, to be brave,” then the future for the channel is bleak.
At university I very much lived the student life. In contrast to what the programme suggested, disabled people shouldn’t lower their expectations when it comes to finding a partner, they should raise their ambitions. And that goes for all area of their lives, not just sex.
As for the night I lost my virginity, I never got round to discovering whether my partner was trying to put me at ease or convince herself about what she was doing. I was flying home the next day; we hadn’t even dated. Imagine that.
Alex Taylor is an NSPCC Young Ambassador for Disability.