It’s Saturday at National Star College in Gloucestershire, and a group of students have gathered in the common room to watch the football. Later, they start a game of spin the bottle and down vodka shots. But 19-year-old Lewis won’t be slurring his words, or stumbling to bed; he uses a computer to speak for him, and a wheelchair to get around.
In this, at least, life for the young people at National Star does differ from student life anywhere else. They all have a physical or mental disability; lots of them use wheelchairs, or walking aids, and those that don’t still need help making their breakfast, or safely crossing the road.
But, as The Unbreakables (part of BBC3’s Defying the Label season) reveals, everything else is pretty universal, from the all-consuming crushes to the questionable freshers’ ball hairdos. Though the title is an obvious nod to Channel 4’s The Undateables, its approach is different; friendlier yet also more direct, as the students openly discuss what they want viewers to know about disabled people – most important is, as one says, the fact that “disabled people can do the same [things as] able-bodied people, but in a slightly different way”.
21-year-old Xenon is a self-confessed ladies’ man
Some of the Defying the Label season feels a little cynical – titles like The Boy Who Wants His Leg Cut Off don’t help – but the aim is a decent one: to make viewers think about what it is to be disabled, and to see that beyond the wheelchair or the funny voice is someone just like them.
Though the programme uses comic book fonts and cartoonish sound effects, trumpeting its stars as superheroes, the simple fact is, they’re not – they’re just people. It sounds obvious, but there’s proof in the programme that it needs to be said.
Actually, the stars of The Unbreakables are not “just” people. They are resilient, matter-of-fact, mostly cheerful, sometimes sad, often funny people, who fancy each other and wonder about the future and hope to get a job after college. Their goal, like that of most young people, is independence, and many of them will go on to achieve it.
They are, however, also living with a disability that makes their lives harder in all sorts of ways, and the programme doesn’t ignore this. Xenon appears in the first episode, and is upfront about the fact that he’d rather not have to use a wheelchair; in his dreams, he can walk. He has nowhere to live once he leaves National Star, as his dad’s home isn’t considered safe for him. But any anger or frustration he shows is accompanied by pragmatism – and humour.
In one scene in a later episode, Bradley, a wheelchair user, tells some of his fellow students – including Xenon – his exciting news: “I proposed to my new girlfriend – after three weeks!” He got down on one knee and everything, he says. “So,” asks Xenon, “how did you get back up again?”
The brilliance of National Star is not just in the support and care its staff provides; it’s in the way the students feel at home, and totally unselfconscious. Once they leave college, they don’t want to be considered special – they want to be considered equal. And the brilliance of The Unbreakables is that it isn’t trying to do anything except give National Star’s students the chance to speak for themselves.
The Unbreakables: Life and Love on Disability Campus begins on Thursday 30th July, BBC3 at 9pm.
Other recommended Defying the Label programmes available to watch on iPlayer: