Why Strictly's 'plan' to cast a wheelchair user is important for the disabled community
The backlash was inevitable, but future generations need to see such representation on big shows like Strictly, writes Melissa Parker.
It’s being reported that BBC bosses plan to cast a wheelchair user in the forthcoming season of Strictly Come Dancing following the recent success of disabled contestants Rose Ayling-Ellis and Ellie Simmonds.
However, the backlash proves that radical on and off-screen representation will only happen when we have conversations which remove ignorance; so that disabled people can see themselves fully on screen.
As Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the University of Sheffield states: “The hateful comments directed at BBC Strictly’s [reported] plans to include a wheelchair-user contestant in the 2023 series speak loudly to the ignorance that many disabled people face in their everyday lives.”
But it can be a learning experience for those who diminish us – letting the truth ring out. We can be creative, sensual, refined, and coordinated on a dance floor and off.
Ru, a disability rights activist with a significant online following, understands this natural reaction, saying: “Unsurprisingly, it has been met with ignorance and bigotry from the public.”
They note that their initial response, along with many other wheelchair users, was to smile, because such representation in shows like Strictly will offer insight. We are the largest minority group, and yet we’re so often omitted, so having such visible representation which is joyful and inclusive allows disabled people to be themselves.
Social media has given trolls an unmediated voice, but disabled people have had their voices uplifted by a community that understands the struggles and how far we’ve come.
Within hours of the rumours, Kate Stanforth, a wheelchair-using ballerina and the owner of an inclusive dance academy, had posted a screenshot shared by a user online reading: “I’m sorry about anyone in a wheel chair, but if this is for real then sorry then we stop watching. Then they will have dancing dogs or cats as partners. Include everything on gods earth. Why not ?”
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These comments should be in the open. We need to acknowledge that this prejudice exists.
The actor James Moore, who has cerebral palsy, notes how other people often tell us to “get over it” and “that it isn’t as bad as it used to be”. However, incidents like this “prove their ignorance and need to insert themselves into a conversation they have no part in”.
To have influential disabled people such as JJ Chalmers be so publicly biting in their response to ableism is also essential. The former Strictly contestant and Invictus Games medalist wrote in response to the reports: “A Wheelchair User has the same right as anyone else to take part in a made-up dance show.”
In reality, Ayling-Ellis and Simmonds also experienced abuse in social media word counts and national newspaper column inches during their time on the show — we shouldn’t allow others to edit out that rough truth.
Seeing and reading the abuse which was present across social media was difficult – though well-trodden ground – for many disabled people, but both used the opportunity to spark conversations about ableism. Ayling-Ellis used her platform to denounce the idea that her success meant that she could be used as a Deaf pioneer – a single poster girl for the entire community.
Seeing these voices raise and claim the narrative for the first time, rejecting old ideas and notions, has been transformative.
As a wheelchair user and a disabled child, I absorbed many negative beliefs about what it was to be disabled, but we’re starting to see ourselves as fleshed-out human beings on screen. And if the reports are true, this will only improve representation.
As Dr Liddiard commented: “The notion that wheelchair users can’t dance, or be artful, sexy, graceful, coordinated, or anything else normally shown on Strictly, is, of course, a fallacy.” Future generations of disabled children need to see this.
Jasper Williams, a profoundly Deaf wheelchair user, shares his experience of having spent years finding a teacher who even allowed him into a dance studio.
Strictly emphasises celebrating diversity which he thinks will seep into ordinarily disabled lives if reports to include a wheelchair user are accurate. The dance industry is “notoriously inaccessible”. Much of this is due to attitudes and societal views, which we have seen reflected in these online commentaries.
But, ultimately, with the influence and power of shows such as Strictly, we continue to defy the currently limited imaginations of those non-disabled commentators and show them what disabled bodies can do.
“In 2023, there is also still a severe lack of support in place, falling through the gaps and Strictly – with such a big platform - must lead the way forward,” Williams says.
The backlash from some was inevitable following the speculation – but the response from many within the disabled community shows that representation is essential. We’re gaining our voices and using them to demand more to reject old ideas and participate in a made-up dance show on our terms.
Strictly Come Dancing returns to BBC One later this year.
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