We can't overstate the importance of a disabled character in Doctor Who
We don’t know anything about Ruth Madeley's character – but a generation of disabled viewers know how she should be handled.
Ruth Madeley's casting in Doctor Who is already a game-changing piece of disability representation.
The BAFTA nominee, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, will appear as a character named Shirley Anne Bingham and was featured in the trailer for the 60th anniversary of the BBC sci-fi series.
Madeley’s performances throughout her career reveal a simple truth: being disabled is not a shorthand for pitiable. Whether a disabled mother fighting to keep her newborn child or a pioneering disability rights campaigner, her characters all have one tie that connects them – they are ordinary, 3D, disabled women.
They're the sort of women seldom seen on screen who remain ever-present in our communities, our vibrant histories and our culture.
We are the generation with the vision to want progress, who knew things could be better but didn’t see it in the media growing up. Now we are witnessing disabled people in the media whose voices are ringing loud and clear for change – who keep pushing on.
We didn’t see disability representation as children or teenagers, but the next generation will.
There’s a refusal to be confined by the stereotypes that have littered our history. A refusal to accept discrimination or received wisdom about what it means to be disabled and the way they are fighting to replace limiting notions with something so much more humanly compelling, relatable, and authentic.
We don’t know anything yet about Shirley Anne Bingham – but a generation of disabled viewers know how she should be handled.
As Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the University of Sheffield states: “It’s brilliant to see the wonderful Ruth Madeley join Doctor Who – a disabled woman actor in a primetime role is, sadly, still a rarity.
"She brings her own lived experience to the role, which is crucial towards countering tokenism and offering audiences accurate portrayals of disability.”
It is important to channel lived experiences and the unique hopes and fears of a disabled person. Their motivations and methods are undoubtedly too nuanced and complex to learn or teach.
“Cripping up” – the term commonly used to describe actors without a disability mimicking the characteristics of specific conditions to play disabled characters – is unjust and negates the impact of the disabled experience: being ostracised, othered and maligned.
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This sentiment is echoed by Rachel Charlton-Dailey, a disabled Doctor Who fan, who believes that Madeley’s passion for telling meaningful stories will be reflected in her new role as she hopes to give new generations a role model who has an insight into their reality.
“Ruth is such a fierce advocate for disability rights and the portrayal in film and TV, I think this is going to be done exceptionally well," she says. "The authenticity and importance of having people from all walks of life shines through when it’s done well."
As Shalida A Askanazi, another disabled Whovian, observes, we still want to be portrayed respectfully: “It’s so important to have a disabled character on a popular show. Because there remains so much stigma around what it is to be disabled.
She points to statements she often receives: “I don’t think of you as being disabled.” It’s a limited view of what it is to be disabled. A mainstream disabled character has the potential to dispel harmful myths which continue to linger.
“It’ll show that disabled people aren’t just tucked away. We’re real people doing real things." Concluding thoughtfully, Shalida adds there needs to be a balance of quiet acknowledgement “without turning each episode into an ableism fest”.
These small interactions have been the danger of harmful disability representation for generations: the made-up bits passing into the public consciousness as fact.
Growing up and living within ableist cultures categorising disability as a defect can mean that disabled people internalise negative messages about disability. Much of the disability imagery society consumes is wrong or oppressive.
After the news of Madeley's casting was made public, the joy and outpouring of affection demonstrated how deeply rooted the problem has been.
It shouldn’t be so revolutionary, but it is. Disabled people have waited for this for generations. A disabled actress in a prime-time role is perhaps still a rarity, but once it was fantastical.
I have been a wheelchair user all my life, and as a child, playing make-believe was an outlet to scrub my disability. I didn’t understand what it was to be disabled. I had to unlearn a great deal as I internalised many negative messages about disability.
I was seven the first time I saw a disabled person on screen. I remember instinctively thinking that it was exceptional as a child of the '90s. There were no disabled cover girls in fashion magazines or the sci-fi or children’s programming I devoured. How do we expect disabled children of any era to accept themselves when we don’t see ourselves anywhere?
As a teen, I was obsessed with Doctor Who. Our lives became entangled. I would consume content endlessly. Inspired by Christopher Eccleston, I had my leather jacket and some iconic throwaway lines. There are images of me in my wheelchair next to an inflatable TARDIS, reminiscent of the photos of Madeley’s debut.
Fiction, like life, has historically told disabled people that their lives have less significance. Still, the next generation might not have to unlearn negative messages, might not be shaped by stereotypes and have their lived experience minimised – we can pass on better to the next generation.
We don’t know anything about Madeley's Doctor Who character – disabled people have various personalities, after all – or how she will be handled. But disabled voices insist it should be about telling human stories reflecting our experiences – undercutting the trite.
So, whoever Shirley Anne Bingham is, she should reflect us.