Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Will The Undateables be unwatchable ?

A dating show, a reality TV show, or a victorian freakshow.

This programme due for broadcast by C4 in April has generated the type of pre launch controversy which Publicists delight in.

Not all non-disabled people run a mile from potential disabled partners. I've dated disabled people before now. Diagnosed and undiagnosed and it's an issue which will generate much debate, which can only be a good thing, so to me it isn't an issue. However this is not the case for everyone.

We are more naturally drawn to people with whom we have a demonstrable affinity and ignorance is a huge barrier to understanding the things we have in common as opposed to the things which separate us.; this coupled with the fact that disabled people are prevented from participating in many of the social norms and according to a Scope survey many people don't even know someone with a disability, it strengthens the barriers that disabled people have in forming any social networks let alone romantic relationships.

I have two major problems with the notion of the show and I participated in the briefest of brief debates this week on Radio 5 live which given the subject was disability seemed about right. The conversation was dominated by a representative of one of the dating agencies who has been instrumental in finding partners for the participants. This has resulted in 2 out of 9 potential relationships.

We live in an age of perfection and the issue of hate crime targeting disabled people is on the rise. We are encouraged by advertisers not to age,  not to get fat and certainly not to be "different". If advertisers wanted to disprove my perception then they could begin routinely including disabled people in their adverts for supermarkets, furniture, banks holidays etc etc etc. Disabled people do feature in life just not in advertising land.

Politicians love disabled people for PR enhancing photo op's as they display their compassion credentials replete with concerned faces on one hand then vote for the hateful policies which disenfrancise disabled people with the other hand.

It's in this perfectionist  culture that C4 decided to launch a series of billboards for The Undateables with pictures of six of the participants and the the tagline "love is blind, disfigured autistic".

It's deliberately provocative and offensive and it's rationale is that it spark debate. Yes probably but it will also draw the mocking bigots to the show and just because it's professing higher motives it's not necessarily a guarantee that they will be realised. If a poster had appeared the length and breadth of the country featuring disabled children and with the title "The Unloveables" I'd have felt the same way.

Once again it feels as though disabled adults are perceived to be justifiable targets.

Not everyone who sees the billboards will watch the show- whether we are promised the themes will be explored and deconstructed or not. For some people the ad campaign is just a bloody good laugh and I'm sure some great ammunition for verbal abuse on the streets at work and in schools. But in the ratings war what's a little collateral damage eh? Especially when you don't know anyone from the targeted groups personally to look in the eye and justify your motives.

I asked my daughter Lizzy who is on the Autistic spectrum what she felt about the ad and whether she would have participated. She said no when I asked why she said "Because I don't want to be laughed at. They will highlight the bad not the good, because for them it's better telly".

Should the subject of disability and dating be addressed? Yes of course but as a stand alone show. No. Include disabled people in all programming not as a niche addition or 'specialist" programme.

Inclusion of disabled people in everything is the aim of all of my campaigning but the fact is the misery porn aspect of the poster and the platform seam running through so many reality TV shows and documentary shows about disability is what concerns me. Just include disabled people in everything. Not in niche programmes because then it stands out as box ticking exercises not inclusion.

The poster is disappointing because it's sets people up for the very thing which will draw the eye. As surely as the participants were happy to be involved, the advertising brainstorming session seem to have resulted in a campaign framed upon a prurient peek through the observation hatches of victorian institutions. Why call it The Undateables otherwise. Until disabled people are commissioning and making these shows rather than just participating, with no editorial control, it will continue.

I hope this show will be as warm funny uplifting and thought provoking as the programme makers assure us it will be. I hope too that the vast majority will not be watching to laugh but to learn something however given human nature of perceived difference this ambition seems less likely. Especially when favoured sons of C4 comedy like Frankie Boyle get the thumbs up for cruely ridiculing as a staple.

It's sad too that the advertising underpins a wider perception that TV just can't "do" disability without it routinely being dreaded. I can certainly only remember a tiny number of shows which have turned patronising, discriminatory reprentations on their  head and made uplifting watchable programming for people who understand as well as those who don't.

Also broadcasters please lose the "with a difference" strap line. It's dull. If you feel you have to warn people of the approaching inclusion of disabled people then you really should be asking yourselves why.


  1. Brilliant as always.

  2. I saw this when I was out with my daughter and husband. Both of us have disabilities and our daughter is on the autistic spectrum. I'm sure you realise how heartbreaking it is to hear your gorgeous daughter say ' Does that mean I'm undateable? I have aspergers which is on the spectrum so they are saying I'm undateable'
    As for being different, I could write an essay on the effect that has on the masses, but, I'll just say that yesterday a group of schoolchildren were openly taking the mick out of my daughter. Her 'crime' wearing black and white creeper shoes!

  3. I think the problem with the Scope survey, and also the famous Observer Sex Survey, which suggested 70% of people wouldn't date someone "with a physical disability" is that nonsense like this poster is so othering. Because *everyone* knows at least one disabled person. Everyone. And much more than 4% (the Observer figure) have had a sexual relationship with a disabled person.

    But not everyone knows someone who they would regard as "undateable" because of their impairment. So if that's what disabled people are like, well no, your amputee friend, your autistic brother, your aunt with MS, they're not disabled.

    And as such, it's okay to cut benefits, use slurs, talk about burdensome scroungers etc., because they're not anyone you know, let alone anyone that you've got a significant chance of becoming...

  4. Way before I identified as disabled and long before I started writing about long term conditions, I refused to watch any of these shows. "Oooh, look at the small people/disfigured people/conjoined twins/Tourettes guy"

    This isn't "raising awareness" it's 100% Victorian freak show. I'm sure the programme will start debate : "Would you shag a crip?" Awesome C4, what a noble aim, what searching journalism, thank you, as a disabled person for making a programme about whether anyone might deign to fancy me.

    This inclusion, this attempt to "help" society to understand my life in order that they may find some value in me is benevolent indeed.

    See how silly it sounds when you put it like that?

    And by the way, I'm about as "PC" as Bernand Manning at a WI convention

  5. I listened in to that briefest of brief interviews and got the impression that some candidate for The Apprentice had come up with an "excellent new way" to market/advertise the dating company concerned.

    Mass media is a powerful tool. It's a shame that most of the time we only seem to use it to appeal to the darker, lazier side of our personalities.

    I'm sure The Undateables will be billed as thought provoking, an insight into the trials and tribulations of finding love when you're physically or mentally challenged.

    I wonder how the selection process was carried out?

  6. Excellent Nicky! This program is not a way forward and with the increase of hate crime and abuse of disabled people, thanks to the government, I think this show will add to it instead of making things better. We had started slowly moving forward and have been knocked back years now, fortunately we have you, Sue, Kaliya and Sonia to name a few who are talented writers and campaigners to see us through it and bring us together. Keep up the good work we do appreciate all that you all do!

  7. You bloody lovely bunch of people. Great comments that cheered me up hugely after a crap night for Emmy. All love (genuinely) Nik xx

  8. Much more thought provoking is the wonderful documentary IWC produced for the BBC which came out last Sunday about comedian Laurence Clark and his wife having their second child... a much more sensitive take on disability and relationships. It's still on i-player but only for another day I think http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01dwgnn/We_Wont_Drop_the_Baby/

  9. Come on -- get real -- C4 have done a great job in generating heat (& a few essays - Nicky)out in the blogosphere.Prejudging this programme and linking it to hate crime is falling into the trap of seeing people with disabiliites, particulary those with learning difficulties as victims, easily exploited and not capable of taking a rational decision about whether to participate in the films.That is unhelpful to Nicky's professed inclusion agenda. The documentary about Lawnrence and Adele was inspirational. Maybe these programmes will be too. Why not watch, listen and then judge?

  10. Hi ancientrock thank yu for your comment. The whole blog is clear that the programme is sight unseen and predicated on the question as to whether it will be unwatchable. The point is the advertising is negative. Thats all. best nik

  11. Thanks Nicky

    I'm not at all sure that the advertising is negative. Sure it is provocative but not offensive - just pictures of people with a love is caption--. If it draws a huge audience and highlights, in a warm and sensitive way, the issues for some people with disabiliites in finding love ,it might just help change the misguided and prejudiced views still sadly held by many. That would be a very positive outcome.

  12. The main route of this problem is society which is not ready to accept disabled as normal people.