Show starts off strong but fails to retain stamina.
Okay everyone, time for my next analysis of disability on TV. Channel 4’s Ackley Bridge, set in a racially-diverse school in Yorkshire, tried to do what I’ve never seen similar TV programmes do before. Whilst many shows have tried to showcase related disorders such as Dyslexia, and ADHD (I’ll come back to how well they manage that in future posts), I’ve never before seen an attempt at Dyspraxia—otherwise known as Developmental Coordination Disorder—in the media. As a dyspraxic myself (albeit late-diagnosed, thanks to a tip-off from my very terrified and frustrated driving instructor), I was thrilled to see a primetime television programme attempt to raise awareness of this under-diagnosed condition, especially given that they used a female character for this storyline.
In the second episode of the show’s second series, Razia’s chemistry teacher notices that she keeps forgetting to hand in her homework, then asks her to go to the back of the classroom to collect some equipment and sees her bump into several chairs on her way through. Though the latter in particular is an extremely relatable part of Dyspraxia for most of us with the condition, the fact that this is all it took for her chemistry teacher to notice she might be dyspraxic is peculiar, especially given that the character is not a new pupil of his. However, the scene in which this teacher explained the condition in simple terms to Razia’s Mother was, I believe, well-written. I appreciated that how easy the condition was to miss was made clear, alongside the fact that there was not a focus on fine motor skills or handwriting, but on the ‘scatterbrained’ effect that the condition can cause and Razia’s inability to walk in a straight line. Even if the storyline did seem to come out of nowhere, Ackley Bridge’s writers and producers at least managed to avoid making Razia’s Dyspraxia nothing more than a checklist of all possible symptoms. In doing so, they ensured that Razia remained human rather than simply the culmination of her symptoms, and created a character who was real to my symptoms and I’m sure those of many other dyspraxic girls. Whilst it is impossible to get a portrayal of any disability which remains true to each and every individual with it (hence why a wider variety of representation is so important to making people feel seen, understood, and included), refraining from stereotypical representations ensures that at least some people with the condition can feel like their experiences are being accurately portrayed.
In the dealing of Razia’s Dyspraxia for the remainder of the series on the other hand, Ackley Bridge does not do such a convincing job. In fact, Razia’s condition is largely forgotten about, besides the chemistry teaching telling Razia’s mother that they were going to ‘fix’ Razia’s problems (2×03; 1:30) (‘help’ or ‘support would’ve been much better terms…they can’t just cure our clumsiness!), and deciding that learning to play the drums would provide her with coordination. I assume that, in doing this, the writers were trying to demonstrate that certain activities can help those with Dyspraxia to develop some coordination-based skills and learn strategies to help, though this could definitely have done with being made clearer. Additionally, Razia’s Dyspraxia doesn’t seem to come up outside of this specific storyline, making it seem like a condition which only shows up occasionally. For authenticity, it would’ve been nice to see Razia occasionally bump into something, or go over on her ankle, or struggle with something as simple as putting a key in a lock and turning it in the background of whatever else was going on. Not necessarily as something to be mentioned, but just as something that the audience could notice. Something to be normalised.
My dyspraxic self fully appreciated Ackley Bridge’s effort to represent what the condition can be to someone like myself: diagnosed late and without the obvious, fine-motor issues which are usually associated with a childhood diagnosis. The condition was explained simply but effectively to Razia’s mother, perhaps allowing viewers who identify with Razia’s character to see where their own difficulties may lie. Ackley Bridge’s attempt at dyspraxic representation is a vast improvement on previous half-hearted or non-attempts to demonstrate this under-recognised neurodiverse condition, though, ultimately, it would’ve been nice to see more of this representation in the background of Razia’s other activities. A subtle showcasing of various symptoms outside of the designated storyline may have been more effective at allowing dyspraxic individuals to feel represented as part of the community of the programme, rather than as part of an informative storyline rolled out only when necessary.