I, like any other child growing up in the 00s, had a deep-seated obsession with The Story of Tracy Beaker, its follow up Tracy Beaker Returns and, for the first couple of seasons at least, its third incarnation: The Dumping Ground.
With Tracy Beaker Returns being the show that introduced me to the concept of neurodiversity and sparked my interest in the way peoples’ differences show, I thought this saga (if you can call it that…which I firmly believe you can) would be a nice one to return to for a blog post. Though the show’s portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome was, in hindsight, painfully stereotypical, with tween-aged Gus wearing the same outfit every day; getting angry if his routines were upset; and having the ambition of working in science, the show nonetheless does a good job of telling young people that not everybody looks or behaves the same way, but that all people deserve a loving and accepting home regardless. The characters in the show are aware that Gus is different and, whilst sometimes annoyed at his refusal to adapt to their desires, respect and allow his routines to continue nonetheless. Asperger’s Syndrome is not the only neurodiverse condition covered by The Dumping Ground, with Bailey’s Dyslexia storyline in season two of the latest incarnation teaching children that having a learning disability does not mean a person is unintelligent. Not knowing as much about Dyslexia as I do about other neurodiverse conditions, I do not believe myself qualified to comment further on this portrayal, but would be interested to hear the thoughts of those with more personal or professional knowledge.
With physical disabilities, these shows do a much more accurate job than they do with the portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome. The representation of different forms of physical disability is better than I’ve seen on any other TV programme, perhaps as a result of the fact that the BBC advertises for genuinely disabled actors to play these roles, rather than, as was the case with Gus, hiring an actor without the condition. The original Story of Tracy Beaker featured Layla, a young girl with Cerebral Palsy, from 2003 to 2005, and each show has added more actors with a range of disabilities. Recent seasons of The Dumping Ground feature actors (and therefore characters) with SED-Dwarfism; Down’s Syndrome; Cerebral Palsy, and a wheelchair-user, amongst others.
Not only are these disabilities present in The Dumping Ground, but are topics of discussion, encouraging children (and adults watching with them) to listen to and understand the perspectives of those different from themselves. One of my favourite moments comes when teenage athlete Faith suffers an injury and, unable to compete, tells Frank (who has Cerebral Palsy): ‘It’s different for you. You were born like that, so you don’t know any different.’ (2×02, 20:45). When she realises that her words may have been upsetting and apologises, Frank tells her: ‘Don’t be sorry. I’m not sorry. I deal with it’ (20:55). This, coupled with Frank’s assertion that: ‘You’re not useless. You’re in a wheelchair’ (19:57), provides children and adults, both abled and disabled, with a powerful message. It tells them that disability does not make a person ‘useless,’ and that they can find ways to cope and be as successful as anybody else. The Dumping Ground does not shy away from, well, frank conversations such as that between Faith and Frank (see what I did there?) and in the process, manages to dispel the myths that: A. disabled people don’t need occasional adjustments because ‘they don’t know any different’; and B. are unable to achieve simply because of their condition.
Overall, The Dumping Ground and its predecessors do an excellent job at including actors with a range of physical disabilities. In doing so, they teach their young viewers about difference early on. In the conversations about disability which follow, the show ensures that children do not come to view disability as a taboo topic which should be ignored, but rather encourages conversations about disability to ensure that the needs of all individuals are met. Though it would be nice to see a wider range of neurodiverse roles played by young adults with these conditions, the attempts the show makes at diversity and representation are (as far as I can see), unrivalled. All programmes should take a leaf out of the book of this children’s drama, and teach the audience that it’s okay to be different…and it’s okay to talk about it.