Bipolar Disorder in ‘Spinning Out’

Disclaimer: As I do not have any personal experience with Bipolar Disorder, my thoughts on this show have been influenced largely by wide reading I’ve done about the condition and my knowledge of mental illness in general. Any comments made about the illness are likely to be generalisations and not applicable in all cases.

I was recently reminded of a show that came out on Netflix at the start of this year, called Spinning Out. Starring The Maze Runner’s Kaya Scodelario as Kat Baker, a young figure skater taking medication for Bipolar Disorder, and January Jones as her mother Carol—who also has the condition but, as Kat states in one of the shows earliest episodes, struggles to manage it—Spinning Out is a relatively unique take on the inheritability of mental illness. 

At the beginning of the series, when it is revealed that both Kat and Carol are diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, the viewer is encouraged to see Kat as the ‘stable’ one of the pair. Whilst Carol, in a manic state, pushes her younger daughter to her physical limit in an attempt to make her a champion ice skater, Kat recognises that this behaviour is unhealthy for all concerned. Leaving her house to escape her mother’s expectations, Kat is sure to tell Carol that they might have the same condition, but that they are not the same person. She tells her mother: “I’m not going to lose three jobs in three years because I keep forgetting to take my meds. I’m not going to sleep with losers who throw me away after one night. I’m not going to train my children so hard my youngest ends up in the emergency room” (1×01). From this, one message seems clear: Kat has seen what mismanagement of a mental health condition can mean, and wants to avoid making those mistakes herself. The narrative that no two people with a particular illness are the same, even if they’re closely related, makes a welcome change from stereotypical narratives that showcase text-book symptoms and don’t seem to develop a character’s personality beyond that. This said, Kat’s dismissal of her mother’s own experiences is problematic. I’m pleased the show chose to demonstrate how one person can negatively judge another person’s symptoms of a mental health disorder because they do not match their own, but, given that Kat is the protagonist, it does encourage the audience to judge Carol and others with the same symptoms in the same way. When Carol fails to take her medication, she’s the bad guy. When Kat stops taking her medication later on in the series, the viewer roots for her, wishing her well and hoping that she’ll succeed in her pairs-skating competition. 

Whilst I didn’t like this presentation of Carol’s symptoms as villainising her at the start of the series, I was much more impressed with her overall story-arc. Unlike her daughter, Carol does not judge another person with Bipolar for their behaviour, but instead helps Kat to take her medication and cares for her until she becomes mentally well enough to resume caring for herself. A heart-to-heart between mother and daughter in the final episode is sweet and, whilst the show’s abrupt cancellation suggests a level of finality to Kat and Carol’s story which is not true of mental illness in real life, Kat’s realisation that her mother’s experience with the illness can be valuable is a positive one. Though their relationship is and probably always will be rocky, the viewer who finishes the series at least learns two important lessons: that a mental illness is just part of a person, and does not constitute a personality; and that no symptoms are ‘better’ than others. Carol might initially be presented as the villain (which is an issue for those who do not finish the series), but in the end, she gives the most valuable piece of advice. Talking to Kat about the problem with always trusting your instincts when you have a mental illness, she makes sure to let her know that it is okay to “hold onto those moments where things just suddenly feel right” (1×10). I wish Spinning Out had been given a second season order so that Kat and Carol’s journey could be explored further, but for now I’m pleased with how the season progressed. Though many will have viewed Kat and Justin’s will they-won’t they romance plot as the most intriguing pairing, the mother-daughter relationship had by far the most depth and richest potential for the future. Ultimately, Kat’s negative judgement of Carol at the start of the series, followed by Carol’s personal progression throughout reminds us that, in a world where it’s easy to check the NHS website for symptoms and think you know everything there is to know about a disorder and how a person with it ‘should’ behave, it is important to remember that there is a human behind the symptoms, and to listen to them when they talk.

YA Fiction: Ability and Disability in All the Things We Never Said

In an attempt to remain spoiler-free, I haven’t mentioned the actual nature of the mystery in this novel. This has narrowed my ability for review, which (given how long I can go on about these things for), is probably not as much of an issue as you might think. There are however, a couple of very general spoilers about the novel’s end.

As a lover of mystery fiction ever since my discovery of the Famous Five books at the tender age of 6, and someone whose life has led to an interest in any aspect of media dealing with mental illness, neurodiversity, and disability as a whole, I was immediately intrigued by the description of Yasmin Rahman’s All the Things We Never Said. As a story which features anxiety, depression, and physical disability as a catalyst for a more sinister mystery, I was both excited and sceptical about the novel’s ability to appropriately and tentatively tie the two together. In a cultural world which all too often sees mental illness as the ‘twist’ in explaining somebody’s evil behaviour however, I was thrilled at the way this book approaches the Young Adult ‘mystery’ narrative from another perspective. Far from being the antagonist, the mental illness of one of the three central protagonists places the individual with a mental illness as the potential (and the term ‘potential’ is very important here—it’d be a pretty crappy mystery novel if the protagonist didn’t win out in the end) victim, rather than as the perpetrator of the crime. 

Whilst I often find experimentation with form and typography distracting and (quite frankly) irritating, I did find Rahman’s use of different typefaces to separate Mehreen’s rational thoughts from her anxiety-induced, intrusive thoughts very helpful. The first person narration used in each of these sections makes the interruption of Mehreen’s intrusive thoughts an even more immersive experience, as, like Mehreen is taken out of her internal monologue, we too are taken out of the narration. Mehreen’s naming of these anxious thoughts as ‘The Chaos’ is also a welcome change from narratives which merge the person and the illness together to such an extent that it is difficult to see the character as anything other than their mental illness. Culminating in an ultimate ‘crisis’ page which is almost entirely filled with the ‘chaos’ typography, Rahman’s novel does an excellent job at showing the escalation of anxiety if left unmanaged. Starting off as an occasional interruption in Mehreen’s brain and ending as almost all she’s able to think about, All the Things We Never Said demonstrates how, much like a physical infection, mental illness can slowly take over the brain and body if not appropriately treated.

All the Things We Never Said also features a central character with a physical disability: teenaged Cara is adapting to life in a wheelchair following a car accident. Admittedly, I did was disappointed when I discovered that this was the cause of Cara’s disability. Whilst it feels I’ve read and watched a number of books, movies, and TV shows featuring a character paralysed following an accident, the impact of other conditions which can lead to physical limitations are less often explored, furthering the public tendency to assume that those who are able to move their legs must be ‘lying’ about needing their wheelchair. Though the experiences of those who have suffered injuries must also be told, I would like to see more stories told about those whose need for mobility aids have other causes, and to see stories focusing on the daily impact that certain types of human treatment and a maladapted society can have on these peoples’ lives. 

My reservations about the way Cara’s disability came about laid aside, I did think Cara’s character was quite nicely developed. Cara confuses those around her by hiding her insecurities under a thick layer of sarcasm; is reluctant to accept any help in a bid to regain and retain her independence; and believes that ignoring her emotions may eventually make them go away. Furthermore, the fact that (spoiler alert) Cara’s distress and frustration is eased not by a miraculous recovery which is so often (anger-inducingly) seen in soap operas, but by open and honest conversation with her friends and family about how she feels and her needs. In allowing Cara to develop this level of openness and trust, Rahman demonstrates how, even in the absence of recovery, there is hope and happiness to be found in disability, if only those around you work with you to adapt and find solutions.

All the Things We Never Said is therefore an innovative take on the Young Adult thriller. In mixing mental illness and mystery not with the perpetrator but with the nearly-victim, Rahman refuses to add to the harmful stereotype that all those with mental illnesses are dangerous and all those who are evil must be mentally ill. In developing character personalities outside of their mental and physical disabilities, it is clear that the human experience comprises multiple aspects for everyone, and reminds us that if we do not want to be confined to and defined by one thing, then we do not need to be. The novel’s uplifting ending shows that miraculous cures are not necessary for a happy life: we can live with and through our challenges with the help and support of those around us, and with open conversations with all about our needs.

Coronation Street: Craig Tinker’s OCD

ITV’s Coronation Street is a show myself and my Mum have watched together for longer than I can remember. With its family themes, characters of all ages and primetime weeknight slots, it has always been a favourite in our house. It also makes it perfect for promoting diversity and dispelling common myths about a variety of disabilities, being a prominent part of the regular routines of households up and down the country. Never shying away from sensitive topics, Corrie has tackled a variety of issues close to my heart. Whilst other issues dealt with by the soap will be covered in future blog posts, I wanted to write this one about a storyline which ran in 2018, and saw young adult Craig Tinker suffering from and diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

I was impressed with Coronation Street’s handling of this so-often misunderstood disorder from the outset. Whilst the term ‘a little OCD’ is widely used to mean ‘fussy’ or ‘neat,’ the reality of the condition often has nothing to do with neatness at all. I was pleased to see Corrie acknowledging this in Craig’s character, and showing him not as an individual who simply liked things to be in order, but as one deeply anxious about the potential that those he loves will get hurt, and performing repetitive switch and lock checking rituals to try and prevent this from happening. Though some individuals with the disorder do indeed exhibit a need for tidiness and order, and their difficulties are no less significant than those of any other, I was glad that producers chose, in this instance, not to take that route, as in my experience, it is the type of OCD more commonly portrayed and can lead to both a lack of acknowledgement of the validity of alternative Obsessive-Compulsive experiences, and tempt showrunners into not fully addressing the anxiety which usually serves as the underlying cause of the rituals.

I found Corrie’s willingness to engage with Craig’s anxiety refreshing. In a conversation with friend Bethany, in which she could see that Craig was uncomfortable in a restaurant and asked him to explain his thought process to her, she was shocked at the way his mind was able to find danger everywhere he looked, going as far to fear the position of the glasses on the table in case they were to fall and hurt Bethany when smashing. It is the acknowledgement of these seemingly ‘less noticeable’ aspects of OCD which sets Corrie’s portrayal apart from half-hearted attempts to create characters with the condition. In revealing that Craig—whose OCD was sparked by his previous inability to correctly recall the time of Bethany’s attack when in court, as he saw himself as being the potential cause of more danger for her if the perpetrator were to be set free as a result of his error—did not only experience symptoms when obviously repeatedly checking hobs and locks, Coronation Street was able to give a sense of the all-encompassing nature that this disorder can take. Though a further examination of these intrusive thoughts could have been powerful, the timeslot Corrie has and the need to juggle a variety of storylines in a single half hour episode would have made this difficult, and consequently, I believe the storyline was handled appropriately, and as thoroughly as it could have been given the nature of the programme as a whole.

Though there are many different subtypes of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and it would be great to see a wider acknowledgement of this in the media more generally, this was the first television portrayal I’ve seen where I can honestly say I have no complaints. The aftermath of Craig’s diagnosis saw confused family members and friends struggling to separate what they thought they knew of the condition with how it manifested in Craig. The programme also promoted a healthy combination of medication and therapy for recovery, with Craig talking to his family and friends about some of the coping mechanisms he had been taught by his therapist, demonstrating how therapy can be a source not only of emotional support, but also of practical advice if this is what’s needed. Colson Smith’s tentative portrayal of Craig’s anxiety ensured that the underlying mindset of individuals with the disorder could be understood. The combination of this and the careful writing which made sure to clarify that OCD can manifest in a variety of ways allowed viewers with a similar type of OCD as Craig to feel seen and represented, whilst delivering a vital message about the dangers of stereotyping disability.

Disability in The Dumping Ground

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.

Dyspraxia in ‘Ackley Bridge’

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.

Anxiety in the ‘Truly Devious’ Series

With regards to the actual mystery itself, this review is spoiler-free.

Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious trilogy—a time entangled mystery narrative set in boarding school Ellingham Academy—offers a captivating narrative from start to finish. The ‘boarding school for individuals with particular, individual gifts’ setting provides the perfect backdrop for a range of characters with various interests and challenges. However, despite the easily identifiable character tropes: intelligent detective; glamourous journalist; troubled writer; geek girl; quirky artist; and bad boy, I didn’t feel that Johnson quite made full use of the opportunity for diversity that she gave herself. 

Despite most characters being abled and neurotypical however, Johnson did try to represent the experiences of someone with panic disorder through central character, Stevie. Though the attempt at representation at times felt quite forced, the character benefitted from the fleshing out of her insecurities. The jealousy Stevie felt at the first friend she made bonding with somebody else, and then immediately acknowledging that it was a ‘crazy thought’ and trying to forget about it (book 1, p. 68) made Stevie human. I don’t know that there’s anything more annoying in this life than a lead character who thinks nothing but pure, angelic thoughts the whole way through. This human moment of jealousy, therefore, was point one to Stevie Bell.

When it came to the actual portrayal of Stevie’s anxiety on the other hand, I felt the series could have benefitted from a first-person narrative. Though it can be difficult for a person in a state of high-anxiety to describe how they feel, this very sense of confusion and frustration at one’s own feelings can offer a powerful statement about the all-encompassing effects of anxiety. In the third-person narrative of the Truly Devious series, the attempts to describe and explain Stevie’s experiences with anxiety feel rather clinical. Though I appreciated the acknowledgement of the third-person narration that ‘night always brought the worry,’ alongside Stevie’s pre-panic attack concerns that she might have one being almost debilitating in and of themselves (book 1, p. 110), the blow-by-blow account of the onset of each symptom during the panic attack felt like it had been lifted from a medical book and fleshed out with some adjectives to make it more exciting (book 1, p. 185). A first person narrative, though likely to express the feelings of panic less articulately, may have done a better job of making the reader feel the sense of urgency Stevie experienced in wanting to make the feelings stop, and presented her feelings in a more personal and identifiable way to readers who have had similar experiences. 

This said, Truly Devious did a much better job of dealing with the aftermath of Stevie’s panic attack. As is so common in books, TV shows, and movies, I was afraid that the narrative of the day following Stevie’s night-time panic attack would fail to address it at all. On this count, I was pleasantly surprised. Stevie’s statement that the attack had left her feeling ‘a little nauseous’ and ‘tired’ (p. 187) was a welcome change from the presentation of anxiety disorders as illnesses which turn up for a few minutes and then go away again. The shame and guilt about turning to a friend the night before that Stevie seemed to experience upon seeing the beauty of the weather was also a powerful reminder that those with anxiety disorders do not want to be a burden, and often feel high levels of frustration about the fact that they cannot simply make their brain and body calm down, even when they know that, logically, there is nothing to be afraid of.

Overall, Truly Devious’ depiction of life with an anxiety disorder is a mixed bag. Whilst the description of Stevie’s panic-attacks themselves could have benefitted from allowing Stevie’s own voice to shine through, the aftermath of her experience was appropriately and delicately considered. I feel many in creative industries seeking to explore anxiety-related challenges in their work would do well to follow Johnson’s lead in that regard, making sure to represent not only the anxiety itself, but the physical and emotional symptoms which can come later.

Mental Health Awareness Week: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: What You Don’t See

I have a couple of posts regarding OCD presentation in the pipeline, so thought I’d add this post from the Women of Keele Educates Blog for anyone who’d like to learn more!

TW: Mental Health, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,  As part of Mental Health Awareness Week we have a blog  post submitted to Women of Keele Educate, …

Mental Health Awareness Week: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: What You Don’t See

Why Unwritten Rules are Unfair Rules for Neurodiverse People

Another powerful piece from the Women of Keele Educates blog – I don’t claim any ownership of this post, but thought it was relevant here given some of my ideas for future posts.

First thing’s first. What are “unwritten rules”, exactly? Unwritten rules are supposedly natural social and organisational conventions that are not …

Why Unwritten Rules are Unfair Rules for Neurodiverse People

The Case of Mr Bates: Downton Abbey

Warning: This blog post contains spoilers for all 6 seasons of the hit ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey: the British period drama that captured the hearts of those across the world. A show that I, a student with a passion for both history and television, decided ‘wasn’t my thing’ having only heard the title. However, recently, in the final year of my undergraduate degree and largely confined to my bedroom because of the lockdown situation, I finally decided to listen to recommendations from several friends, and squirrelled myself away with Downton Abbey for the first few weeks of being home. I was instantly in awe of the beautiful scenery and complex female characters. These were not, however, the only aspects of the show to pique my interest. The show’s opening season featured Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley hiring old acquaintance John Bates as his valet: a prestigious position which younger, existing members of the downstairs staff aspired to. Bates’ apparent lack of experience of the job was not, however, the key concern of existing staff members. John Bates, a war veteran, had a limp, using a walking stick much of the time.

Even in today’s twenty-first century world, with laws against discrimination and in favour of ‘reasonble adjustments,’ there are many instances of people expressing concern that those with certain medical conditions will be unable to effectively perform their duties (I won’t reference or link to them here, as I do not wish to give them any more traction, but trust me, they’re there). It is therefore not surprising that, in a programme depicting a twentieth-century society which did not benefit from such laws, other characters would raise concern about the impact of disability on a man’s work.

This leads to a powerful storyline in the show’s first season, which sees John Bates, hurt and frustrated about the possibility that he will again find himself out of work due to a medical condition, try to take correction of this condition into his own hands. In episode 3 of season 1, Mr Bates attends an unlicensed medical shop and purchases a ‘limp corrector’: a painful metal contraption screwed onto the leg, which was shown to cut into it and actually make performing his duties more difficult. A powerful reminder of the lengths individuals such as Bates would go to to be able to perform working duties is especially relevant to the twenty-first century viewer who is suspicious of and criticises ‘benefit culture.’ The case of John Bates serves to remind them that working is often the desire, and that people with disabilities may sometimes consider themselves victims not of their medical conditions, but of a world which refuses to put simple adjustments in place to allow them to fulfil the roles they are more than capable of performing. This is a sentiment expressed by Robert Crawley who, whilst initially hesitant about some of the adjustments Bates expresses regarding paying for extra footmen himself where required, eventually comes to realise that ‘it wasn’t right’ (1×01, 01:01:00) to let somebody go for a situation in which adjustments could be made to make it work, leading to Bates’ successful career as Robert’s valet for many years. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I was impressed that Downton Abbey didn’t just leave Bates’ journey with his disability there. As in everyday life, Bates’ limp continued to play a part. He continued to face and overcome discrimination. When another man tried to justify his attack on Bates’ wife Anna in the third episode of season 4 by using his disability to argue that Bates couldn’t possibly keep her happy, Anna firmly corrected him. Furthermore, Bates’ limp ended up being his saving grace come the season 5 Christmas special (‘A Moorland Holiday), when it was the reason a stranger was able to identify him and provide him with an alibi, proving he could not have committed the crime for which he was accused.

Overall, I was impressed with Downton Abbey’s ability to sensitively incorporate Mr Bates’ disability storyline into all of its seasons. Whilst it would’ve been nice to see a disabled actor tackle the role, Brendan Coyle did an excellent job of showcasing both Bates’ vulnerability and determination to succeed. As housekeeper Mrs Hughes told Bates: ‘We all carry scars, Mr Bates, inside and out’ (1×03, 48:00), and Downton Abbey certainly demonstrates that, if a twentieth-century world of social hierarchy could make reasonable adjustments to enable everybody to perform their job to the best of their ability, then the modern day, with infinite access to technology and the existence of anti-discrimination laws, really does have no excuse.

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