The ‘Curse’ of the Wheelchair

Disclaimer: Whilst I myself am not a wheelchair user, a close family member is. These are my thoughts on wheelchair-user representation based on the experiences of those I am closest to.

This post’s going to be a little different to my others. I don’t want to focus here on one show, film, or book, but to address a problem that appears rampant across all forms of media (whether that be those produced in ‘a different time,’ or more recently). It’s a problem that many people likely fail even to notice, and one that, until a few years ago, I failed to notice myself. But, for those with friends and loved ones using wheelchairs regularly, this problem suddenly becomes all-too noticeable. The problem I’m talking about is this: The ‘Curse’ of the Wheelchair.

I don’t know whether this term has made it to the TV Tropes website yet, but if not, then it should have. You all know the one: character gets in accident; character uses wheelchair; character complains about how much said wheelchair is ruining their life to the point where they might as well not be living at all; character miraculously recovers and lives happily ever after (or, if not happily ever after, without a wheelchair at least). Media I’ve praised for their representation in other posts do this just as much as shows known for their ‘backwards’ approach to inclusion. Downton Abbey, Emmerdale, Waterloo Road, All the Things We’ve Never Said, and the otherwise fantastic film Notting Hill, all feature characters using wheelchairs as the result of an accident and making it known that they have a much lower quality of life now to the life they led before. To make matters worse, in the case of shows such as Downton Abbey and Emmerdale, the arc inevitably (or will inevitably, in the case of an ongoing storyline), ends with the character regaining their ability to walk, and having all their life problems fixed in the process. As I’m sure you can probably tell by now, I do not consider this to be helpful — or even healthy — disability representation. 

If these storylines were being done to highlight the need for greater disability provision and wheelchair access in everyday life, I might be inclined to view them differently. But this is not the case. All too often, the focus is on the restrictions of the person who wishes to perform everyday tasks, rather than the unsuitability of common tools and resources for use by those with physical disabilities or restrictions. All the Things We’ve Never Said, a book that I have formally praised for its representation of mental health conditions, features a wheelchair user who seemingly wants to commit suicide for no reason other than her disability. One of my favourite shows of all time, Waterloo Road, takes a similarly backwards approach when character Tariq is injured in a car crash at the end of season 7. Another much-loved show of mine, Downton Abbey (you should probably know, if I’m trashing something in a blog post or published paper, I probably love it regardless), uses a temporary disability to cause difficulties between Mary and Matthew when Matthew believes himself unable to have children and describes himself as a ‘cripple’ who doesn’t want to burden Mary. All of this is is, of course, miraculously fixed and serves to make their relationship stronger than ever when he makes a full recovery.

This narrative needs to change. We need more characters who are disabled as a result of pre-existing conditions; more characters who will not recover and manage to lead full and enjoyable lives regardless. Disabled people most often do not want to be pitied: they want only to be given a chance at a life they can enjoy and experience to the fullest. Most importantly of all, we need physically-disabled characters to be played by physically-disabled actors. These are their stories. People disabled for reasons other than accidents and injuries need to see themselves represented in the media as much as anybody else does. They need to see people like them living their lives. Off the top of my head, the only example I can think of of this (and to be fair, I’m sure there are other instances) is Coronation Street’s Izzy: a character who, like actress Cherylee Houston, has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a physical disability which, amongst other things, impacts collagen production and the body’s connective tissue. Whilst the show does not shy away from mentioning the disability, and even featured a poignant storyline about the impact of the pain this condition causes several years ago, my favourite thing about this portrayal is that it doesn’t try to do something dramatic every time Izzy is on screen. Viewers see Izzy finding a way to have a child, leading her life, working, laughing with her friends. In short, Izzy is a person and not a plot device. And for some disabled people I know, this alone is enough.

So, in the unlikely event that any fiction authors or screenwriters/producers are reading this and have gotten this far without taking offence, let’s try to eliminate ‘curse of the wheelchair’ storylines. Or, at the very least, not make these the only uses of characters in wheelchairs. Talk to disabled people; hire disabled actors; listen to their stories. Let them tell their stories. Help them to see that they are not and should not be confined to a life indoors if that isn’t what they want (unless we’re all on a COVID lockdown of course, but that’s another story). Let’s make people understand that disability isn’t a topic to be shunned or tip-toed around, but that a genuine query about what a person needs can make it much easier for them to be included in their friends’ and families’ lives. 

Oh, and if you feel like demonstrating how inconvenient it is when people park over where the kerb has been lowered for wheelchair users, that would be fine too.

Unspoken: The Pros and Cons of Unacknowledged Representation in Popular Culture

So far, all of my posts have focused on representations of mental, neurological, and physical differences and disabilities in popular culture. In these analyses, I have zeroed in on books and TV shows which actively state which disability they aim to be representative of. This is particularly important when it comes to representations of invisible disabilities, in which an attempt at inclusion may not be immediately obvious to the unknowledgeable consumer. However, in this post, I want to do something a little different. It has come to my attention recently that many shows include characters who, whilst not having any stated neurodiverse condition, demonstrate a considerable number of traits associated with neurological differences such as ADHD and Autism. Girls with these traits are typically labelled the ‘manic pixie dream girl,’ with boys often appearing emotionless and serving mainly as the butt of everyone’s jokes. 

The most obvious example is The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. Though the showrunners have repeatedly insisted that Sheldon is not written to have any kind of developmental or Autism Spectrum condition (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2010/08/an-emmy-for-the-first-sitcom-character-with-asperger-s-the-big-bang-theory-s-sheldon-cooper.html), he hits all the traditional ‘markers’ of high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, formerly given the diagnosis of ‘Asperger’s Syndrome.’ From the Pilot episode, jokes are made by both him and others about his inability to understand sarcasm, his preference for routines and stress if those routines change, and excessive talking about special interests which may not necessarily interest those around him to the same level. Furthermore, a season 8 scene sees friend and neighbour Penny comment on the fact that Sheldon finds eye contact uncomfortable; something that is not necessary for a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome but is nonetheless commonly associated with it. So: is it good that showrunners refuse to label the condition that the majority of viewers accept Sheldon has? Or is it a way of avoiding the responsibility for accurate and sensitive representation which would come with claiming the diagnosis as Sheldon’s own? 

To start with, I want to get out there that, as a woman on the neurodiverse spectrum (albeit with no Asperger’s diagnosis), Sheldon is one of my favourite characters of all time. I find his traits amusing not because I find them unusual, but precisely because they remind me so much of the way I feel and behave in my own life (I too, am often left bemused at sarcasm, get anxious where surprises are concerned, and witter on endlessly about topics I love until a friend or family member politely manages to get a word in and tell me that they’re not that interested). Watching Sheldon interact with the world feels like I’m watching a heightened version of myself, and I love it. The fact that Sheldon’s diagnosis remains unspoken allows him to function as a character as opposed to a statement, allowing those who identify with aspects of his personality to enjoy that without feeling the need to label themselves or compare Sheldon’s actions with what they know about the condition. 

However, the non-recognition of Sheldon’s Asperger’s Syndrome also poses issues. In not naming his condition for what it is, writers are able to position his actions as the butt of other people’s jokes, his behaviour seen as ‘ridiculous’ and, by some, ‘selfish.’ This is where the problem lies. If Sheldon’s neurodiversity were to be named for what it is, these jokes at his expense and repeated mention of how he’s more of an annoyance in his friends’ lives than anything else, would suddenly become uncomfortable to watch. I think we can all agree that placing disability and difference on the receiving end of a joke is something outdated, and feels uncomfortable when seen in a show that was obviously shot in the age of streaming and HD. 
Whilst non-mention of nonetheless neurodiverse characters can — to an extent — actually improve representation; making those who see themselves in the characters feel more like people rather than diversity statements, how the condition is handled thereafter is just as important as if the condition was explicitly acknowledged. By making the traits of a neurodiverse condition the basis of jokes, representation takes a step backwards, whether the condition is named or not. Showrunners have a responsibility to treat any inclusion of diversity sensitively, so as not to alienate viewers who identify with the characters in question.The Big Bang Theory will remain one of my favourite sitcoms, but if I have one request only for the writers and producers of future, similar shows, it’s this: either name the condition for what it is, or at least treat it as if it’s official.

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
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