On an autumnal Friday evening, I was half-listening to The Archers (please forgive me, die hard fans, but I often listen while clearing up after our meal!), Roy and Lexi, who are in a new relationship, were chatting about food and work, the gentle everyday of Ambridge that I so love. When Roy asked Lexi to pass him the laptop so that he could look up something for work, I had no idea what was coming next and then he said it – Grey Gables are holding a para-sport event!
In this moment, something rather remarkable had happened. You see, Ambridge is almost always a disability free zone. The residents of Ambridge may be accident prone (poor Nigel and the roof; Tony and the bull; Tom and the tractor; Christopher and the horse) but, if you live in rural Borcetshire, accidents always result either in full recovery or death, rather than disability. In Ambridge, disability always and only emerges as a temporary phenomenon to do three things:
- to move the plot along – think of Dan’s juvenile arthritis as smoothing the path for Shula to an affair with Richard Locke, her son’s GP;
- to develop a character – think of the disablement of Rob Titchener as part of his becoming a monster in the Helen/Rob abuse storyline;
- to share information about particular conditions – think of the information about living with a child with Down Syndrome given by the consultant to Mike and Vicky or Jack’s experiences of living with dementia.
In The Archers, sadly, disability is not part of the everyday, so much so that even when Mike and Vicky Tucker had their daughter Bethany, child with Down Syndrome, the family was quickly exiled to Birmingham. And so the ordinary lives of disabled people are missing in the village.
That is, until yesterday, when it was revealed that Grey Gables would host a para-sport event. I’m not sure how the plot will unfold, but, so far, the mention of the conference seems to be a departure from the usual ways that disability is spoken of in The Archers. The arrival of the para-athletes could be part of the ordinary, everyday life of a hotel and conference centre – another set of delegates, much like any other, holding an event.
But, despite my delight that disability seems to be appearing in The Archers in a mundane way, part of the tapestry of rural life, rather than a temporary plot device or character twist, this tale of disability already reflects many of the problematic current cultural assumptions that haunt the lives of disabled people.
First, it is worth noting that the disabled delegates are para-athletes. After all, if we read the popular press we know that disabled people must be represented either para athletes or benefit scroungers! Disabled people are not imagined as simply leading ordinary lives – and so these disabled delegates must, of course, be exceptional athletes.
Second, we now know that Grey Gables has ‘disabled-friendly rooms’. What Roy imagines a ‘disabled-friendly’ room to be is unclear (though Lexi talks about ‘people in wheelchairs’) but it may come as a surprise to Roy to know that not all disabled people are wheelchair users and, what’s more, that what counts as accessible for one disabled conference delegate may be a barrier for another. Roy’s worry about the number of accessible toilets is shared by anyone who has organised an inclusive conference. Fortunately, Roy, help is on hand, check out this toolkit to help you to think more broadly about accessible toilets .
Third, Roy is concerned about how many ‘people with disabilities’ are going to rock up to the event. The organisers can’t tell him how many of ‘them’ will arrive. This reminds us that, at best, the arrival of disabled people is unexpected at a country house hotel, like Grey Gables, and, at worst, unwelcome.
And finally, the source of advice and counsel is Lexi. Lexi’s expert knowledge about disability access is drawn from the fact that she had a boss in Sofia who uses a wheelchair, and, so, it is she who suggests booking all the downstairs bedrooms for the disabled guests during the day – after all that worked in Sofia. Sadly, it doesn’t occur to Roy or Lexi to ask the real experts about access, the disabled delegates themselves, what would work for them at the conference.
But, finally, well done, The Archers, good to see disability as part of the everyday for once in Ambridge. Now, if you could just see your way to bringing Bethany back ….
More about The Archers and disability here:
Liddiard, K. and Runswick-Cole, K. (2016) Archers story is disabled women’s dark reality https://disabilitynow.org.uk/2016/09/08/archers-story-is-disabled-womens-dark-reality/ 8th September, 2016.
Runswick-Cole, K. (2016) Why The Archers needs more disabled characters, The Independent, 6th March 2016 Online at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/why-the-archers-needs-more-disabled-characters-a6915471.html
Runswick-Cole, K. (2017) The dis/appearance of disability in The Archers … or why Bethany had to go to Birmingham. In Courage, C., Headlam, N. and Matthews, P. (eds) (2017) The Archers in Fact and Fiction: reflections of rural life in Borcetshire, London: Peter Lang.
Runswick-Cole, K. and Wood, B. (2017) Bag of the Devil: the disablement of Rob Kitchener, Academic Archers Conference, February, 2017
Watch the video here
Runswick-Cole, K. & Wood, R. (in press) Bag of the Devil: the disablement of Rob Titchener. In Courage, C. & Headlam, N. (eds) Custard, culverts and cake: academics on life with The Archers. Emerald Publishing.