By Dexter McLean

‘The Undateables’: How are disabled people represented by the media?

How are disabled people represented by the mainstream media? Do shows like ‘The Undateables’ provide a genuine representation of the disabled community?

The Disability Discrimination Act was not enacted until 1995 in the United Kingdom, decades after legislation was put in place to ensure equal opportunities for women and ethnic minorities. Twenty five years later, many disabled people still struggle to find a job – let alone a job they’re passionate about. Employers find it difficult to look beyond the stereotype of disabled people being abnormal and unproductive. We’re over a third less likely to be employed than non-disabled people and it often feels like we’re treated as helpless outcasts in need of pity, rather than equal individuals with unique perspectives to offer. 

A driver of this perception is the way disabled people are represented by the media, who could play a key role in breaking down the stigma. Instead, media corporations consistently misrepresent the disabled community, feeding into the idea that disabled people are broken or abnormal. A prime example of this is the Channel 4 series, ‘The Undateables’, which was launched back in 2012 and continues to be aired. It documents groups of disabled people in their search for romantic ‘love’. Many enjoy the show, finding it interesting and funny. I find it to be both patronising and offensive. 

The Guardian published an insightful article about The Undateables soon after it was first aired. It praised the show for empathising with the participants and conveying how the challenges they face are like those that any ‘normal’ person might face. However, the article also criticised Channel 4 for being insensitive in the way the show was branded, hinting at this being intentional, given that ‘offence equals controversy, [and] controversy equals ratings’. It is frightening to think that this might have been done on purpose to increase profits but even if it was unintentional, Channel 4 have been both insensitive and offensive towards those who live and struggle with a disability. 

There are many offensive things about The Undateables – its name first and foremost. What about the participants on this show makes them ‘undateable’? They don’t call ‘Love Island’ the ‘Island for the Unlovables’, even though viewers might find this amusing. If they did, the participants would probably demand that the name was changed because is it both offensive and inaccurate. The same reasoning should apply to The Undateables, even though participants might be less inclined to complain. The name wrongly implies that disabled people are incapable (or unworthy) of being in a loving or sexual relationship. Some of the participants, particularly those with mental disabilities, may not be fully aware of the way they are being depicted on the show. I wonder how many would agree to participate if they were? 

The Undateables is also guilty of generalising the disabled community. It makes no distinction between those with mental and physical disabilities – both are lumped into a single bracket and those with mental disabilities seem to feature more than those who are just physically disabled. It would not be surprising if this was another intentional bid to increase viewership. Most disabled people, and most people generally, are driven to find a romantic partner, but not all disabled people are desperate for love in the way they are made out to be. Many are already in happy and committed relationships or are focused on other aspects of their lives. Channel 4 don’t seem to broadcast shows about these individuals – they only ever show disabled people who look in need of constant parental supervision.

The media is a unique industry, given how much influence it exerts over public opinion, and media corporations should be cautious not to misrepresent the communities they are reporting on by selecting participants who ‘fit the brief’. Channel 4 depict disabled people in the way they believe the public want to see them, focusing on individuals who fit their ‘undateable’ narrative. The show uses the experiences of a selected few, which furthers the stereotypes of an entire group. This is either done intentionally, for the sake of increasing viewership, or as an unintentional consequence of having so few disabled reporters working in mainstream media corporations. Either way, this misrepresentation has real consequences on the way society views disabled people and on how they view themselves. 

There’s an overtone of pity in The Undateables, which is more destructive than it is constructive for the disabled community. Many disabled people internalise this pity and begin to look at themselves as being helpless and weak. This damages their motivation and sense of self-worth, making it all the more difficult to find a job and integrate into society. Seeing nothing but examples of vulnerable disabled people on television is of no help here, and neither is seeing so few disabled reporters in positions of influence. The wider consequences of this are that many non-disabled people buy into false depictions that reinforce the stigma surrounding disability, creating a pity-culture that alienates the disabled community, who feel like outsiders in their own society. 

The line between pity and empathy is rather thin and it is easy to confuse the two. This is a problem Channel 4 encountered when creating The Undateables. They may have intended to be empathetic towards the participants, though they lean more towards the side of pity. However, they’re not the only media corporation who struggle to navigate along this line when depicting the disabled community. Other media corporations also play into the idea that disabled people need to be supported or pitied and fail to recognise that most would prefer equal opportunity and respect. This is something many ‘normal’ people struggle to understand as well. Pity can be felt by those who receive it. In small doses it’s manageable but when most people you encountered seem to feel sorry for you unnecessarily, life can get quite frustrating. 

A major barrier to more accurate representation comes from the shortage of disabled people working in the mainstream media and reporting on issues surrounding disability. Disabled reporters are better able to navigate the fine line between empathy and pity, because they have real shared experiences with those they are interviewing. The few disabled reporters currently working in the media stand as evidence of this. Nikki Fox is one of few established disabled reporters, who works for the BBC. She has won awards for her work surrounding the disabled community, which provides a more nuanced and realistic representation of the community. Ade Adepitan is another prominent disabled reporter who stands as an example that disability does not interfere with someone’s ability to produce high quality work in the media world. Nikki and Ade are exceptions, however, and there’s a need for more diversity within media corporations to improve the narrative around disability.

After centuries of having barely any professional opportunities in society, unfortunately, many disabled people don’t even consider applying for jobs in the media. This defeatist culture within the disabled community needs undoing, and a change in the way they are represented by the media would be the first step in doing so. Increasing the number of disabled reporters working in the media mainstream media would help to this. It would gradually normalise disability by exposing the public to more genuine representations of the disabled community, while encouraging more disabled people to pursue careers in the media. 

Disabled people have been viewed as abnormal and unproductive for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The problem with shows like The Undateables is that they feed into this perception rather than challenging it, reinforcing these beliefs in the minds of those who are watching. When in reality, disabled people come in all different shapes and sizes, and have different conditions and capacities. Some are lazy and unproductive but many are quite the opposite. And what is common amongst pretty much all disabled people, is a level of resilience that most ‘normal’ people might never understand. I truly wonder whether any mainstream media corporation will ever run a series that highlights this aspect of the disabled community. Or whether they’d be too worried that it wouldn’t get enough views.

Dexter McLean

Dexter McLean is a freelance photographer, who recently completed his MA in Photography at Middlesex University. His work is focused on disability and the 'positive aspects' of Jamaican society.