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Do we need disabled role models?

 Geordi La Forge from Star TrekStar Trek’s Geordi La Forge busy being a role model

I’ve been thinking recently, about people that I looked up to when I was a child. There were the obvious celebrity choices (mine was Lily Allen!), but when it comes to role models with disabilities to inspire us, where can we look – and more importantly – who can we look to on TV, online or in our everyday lives? I wanted to explore whether there are enough role models to inspire young people with disabilities. 

Anybody Out There? 

It’s important for children and young people to have visual representations of disability within their everyday lives. Children with disabilities need them so they can be taught that their disabilities are something that make them unique and valued as much as anybody else, and children and young people without disabilities need them so they can live by these messages too. Also, sometimes parents may not have been taught positive messages about disabled people, but by seeing someone with a disability in the public eye, it enables them to teach their children about diversity and tolerance. Personally, I think the more we normalise disability and try to see the funny side, the easier it is for others to understand.  Recently I was out with a friend and their partner and we were joking about how my friend was guiding me, so there’s always a way to see the funny side, and role models help us to do this even more.  So where can we find these role models?

 I was very lucky when I was growing up, in that I had a role model who had a disability right there in my front room on my TV screen. I loved, and still love, Ade Adepitan MBE, who is a television presenter and wheelchair basketball player. When I was younger, he presented programmes on CBBC, and I can remember telling my Mum how much I admired him for what he does. So he’s my disability hero! 

Of course, there were the role models in the 2012 Paralympics for young people to admire and emulate. Hannah Cockroft MBE (wheelchair athlete specialising in sprint distances), Ellie Simmons (competitive swimmer) and  Damon Rose (blind athlete), among many others. Damon tells his story in an article by the BBC: Paralympics: The Perils of Being A Blind Athlete. Undoubtedly an inspiring read. Some people might say that the Paralympics isn’t really relevant anymore given that it was three years ago, but I think that it’s still very much a part of today’s society.

There’s also David Blunkett, a blind politician who inspired me when I was a little older. My Mum would always point him out on the news and tell me about how he had a guide dog and sometimes used a cane. This definitely helped me to see my visual impairment as a strength and not a weakness. However, Blunkett is less of a role model for young children and maybe more for older children and teenagers.

Stephen Hawking is another person with a disability who is a great role model. He has Motor Neurone Disease, a progressive illness which now means that he uses a computer system to speak and a wheelchair to get around, and has to have a lot of help.  However, despite this, he has gone on to become one of the most inspiring scientists of our generation and those in the future. Pretty cool! 

What More Could Be Done? 

Although there are disabled role models out there, some of them are not received very well by the general public, something which definitely needs changing. CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell was born without one of her hands. In 2009, the BBC received complaints from parents that her disability was posing awkward questions for their children to ask and for them to answer. That is obviously an issue of attitude towards disability in general.

People are either scared of saying the wrong thing, have a fear of the unknown, or just decide not to explain it at all. But it’s obvious that the earlier you introduce children to these differences in society, the better equipped they are to learn about and understand them. So in this case, it is parents and negative press coverage that puts disability in a negative light. 

The only example of a ‘bad’ disabled role model that I can think of is the actor Kevin McHale who played Artie Abrahams in hit US comedy-drama Glee. I love this show as much as the next twenty-something, but the fact that the actor himself is not disabled, for me causes the problem – he is a non-disabled person playing someone who is a wheelchair user. I am unsure about this concept, however many people would say that it is a good idea. However, I think the creators of the show miss a real chance to employ an actor who is a wheelchair user in real life, therefore highlighting the positive aspects of living with a mobility condition and being a wheelchair user.

However, it is also important to remember that this will have been a very small minority – most people champion those with disabilities and see it in a positive light. There clearly needs to be more education for this minority of parents and children about acceptance of disability as well as diversity in general, and figures like the ones I’ve talked about above can only help with this. 

What Next? 

At the moment, disability is becoming far more visible on TV and online. What I’d like to see next is the main character in a video game having a disability, but not for it to be a gimmick, as has been done previously, but for it to be a strength of their character and how you can play the game in role as them. I played games like Crash Bandicoot when I was little, and it didn’t have any characters with disabilities in it, something which would have been good. I would have liked for it just to ‘be there’ as something that nobody would question ,or if they did, for it to become a talking point amongst people so that any awkwardness round disability was eradicated completely. I would also like to see a few more disabled people in positions of power and written about in literary texts. Personally, I find that the more comfortable you make your disability, the less of a deal it is to others. Whilst there are disabled role models for us to look up to in society, there still needs to be more done to keep the positive vibes. 



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