Love Island’s decision to include a disabled contestant is pure tokenism

Although Hugo Hammond’s disability is not as instantly visible as other types of disability, he is still unlikely to escape unscathed from the ableist attitudes deeply rooted in the dating world

Hannah Shewan Stevens
Monday 28 June 2021 11:06
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<p>Hammond, a PE teacher with a clubbed foot, will enter the villa</p>

Hammond, a PE teacher with a clubbed foot, will enter the villa

The first physically disabled Love Islander is going into the snake pit – but his inclusion is unlikely to be the victory producers think it is.

For a split second, the announcement that Hugo Hammond – a PE teacher with a clubbed foot – was going into the villa gave me joy, as I imagined the impact he could have on society’s misguided views on disabled people and romance. But, after seeing the responses in the press, my excitement was brutally cut short.

Certain media outlets immediately labelled Hammond “inspirational”, just for being a disabled person and entering the Love Island villa. A tired trope that goes by the name of “inspiration porn”, which is the depiction of disabled people as inspirational solely (or in part) because of their disability.

Designed to place disabled people on a pedestal just for existing, the categorisation of disabled people as “inspirational” is a stereotype present throughout mainstream media. For most, being called inspirational is a compliment – but for disabled people, it can be exhausting.

The word gets thrown at us for achieving the tiniest of tasks, and we’re rewarded for succeeding against the odds of our disability, when we’re actually achieving in the face of overwhelming ableism. My most memorable incident of this came when I was given an award for getting good GCSE results while dealing with debilitating chronic illnesses, which was ironic considering the school had fought accommodations at every step.

And, when it comes to Love Island, it’s not just disabled contestants who face prejudice in the villa. Year after year, black Love Islanders are picked last and anyone with a body above the show’s standard size 10 is spotlighted as an inspiration for daring to flaunt their size 12 curves in a bikini. Essentially, anyone who is not white, heterosexual or in possession of a size 8 body is considered “inspirational” for daring to go on the show.

Billed as their “most diverse” cast yet, this season of Love Island is being sold as a direct challenge to naysayers who have criticized the show’s lack of diversity and representation in past seasons. But inclusion means nothing if the show doesn’t challenge stereotypical perceptions of its “diverse” castmates, by facing up to the prejudices that undercut the show’s inclusive intentions. Hammond’s appearance on the show being morphed into inspiration porn is only one of the risks of his appearance.

For a disabled castmate, it’s crucial that Love Island uses this opportunity to challenge ableist tropes in the media, because seeing nuanced representation of disability is as likely as finding a five-leaf clover. When it comes to dating and romance, positive depictions are even rarer. The closest we’ve come recently was in Netflix’s now cancelled Special, which explored the life of a gay disabled man with cerebral palsy.

Typically, disabled people get stuck with shows calling us The Undateables or – as we tell our stories to a producer desperate to get a sensationalist angle – we get the pitiful music intro on shows like First Dates. In the sexual world, we get treated as extreme kinks in pornography that dehumanises us.

All of which contributes to the three primary ways disabled people are treated in relation to sex and romance: infantilisation, desexualisation and fetishisation. In a society that so rarely depicts disabled people in mainstream media, the perception of our romantic potential frequently gets warped by one of these viewpoints.

Non-disabled people question themselves for finding us attractive or demean us for wanting to explore our sexualities; learning disabled people are excluded from relationships and sex education and many disabled people are hounded with queries about how we have sex. So, in theory, a disabled person popping up on a show with monumental cultural influence is a giant leap forward for representation.

But we all know how well Love Island deals with prejudice in the villa, so I fear for Hammond. Although his disability is not as instantly visible as other types of disability, he is still unlikely to escape unscathed from the ableist attitudes deeply rooted in the dating world. I am awaiting patronising cries of “oh, but you don’t look disabled,” and “you’re so brave and inspiring” from the other Love Island daters.

If Love Island genuinely wants a diverse cast, they have to face up to the prejudices ingrained in the people they bring onto the show. Throwing a disabled contestant into the lion’s den without so much as a briefing note on how to manage ableism is naive at best, and downright cruel at worst. Representation is meaningless without education to accompany it.

He is not even safe from the ableism of the Love Island producers, who said in 2019 that it would be too costly to make the villa fully accessible. Their attitude toward accessibility proves that representation is far from being at the heart of their casting decisions, which is clearly why they’ve chosen a disabled contestant who will not necessitate step-free villa access.

Hammond’s appearance may be a small victory for disabled representation but he is not an inspiration for existing – and yes, you are ableist for thinking so. This year’s show is an opportunity for society to look inward and question the deeply-rooted prejudice that insists that disabled people have no place in the world of romance and sex.

While I wish we could get through another Love Island season without dissecting every casting decision, this year’s tokenistic attempt at diversity will fall flat on its face – again – if the show does nothing to confront the biases that leave a trail of broken hearts in their wake every year. The eradication of ableism in the dating world starts with facing up to it, not just ignoring it in the hope that it’ll vanish on its own.

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