One in five people in the UK live with a disability, yet disabled talent makes up just 7.8 per cent of the people we see on TV. So it doesn’t surprise me that Hugo Hammond made headlines as reality TV stalwart Love Island’s “first disabled contestant”. What does surprise me is that we’re over a week into the series – and Hugo’s disability (the islander was born with a club foot) is yet to be addressed on the show.
It shouldn’t be the case that the appearance of a disabled person on our screens is considered newsworthy. But it’s a sad reflection of how the disabled community and our struggles are kept in the shadows. The biggest mainstream celebration of disability on TV is still the Paralympics, and whilst it’s a brilliant and important event (and one that changed my life), it isn’t particularly representative of everyday disability – particularly in the context of the pandemic.
The past year has seen disabled people sidelined more than ever, and has compounded the myriad daily challenges many of us face. It’s now even harder for disabled people to access equal opportunities: we’re at higher risk from Covid, we face difficulties in accessing medical care and supplies, we find public spaces less safe, and social isolation is rife amongst the disabled community. What’s worse, a failure to engage with the structural issues underpinning these struggles means they go largely unnoticed by most.
Yet despite the lack of media attention given to disability, in my experience people can’t help but ask me about mine. I’m always being asked about my splint, the gadgets I use to get around, and how cerebral palsy affects my ability to swim. Even people who are usually reluctant to engage with the issues we face can’t help but be curious about the everyday aspects of living with disability. Which is why I’m surprised the topic of disability is yet to come up on Love Island.
Not once have I heard the word “disability” mentioned. In many respects, this is a positive thing. Hugo’s disability does not define him, and I’m glad to see that he’s being treated no differently to any of his peers on the programme. Perhaps Love Island is the leveller we all needed to show that a 24-year-old with a disability is no different to any other 24-year-old. I hope we can get to the point where this level of acceptance is the experience of all people with disabilities, and not just the experience presented to us in a well-edited TV show.
But another part of me hopes that the silence surrounding Hugo’s disability ends eventually. I wish we lived in a world where disability was considered “normal” and didn’t need to be discussed and dissected in public forums. But until we get to that point – where all disabled people are accepted and understood – we must talk about disability in order to tear down the taboos that surround it to this day.
Talking about disability openly on Love Island could help normalise it, giving others the language to discuss disability with their peers. After all, the show captivates millions of viewers night after night and wields an immense amount of power and influence. It would certainly bring conversations about the reality of living with a disability into the spotlight.
If Love Island can be a vehicle for open and honest discussions about disability between contestants, it could encourage more inclusive attitudes towards people with disabilities, and help catapult respect and understanding for the disabled community into the mainstream.
If, by the end of the series, Hugo’s disability has not once been a subject of interest – as my own so often is – I just hope it’s not because producers have failed to create safe and inclusive spaces for these conversations to take place; or because editors decide that these conversations don’t make the cut.
Whatever the outcome, Hugo’s presence on the show is at least a small step forward for better representation of disabled people on TV. While we wait and see how Hugo’s time in the villa plays out, I can only hope that for future generations we won’t need to have conversations about disability at all, and that the presence of a disabled person on TV won’t be making headlines. One day it will be the norm.
Liz Johnson is a paralympic gold medallist and disability inclusion campaigner
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