'We have full lives': Disabled soap fans speak to soap stars who represent them
In an industry which has so often overlooked the representation and inclusion of disabled people, there is now a growing push for more authentic, honest and meaningful on-screen portrayals in soaps.
As I recently wrote, soaps are starting to show some of the messy and realistic realities of disability, something which is refreshing for the viewers who can most relate.
As Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the University of Sheffield puts it to Metro.co.uk: ‘Disabled actors sharing their personal experiences can add a depth to storytelling that can only come from lived experience — and can help others.’
So, continuing to have these conversations and considering more perspectives is vital, both for the disabled community and the wider audience.
Here, disabled people were offered the opportunity to engage with disabled soap stars to create a dialogue and to get answers to questions that truly matter to them.
Michelle de Oude asks Cherylee Houston (Izzy, Coronation Street)
Michelle was born visually impaired and has worked in various project and service management roles across the public and voluntary sector, often related to equality issues, and most recently, has been working in Disabled People’s Organisations.
She asks Cherylee Houston about her current role playing machinist Izzy Armstrong in Coronation Street, which she has done since 2010. Away from that role, Cherylee also founded BAFTA-winning TripleC and DANC (Disabled Artists Networking Community).
In soaps, a ‘story arc’ around disability tends to have a start, middle and end, some kind of resolution that ‘puts the story to bed’, whereas, in real life, disabled people have to contend with barriers and lack of proper support all our lives.
Does this frustrate you, or do you think it can be a positive?
I think what’s really good about Izzy is that we don’t purposefully touch disability that much. Some of it is the real crux of my storylines, particularly around COVID, which the writers intended it to be because they wanted to reflect how disabled people have been affected by it.
But often, they only touch on things slightly, or I make a mental note to myself to have a bad pain day in an episode.
Or sometimes, I hear or read another character talking about me going home early, or Carla’s saying, ‘Izzy is on half a day”’, or I say, ‘I’m on half a day,’ which means that it’s suddenly put into the storyline.
But it’s not used or cranked up as a major story. And in a way, I liked that subtleness, because I’ve had some quite big moments around it, like falling out of my chair and getting hurt, and the cannabis storyline. I’ve had quite a few, but, you know, is she still always in pain? Sometimes people refer to her pain again. They don’t forget it, but, as you do in real life, ourselves included, we don’t really talk about it.
We play those naturalistic beats, like Beth is forever trying to hang something on my wheelchair, just because she never learned that lesson.
We do put those beats that aren’t written, and that’s a much more naturalistic way of playing the storyline because she’s there the whole time. There’s no beginning, middle or end because we’re disabled.
Your character is very ‘rounded’. She works, she has a son, she has had relationships. Do you feel the writers want to capture a genuine sense that our lives are like that and not just about our impairment?
I think that’s why I really appreciate what they’ve done; they’ve given her a full life because we have full lives. And, quite often, I think the stereotype of disability on the telly is about the disability. They play that as a character trait or a personality trait. It’s not. But quite often, it is written in that way. In the early days of Corrie, they told me they didn’t want that.
Now Izzy’s a mum and has a family in a different way, so I loved how she and Gary get on, and they co-parent well. She co-parents well with Maria as well. We’ll also make sure we do little looks at each other when we’re doing the handover of Jake, showing that it’s not awkward.
That’s really nice because it’s playing against all stereotypes that people fall out. Also, as part of that, she’s got lots of struggles, but they’re underplayed because disabled people are solution-focused and get on with things.
Regarding other characters in the show who are representative, Michelle adds: ‘I really like the character of Alex, he’s just there doing his job and living, and I feel that is a more genuine approach to featuring disabled characters.
‘I also loved the comedy injected into the storyline about Deaf BSL users, and I will be interested to see how they develop Aled’s experience of schooling as he grows up.’
Faith Martin asks Jo Coffey
Faith is a music and disability journalist with cerebral palsy. Here, she asks Jo Coffey, a comedian, actress, writer and producer, about her current role as PA Wendy Whitwell in Waterloo Road.
How have you found the process of playing Wendy when disability in mainstream school is misunderstood in both media and society?
As the school PA, in Wendy’s head, she’s far better than all the teachers! I can only talk from my own experience, but I am pleased that I’m playing a strong, funny, disabled character, and her disability isn’t her main story.
I hoped to normalise disability on screen and just play a funny comedy character that was excepted without having to explain her disability. Let’s face it. Most people would be terrified of bringing up the subject of ‘height’ with Wendy anyway!
A show like Waterloo Road has high expectations due to its previous popularity – how has she managed to forge your own path within it?
I’m a massive Waterloo Road fan, so I was a bit overwhelmed when I arrived for the read-through. I loved the past series, and there was Angela [Griffin] and [Adam Thomas] just casually sat around the table opposite me!
The feedback from the fans and audience has been amazing, and that has been such a lift. Knowing how much everyone cares about the characters is brilliant, and it makes you want to make it really good for the people watching!
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