Most people will not know the name Liam Bairstow yet, but he will be familiar to millions soon when he appears in Coronation Street, playing the soap’s first character with Down’s syndrome – and he can help to tackle the stigma that people with learning disabilities often still encounter.
The recent Coronation Street press day – highlighted with the hashtag #CorriePressDay – gave TV journalists some enticing tit-bits about what is to come in the soap in the next few months. In among the stories of new loves, rivalries and the rest was news of a new character joining, and a first for the show – a character with Down’s syndrome.
This is what piqued my interest. I’m not a Coronation Street viewer but this is a significant move. Liam Bairstow will join the cast as Alex, the nephew of Roy Cropper's latest love interest Cathy Matthews, sometime in the autumn.
Producer Stuart Blackburn was quick to defend the move, saying it is not a “politically correct thing” and that Bairstow is a good actor, which seems to me like a pre-emptive strike against any accusations of tokenism or sating some lefty diversity agenda. That he felt compelled to do this is indicative of the narrow way that people with Down’s syndrome – and those with autism or learning disabilities – are still viewed by some people.
But why shouldn’t there be a character with Down’s syndrome? If Coronation Street is supposed to mirror real life (to a degree) then surely people with Down’s syndrome should be in there too as they live in every community in the UK, the same as you or I? It has nothing to do with ‘political correctness’ – people with Down’s syndrome should be represented as everyone else is. They can have just as dramatic lives. Plus, it gives a talented actor the chance to shine on one of the biggest stages in UK television.
Bairstow isn’t the first person with Down’s syndrome to feature on a soap – EastEnders has had a character with Down’s syndrome for some time, Billy Mitchell’s young daughter, Janet. But while there was the storyline concerning her birth and her family coming to terms with having a child with Down’s syndrome, little has been done with the character since. She is still there, but only appears in the background – maybe because she is still a relatively small child.
For the producers of Coronation Street, there is a real opportunity here to make some great television and include some things that have never been seen in a soap before. For instance, there is scope for stories on health issues, disability hate/mate crime and how it can be tackled, addressing stigma – all things that haven’t been covered before.
Mental health issues have featured in the major soaps in recent times – such as Steve McDonald’s depression in Coronation Street – and this has helped to increase knowledge of the condition and break down the stigma around it. There is no reason why Bairstow cannot help to do the same with his character. Having Alex in the show, even just doing the normal everyday things that everyone does – buying a paper from The Kabin or going for a drink in the Rover’s Return – will help to increase understanding about people with Down’s syndrome, and decrease stigma.
Let’s hope the producers and scriptwriters grasp this chance with both hands and give us some great television that addresses real issues that are rarely, if ever, portrayed on TV.