Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Soap character with learning disabilities could help tackle stigma

Dan Parton cutWhile last year’s Paralympics had a lasting positive effect on the public’s views of people with learning disabilities, there is still much work to be done to break down the stigma and discrimination they still face – and TV soap operas could help to do this.

With the recent anniversary of the start of the 2012 London Paralympics, there have been various surveys and articles looking at the legacy of the games for people with disabilities. One of the more interesting surveys came from social care organisation Turning Point, which said that a third of the public had a more positive impression of people with learning disabilities as a result of the games.

This, while welcome news, surprised me slightly, given that only a minority of events featured people with learning disabilities. Hopefully in future Paralympics there will be more events for people with learning disabilities to compete in, which will give them an even bigger profile and make more of an impression on the public.

But Turning Point’s survey also revealed that much more work is needed to improve the public’s understanding of learning disabilities. For instance, it found a lack of knowledge about what constitutes a learning disability with 40% of people wrongly believe that mental illness is a learning disability and 36.1% saying that cerebral palsy is.

Perhaps more worryingly, while more than half of people believe that those with a learning disability should live in the community more than 20% still believe that the most suitable housing arrangement is a care home or secure hospital – despite the weight of evidence to the contrary.

Once again, it shows that more information is needed to tackle the misconceptions and stigma that people with learning disabilities still face.

Information campaigns can help with this, being targeted at healthcare settings, for example, although the results of these are notoriously difficult to quantify.

But, as the Paralympics showed, it is high profile events that have a mass TV/media audience that can make a lasting difference.

So, as I’ve said before, if there were to be a regular character with a learning disability introduced into one of the major soap operas on TV, it would go a long way to breaking down the stigma and misunderstandings.

The effect it can have has been seen in mental health. When Stacey Slater in EastEnders developed bipolar disorder in 2009, calls to MDF The Bipolar Organisation’s (now Bipolar UK) helpline doubled in 6 months and general awareness of the condition increased.

A regular character, whose storylines weren’t just about his/her learning disability but their everyday life, could have a major impact by giving viewers an insight into what it means to have a learning disability, the challenges they face but also how ‘normal’ their lives often are.

Soaps are known for pushing boundaries; let’s see if any one of them will take on a realistic portrayal of learning disabilities. Over to you, script writers…

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