BBC Three’s documentary Growing Up Down’s, broadcast this week, has been praised for highlighting what real life is like for young people with Down’s syndrome – and we need to see more programmes like this.
Growing Up Down’s followed the story of a theatre group of young adults with Down’s syndrome as they put together a touring production of Hamlet. Filmed inside and outside the rehearsal room over 18 months, it showed each actor face challenges in their personal lives that affected their relationship with the group and their work on the play.
The response I’ve seen on social media to the documentary has been largely positive (search for ‘Growing Up Down’s on Twitter for examples), as have the newspaper reviews.
Hopefully, this will help to break down some of the misconceptions about people with Down’s syndrome that still exist among some people in the UK.
But we need more documentaries like this on Down’s syndrome and other learning disabilities – which show what everyday life is like for them and what they can do, rather than focusing on their disability – to really make a difference and fight the stigma that still affects many people.
Admittedly there is Channel 4’s The Undateables – currently in its third series – but that doesn’t exclusively focus on people with learning disabilities and is focused on their love lives, rather than everyday lives.
An example of where television programmes have helped to fight stigma is in mental health. Last summer, BBC Three ran a season of shows portraying various aspects of mental ill health in children and young adults, including showing what life was like in a teenage mental health unit, and a documentary on former boxer Frank Bruno, who has bipolar.
Later in the year, Channel 4 broadcast Bedlam, a series that went behind the scenes at the South London & Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, giving access to aspects of mental health services – acute and in the community – which had been rarely seen before on television.
Both received a largely positive reaction from the mental health sector and the general public and were welcomed as a means of breaking down the misunderstandings and stigma that is still associated with mental health. Although, of course, how effective they were is extremely difficult to quantify.
Alongside this, it would be good to see more characters with learning disabilities in television shows, especially the soaps. Again, we have seen EastEnders and Emmerdale – to name but two – in recent years to successfully tackle major storylines on mental health, but there have been precious few on learning disabilities.
EastEnders has had characters with Down’s syndrome, but briefly. For instance, one of Billy Mitchell’s children has Down’s syndrome, but she is rarely seen on screen as she lives with her mother, who has split from Billy. Likewise, one of Eddie Moon’s sons, Craig, (played by Elliott Rosen) had Down’s syndrome, but he only featured for a few weeks before both characters were written out.
There are many amazing stories out there that documentary makers could film about people with learning disabilities, and likewise plotlines that could keep soap writers busy for years. Surely the time has come to give people with learning disabilities the focus they deserve on television?