Undateables: same old stories

Picture of Sarah, a young white woman wearing a striped navy blue and white jumper, standing in a school corridor with two boys walking past her.Last Tuesday, the first in the new series of “The Undateables”, Channel 4’s series in which they attempt to match up people with various disabilities with partners, aired. I saw some of the first series, and was disappointed that the first episode appeared to be a re-run of the stories from the first: one guy with autism whose social ineptitude made dating awkward, and another with Tourette’s (not the same people, but very similar stories). The third from this week’s programme was a young woman who had suffered a stroke aged 18, which left her unable to express herself in words, either spoken or in writing. Thus, her mother has to help her with most communication and she has been unable to complete her studies. Others in the series (yet to be introduced) are women with achondroplasia (a form of dwarfism) and another with Asperger’s and severe OCD which means she has allowed nobody to touch her for more than a year, and men with Crouzon syndrome (a hereditary condition affecting the bones of the skull), albinism, learning disabilities and neurofibromatosis (the latter being the only one photographed in a wheelchair). The home page for the first episode is here and you can find the link to watch it on 4oD (if you’re in the UK) there. (More: Kykaree, Writer in a Wheelchair, Adult SLP Talk.)

I read some mainstream media reviews of it, and one of them in particular suggested that there might be a whole lot of very predictable responses, such as that it’s exploitative or a freak-show. I personally didn’t find it to be a freak-show, but I do think it over-emphasises the difficulty of dating when, in fact, many people with almost all kinds of disability do have relationships, sometimes lasting years or, indeed, a lifetime. Granted, many of these couples were together before one of them became disabled, but there is a widespread stereotype that “nobody wants to date a disabled person” or that people take marriage very lightly and that men, in particular, will clear off when a woman becomes disabled or when her health takes a turn for the worse. This is true of some people, but it’s unfair to label everyone, or all men with these stereotypes. I know of quite a few couples where the men have not been put off by the woman’s pre-existing physical disability, including those which cause unpleasant complications such as incontinence.

This series yet again features the trope of the “awkward autistic guy putting a girl off”. I know it’s not the format they chose, but surely it’s about time they featured an actual couple where one or other of them is autistic, not just the “difficult start”. I know a couple, for example, where both have Asperger’s and had pre-existing mental health problems at the outset, and the wife recovered from hers but developed severe ME. She is currently bedridden, and the husband has been caring for her more or less non-stop for the past two years (they have some help from agency carers, but only a few hours a week). Whether they would be available for a TV interview (given the wife’s present health) is doubtful, but I am sure they could find a couple with autism which has been together for a long time. They could also have given an update on some of the people featured in the first series, to see if any of their relationships have lasted.

The one unfamiliar story is that of Sarah, a very pretty young 23-year-old woman who had a stroke aged 18, which left her aphasic, or unable to communicate effectively either in speech or in writing, despite knowing what she wants to say (she is also unable to read more than a few words, so she cannot use social media), so all correspondence has much input from her mother. They did not say if she had re-learned any other life skills; she could walk well, but it did not say if she could dress herself, for example, or cook, or drive a car; they also do not show what she does with herself. The agency did set her up on a date, and they met at a boating lake; they seemed to like each other, but the man did the rowing and Sarah seemed to just sit there and smile. It would be interesting to see how this relationship continues, if it does; the entry for her on the programme’s website is full of men saying how lovely she was and that they would date her any day, although as a friend pointed out on Facebook, she would need someone very special who would stick around when she needs help, not just someone who admires her because she is young and pretty.

Obviously, this series is made and it is probably too late to suggest modifications for future episodes now. I hope they do not commission another series, however, without taking another look at those featured in this and the last series, and featuring real disabled couples explaining how they became couples, and stayed couples, in real life. There is much more to this subject than just the “undateability” and long-term singlehood that some disabled people experience.

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