Casting off stereotypes

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Channel 4's new series, Cast Offs, proved to be a breath of fresh air in the world of media and disability.

In the fake reality show mockumentary, six disabled characters (all played by disabled actors) are stranded on an island.

Its writers hope it will do for disability what Queer as Folk did for gays, and certainly you couldn't imagine it being made ten years ago, let alone when I was growing up.

Back in my early teens everyone thought that my hero must be Douglas Bader. Bader had lost both legs in the Second World War and yet continued to go on flying missions, got taken prisoner of war, escaped, was recaptured and emerged from it all as a national hero.

All very brave and romantic, but little for me to be inspired about. I had been born without legs rather than having them blown off, and growing up in Ireland I had little interest in the Second World War.

My prejudices were largely confirmed by the movie Reach for the Sky, a fairly typical British movie of the era, a wartime romp full of upper class officers and jolly cockney underlings.

Looking back now, I think that movie and Helen Keller in Her Story (about a blind deaf woman) were the only movies of the era I can remember that featured disabled characters. In both cases it was what made them "extraordinary" that made their story worth telling. Ordinary disabled people with ordinary lives just didn't seem to be worth portraying.

Indeed, they were best avoided all together. Even Bernard Manning, for all his foul venomous attacks on just about anyone who wasn't a white male heterosexual Nazi, drew the line at making jokes about "handicaps".

Since that time things have not improved greatly: disabled characters might get a bit part in a soap or a Richard Curtis movie, but by and large are missing from the screen.

This tends to reflect society's outlook in general. Although over the years attitudes have changed, at the less enlightened end of the spectrum disabled people are still to be pitied, their lives tragic, not celebratory, and those that somehow manage to function independently are "so brave". Perhaps even more annoying for most disabled people than being talked about rather than to ("Does he take sugar?") is being told how brave you are!

What makes Cast Offs so great is that it portrays the ordinariness of each of the characters without shying away from their disability. They, like most reality show contestants, can be nasty, spiteful, annoying, dreary, kind, thoughtful, insightful and stupid. They, like everyone else, get drunk, have sex, lie, cheat, get jealous, get depressed and get angry.

As with most people in society, none of these characters are about to rescue people from burning buildings, win Wimbledon or discover a cure for cancer.

It is this ordinariness that makes the programme all the more extraordinary. This notion of disability as part of everyday life represents a radical departure from almost all that has gone before.

Having said all that, as someone who finds reality shows deeply disengaging, there were times when I just wanted to escape the claustrophobia of the island. I found some of the most interesting bits of the show the flashbacks to the lives of the contestants before they were dumped there.

The hapless hopefulness of the newly paralysed man's parents was intriguing. The visit to a speed dating event by the woman with cherubism was both funny and challenging.

One by-product of all this is the airing of the question of disabled parts being played by non-disabled actors. "Spacking up is the new blacking up," one of the characters proclaims. A very funny line, but not one I'm really comfortable with.

Whilst it's clear that all too frequently a non-disabled actor will be shoved in a wheelchair when a perfectly good disabled actor could be found, it is worth noting that the Cast Offs actors were found first and the script written to suit their impairments.

This would not have been so easily doable with, say, My Left Foot or Rain Man. These films are frequently cited as examples of "spacking up", yet what makes both films truly memorable is the outstanding performances of two world-class actors, Daniel Day-Lewis and Dustin Hoffman.

To have cast these parts for people with the appropriate impairment (a man with thalidomide could hardly give an accurate portrayal of a man with cerebral palsy) and the ability to carry the performance would be pretty challenging.

However, wherever you stand on that question, Cast Offs is a truly innovative and compelling piece of TV.