Is Disability the New Reality TV Gimmick?

Who would have believed when Maureen Rees stepped into her car with learner plates on, that she was setting off one of the biggest and most successful genres in television history. ‘Driving School’ was meant to be just a cheap ‘early-evening’ filler over the summer months for BBC1. Suddenly it was getting 10 million viewers each week and ‘reality TV’ was born.  

Just as soaps were beginning to dip in the ratings, due to overkill and viewer apathy, TV bosses realised that people were actually just as interested in watching real people and it was far cheaper to make. With the advent of ‘Big Brother’, reality TV became more than a success story, it became a revolution. As popularity grew, the shows became more ‘extreme’, the contestants became more ‘individual’ and even Z-list celebrities got in on the act.So is reality TV just junk TV or is there more to it.?

My opinion is that for all its ills, reality TV has broken down some negative stereotypes and prejudices particularly towards oppressed groups. Big Brother particularly has shown that viewers do accept people who are ‘different’. Look at Nadia – the first transsexual winner and Pete – the first winner who was a Disabled Person. Both these contestants showed they were a lot more than just token minorities; viewers were shown they were three dimensional people who had experienced barriers and discrimination in their life.

Big Brother has been criticised for supposedly exploiting Disabled People, but as OFCOM recently said ‘there is rightly no reason why someone with a disability cannot and should not exercise the same degree of informed choice as any other adult – including choosing to enter the Big Brother house.’ I find it patronising the view that some complainants had that Disabled People may not be just as aware of the pros and cons of going on a show like ‘Big Brother’. Pete was more than aware and openly stated that one of his aims was to raise awareness and understanding of Tourette’s Syndrome.

It is encouraging that in the last year, TV producers have realised that Disabled People are not a turn-off to viewers and indeed the BBC has acquired good ratings for ‘Beyond Boundaries’ which features disabled people undertaking expeditions around the world. The second series, set in Africa, is currently showing at 9pm on Sunday night on BBC2.


The X Factor also has a wheelchair user in their ‘final 10’ for the 1st time, singing live every Saturday Night. It would have the Black and White Minstrels spinning in their grave.


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