The portrayal of disability in the mainstream media is…problematic, to say the least.
Very often, disabilities are used as sources of drama, a veritable bottomless well of potential misery, and, when that misery is over, the disability itself is either a) cured or b) relegated to potentially one annual mention. This is especially common in continuing dramas, where there is a focus on ‘issue’ storylines and things can get forgotten once those issues are done and dusted, particularly if the show is going out multiple times a week (and has been going on for several decades).
On the other hand, continuing dramas such as soaps should be the perfect vehicle for properly exploring disability. These are people who live their lives alongside ours. They don’t have a limited amount of once-a-week episodes in which they are constrained to tell their whole story. Soaps should, by rights, have the time and longevity to be able to do these stories properly.
Which is why it hurts so much more when a show like EastEnders gets it so offensively, harmfully wrong after doing so much initial work to make it good.
Over the last few months, EastEnders has been telling the story of Ben Mitchell’s hearing loss. Ben, who has been partially deaf in one ear since contracting meningitis at a few weeks old and has worn a hearing aid in his left ear ever since, suffered a head injury in February which resulted in profound hearing loss in his right ear.
The story was pitched by Charlie Swinbourne, a D/deaf writer, who also advised and consulted on the development of the story. It also introduced us to Frankie Lewis, a new character played by D/deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis. As the story continued over the next few months (stretched out to accommodate lockdown shutting down filming), it became clear that this was a story that had had D/deaf people at the heart of it and D/deaf people in the room when decisions were being made.
This was in stark contrast to the autism storyline that EastEnders had attempted in the autumn of 2019. From the beginning, it became clear that there were few, if any, actual autistic people in the room for this storyline. The story was about that most stereotypical of ‘autistic’ types, a quiet little white boy, and the emotion and drive of the story was centred on the impact on his family, particularly his mother.
With endless streams of negativity that was not countered by other characters, statements laden with functioning labels, and, finally, the story culminating in the autism diagnosis driving his mother into alcoholism, this was not a story that had been conceived, put together or delivered with the thought that anyone autistic was watching. And that was a problem. This was not a story that was about or for autistic people. This was clearly a story that had been written for non-autistic people and about the impact our existence has on non-autistic people.
A friend of mine, also a fan of EastEnders, was going through an adult autism diagnosis at the time, and the sheer negativity of the language used around this storyline had a profound and upsetting effect on her and her family. When we’re talking about these stories, we’re not just concerned about disappointing story arcs – we’re talking about real, visceral impact on real people, people who are already devastatingly underrepresented on television and in life.
As autistic people, we spend enough time thinking of ourselves as burdens. The way the world talks about us, frames us, depicts us, is entirely centred around the negative impact that we have on the lives of those around us. Do you think we don’t lie awake at night, sometimes, laden down with the guilt of not being ‘normal’? Even someone like me, who has learned to accept and celebrate my autistic brain, do you not think it weighs heavy on my heart that there is so much I can’t do – even though there is so much, so many more important things, that I can do?
The tragedy narrative, which EastEnders echoed in its depiction of Ollie’s diagnosis, is what fuels the mental health crisis in autistic people. It’s part of the crushing despair that leads to us being many times more likely than our neurotypical counterparts to die by suicide. It’s the driving force behind parents killing their autistic children, and feeds the incessant sympathy and understanding that is aimed towards our murderers by the press.
No, this storyline had not been created with the autistic viewer in mind. And it showed.
The hearing loss storyline seemed so…different.
However, with lockdown came a three month break, and with the return of EastEnders last week, it became clear that what had made this storyline so different and so good had been left at the side of the road in a bag marked ‘not worth changing our storyline plan for’.
When the story was first announced, press releases hailed its importance, and they weren’t wrong. Quotes abounded in the press, extolling that in a ‘first for the soap’, Ben and Frankie were going to communicate using sign language. Charlie himself talked about Ben finding his identity as a D/deaf man, something that was desperately exciting for me – despite not being D/deaf myself, the concept of my autism as an identity is something very dear to me that I never see on screen, and the thought of finally seeing this tenet of disability and identity on a mainstream soap was incredible.
And D/deaf people in the fandom confirmed that yes, surprisingly, this was being done well. People were feeling seen, properly and without the fog of trope and myths, many of them for the first time. This mattered.
Ben’s story felt like a story that was being told in two main parts. You had the initial hearing loss. You had Ben’s inevitable spiral as his world changed forever. You had him hitting rock bottom with a decided ‘thunk’. And it was okay, because it was setting him up for the next part of that journey, the part where he figured out his identity as a D/deaf man, and came to a point of acceptance – that yes, he is D/deaf, that even with the implant he will still be D/deaf, and that he can be okay with that (if not even proud at some point).
That second bit was what was revolutionary about this storyline. That was why this storyline was important. Because yes, being disabled is hard, it can suck, and they showed that realistically and heartbreakingly with Ben – but we also needed the other pieces to come together and show that you can be happy and D/deaf.
But that didn’t happen.
Without that second half of the story, all the show has achieved is another disability-as-misery-porn storyline. And that is not okay. That is not okay.
With the focus now seemingly shifted directly to his post-switch on life, and full speed into a whole new storyline around Callum’s job as a police officer, not to mention the fact that Frankie has been brought back as a recurring character but is seemingly having no interaction with Ben at all, it really does look like we have jumped ahead in this storyline – that the cochlear implant switch on is just a tying up of loose ends left over from the pre-COVID era.
In the episode of the switch on itself, the whole story felt like an afterthought. It was short, had little to no exposition or explanation as to what the implant is or does, and was completely overshadowed by the ongoing story of Callum and the police. Any hope that I’d had was crushed – not because it was bad, but because it was so damned clear that they had already waved this storyline goodbye without even a hint of that all important second half.
The final little bit of hope was extinguished as Thursday and Friday’s episodes came around. Not only did we see Ben suddenly able to understand most of what Callum was saying without sign and without lip reading (including when Callum was literally turned away from him, whilst they were outside in a not-unbusy street), but the words ‘my hearing is back’ were used. A few times.
On top of this, I have been made aware that the official press spoilers sent out for the first week specifically referred to Ben’s hearing as being ‘back’. I have seen some people raising complaints with news outlets for choosing to use this wording – to learn that it was, in reality, wording that came directly from the EastEnders press office itself, is deeply, deeply worrying.
To add insult to injury, Ben even expressed how he could hear his daughter sing, how he heard his dad tell a terrible joke, and all he wanted to hear now was his boyfriend tell him that he loves him.
Not only is this medically impossible (a cochlear implant does not ‘return’ one’s hearing, it actually requires a long time to get used to and someone with a cochlear implant is still D/deaf and will probably still need to use lip reading and sign to some degree), but it literally embodies every romanticised trope around cochlear implants that the D/deaf community has been screaming about for years.
They’re screaming about that for the same reason that autistic people were screaming about the tropes embodied by the autism diagnosis storyline – we are materially harmed by these portrayals.
Myths around cochlear implants have led to a D/deaf children being denied access to sign language under the belief that they can be ‘fixed’; have informed people’s decisions to get these implants for themselves and for their children; have caused severe distress when people get these implants and do not experience the miracle cure they were promised. There are so many reasons why D/deaf people tell us not to do this, and we, as hearing people, should be listening to them.
From the beginning of this storyline, it was clear that EastEnders really was listening to the community they were trying to represent. So they cannot plead ignorance. They know that this is something they shouldn’t be doing. And yet they have chosen to do it anyway.
I’ve been crushed by soaps before. But I think this is more painful because they were doing it so well. Because I actually had hope that we were getting a disability-as-identity storyline, a disability-as-okay storyline, a story about acceptance over tragedy.
But instead, it has been replaced with a story of the terribleness of being D/deaf being fixed with a magical cure that does not exist.
I know that the pandemic has caused major issues for all of these soaps, both in filming and in terms of their carefully planned storylines. Storylines are planned meticulously months and months in advance. I know that they had to make some sacrifices.
But this was definitely not one of those places to do that. They have clearly been working very hard not to let COVID impact the filming. They’re using so many ideas and techniques to get through that. They have clearly spent a lot of time on this. To the point where Jon Sen, the executive producer, even told viewers not to cut them any COVID slack.
So I’m not. And there is no excuse that cuts it for me, with a storyline like this.
In terms of equivalence, them deciding to take this route is the same level of offensive and bullshit as if they’d decided to come back from lockdown and go ‘oh yeah, Chantelle is dead’ (Chantelle being a victim of domestic violence who, it was revealed, is going to be killed next week after trying to escape) before carrying on to the next storyline on the list.
It’s not okay. It has caused real harm.
The infuriating thing is that the stuff with Frankie, away from Ben, has been really good. I absolutely adore her. I adored the hints that she and Ben became close over the summer, and that she taught him the rules of ‘D/deaf Club’ (the first rule being, of course, that we don’t talk about D/deaf Club!). I adored what she had to say about her Deaf identity, her pride, that she rejects any notion that she needs to be ‘fixed’ (as someone with a disability – autism – that many people assume I would have cured if I could, this made my heart sing).
Yet, all her amazing moments were tinged with the overhanging notion that Ben had been ‘fixed’. She even referred to Ben as ‘deaf…well, not deaf’.
The notion came across that she could only have pride in her identity because she was born D/deaf – as Ben was someone who had acquired profound deafness as a young adult, the only positive outcome for him must be this ‘fix’ (which, as we have explored, is not actually a fix).
People with acquired disabilities have the right to their disabled identity and pride. People with acquired disabilities do not need to be ‘fixed’ to have a happy ending. Deaf and disabled pride is for all of us – those of us who were ‘born this way’, and those of us who came to be this way.
And that’s why it was so important to have them both. Their interaction, as two D/deaf people with different experiences of being D/deaf, was everything. And it’s why EastEnders doesn’t get to say that it’s ‘okay’ that they did what they did with Ben’s story, as if Frankie is there to meet their ‘decent D/deaf representation quota’.
The Deaf and disabled experience deserves more than that. Much more.
So I hope that EastEnders will engage with the people who are raising concerns about this issue. I hope that they will, on some level, be willing and open to speaking to Deaf and disabled people about these storylines – Ben’s story, Ollie’s story – and understand where they went wrong and the very real harm and damage it can do to those of us living those storylines in real life. I hope that, from this, they can create better stories for Deaf and disabled people to see themselves in.
This is my invitation to EastEnders:
We are here, ready and waiting, to have that conversation. All you have to do is turn up.
If you would like to raise concerns about any of the things covered in this article, please go to https://www.bbc.co.uk/contact/complaints. You are welcome to take points from this article if you wish, but it’s a good idea to put them into your own words. If enough people make a complaint, it may encourage the BBC to respond to our concerns.