Disability in Media and Politics

Bearing Disability —Dr Who: Ryan’s Vanishing Disability

Please be aware that this post will contain spoilers. The topic of this post makes it hard for spoilers to not be included. It will look at Series 11 and the opening episodes of Series 12, with a focus on Ryan.

Now, I’m not going to bother explaining Doctor Who to you, the show has been around since 1964; most people know a little bit about it and the time-traveling alien it involves without watching an episode. If you don’t, where have you been!

Series 11 introduced a disabled companion. And I won’t lie, I was excited! But that changed in the space of 12 episodes.

So who is this disabled companion?

Ryan Sinclair

Ryan Sinclair is one of three… yes, three… companions of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker). He is a disabled man, living with his nan and his step-granddad (Bradley Walsh).

When Ryan is first introduced, he struggles to ride a bike. The episode explains that this is because of his disability, dyspraxia, which affects movement and co-ordination.

Throughout the series, there are comments to his disability, minor ones, which on the scheme of things is great… disabled people don’t want their disability to be in the spotlight all the time. But at the same time, it is a bad thing.

It means that people can simply forget he is disabled. Again, a good thing in many perspectives… except… not in this case.

I felt the first episode was great in terms of disability. It really showed the character’s disability, but also that it didn’t define him if he didn’t let it. Yes, he’d struggle with stairs, riding a bike or ladders, but he was up for the challenge… well, sometimes. And the actor is great too, I like the actor and think he plays the character well.

So what is the issue?

The show specifically says that he struggles with ladders and stairs. It made a point of this by showing Yaz (another companion) waiting for him at the bottom of ladders or stairs on occasion while Graham and the Doctor were far in front. This also shows that he is somewhat slower than the rest of the team.

However, apart from a few tiny seconds here and there, he doesn’t seem to have much of an issue.

Season 11, episode 2 shows him to be absolutely fine when he runs out of a hiding spot to shoot the enemy… something the doctor asked him not to do. Not because of his disability, but guns are bad. More on that at the end of this post.

He does it anyway. He runs out, absolutely fine, realises his mistake and runs in, absolutely fine. Of course I don’t expect anything major to happen to him. I just feel that something should reinforce the challenges he has to overcome.

It was the second episode, and nowadays, audiences attention span is short. In the space of a week, the audience could have forgot he had dyspraxia.

Yes, I know disabilities have a spectrum, but as the previous episode (which built a strong character) displayed him as slower than most people, I find it hard to believe he can outrun armed beings.

The challenges remain no matter how hard we try to overcome them. No matter what I do, I’ll always struggle with shoelaces, and cooking, so I have adaptions. Just a hint of adaptions would make me feel that the show really embraced his disability.

I decided to give it a benefit of the doubt. There are good days with disability, maybe this was one of them. But there was nothing.

What is the point of his disability?

For me, personally, it seems his disability only comes to play when it has a part, and forgotten in its entirety when it is no longer useful. Aside from a few comments, struggles with ladders and a reminder on series 11, episode 7 that his disability exists.

It takes me a while to learn things physically

Ryan – Series 11, episode 7

This was actually a good reminder, one hidden in the episode without forcing a challenge that didn’t need to be there. There’s nothing worse than forcing something.

But, still, we were in seven episodes, and aside from his challenge with bikes and the occasional mishap on stairs or running, there was nothing to show his disability.

Disabled people are quiet often creative with solutions and challenges, so I often expected Ryan to find creative solutions, even make his own adaptions (which I and others have done).

I hoped I’d see small things that reminded me he had a disability… ways of coping that able-bodied people would think upon… but I saw nothing.

But, there also seems to be lack of challenges for his dyspraxia. Or at least a lack of challenges shown.

I don’t know, I just wasn’t impressed by series 11 when it came to disability… except one episode.

It takes you away (Episode 9, Series 11)

Just like the first episode, episode 9 was great. I feel that it may have something to do with the disability being part of the core to this plot.

It explores the abandonment felt by a visually impaired young woman. Although her father didn’t abandon her because of her disability. Something tempted him into an alternate reality where his partner (her mother) was still alive.

Graham almost felt tempted too, but it was his love for Ryan and knowing that Ryan needed him that made him strong enough to refuse and see through the illusion.

While disability featured strongly here, I felt that the story was about grief and the strength to keep living after the loss of a loved one. Hanne’s father lost his way, as many do when they grieve, while Graham knew he had to go on, not just for Ryan but because that is what Grace would have wanted.

Here, I felt that Ryan’s disability had started to be established, not because of Graham, but because of how he could relate to Hanne, the visually impaired woman. Additionally, Hanne has adaptions so that she could find her way around her home, from ropes outside, to the furniture inside.

Like Ryan, Hanne’s disability doesn’t stop her from doing the things that she wants to do, but it is more obvious than Ryan’s. Harder to forget. And while there are definitely many invisible and unseen disabilities that shouldn’t be forgotten, I think it makes it easy for both audience and writer to forget Ryan is disabled.

I think this could easily be avoided by adding hidden comments like the one in episode 7, or by adding adaptions that he has made to cope with little things, like pegging a duvet to make a bed.

A series later – episodes 1-2, Skyfall.

The first scene that features Ryan in Season 12 shows him playing basketball. The lad who cannot run well and who struggles with co-ordination skills. Of course, he should be allowed to play, but aside from a nervous glance, there is nothing to suggest he is struggling. I’m sure many basketball players get nervous.

Moments later, when a player knocks the ball away, there is a comment that says the reason he never played was because of an illness. I think it was meant to show that he didn’t trust others to know he was dyspraxic, but again as Doctor Who is meant to be a show where you can join at any stage, I don’t think it comes across as Ryan not trusting others, unless the viewer remembered he was disabled.

Later on, undercover, he trips on a stairs, which could work to show his dyspraxia. I’m not sure if this one is negative or positive yet, but the thing that really annoyed me… AND if you don’t want spoilers, turn away now… is that he OUTRAN the Master to get on a plane.

Not only does he OUTRUN the Master, but EVERYONE else except the doctor. May I remind you that Yaz is a police officer, running is part of her job. I mean ok, maybe he could outrun Graham, but Yaz, really?

And then he jumps on a plane when Yaz struggles! He jumps on a plane as it prepares to take off…

And with that, I leave you to ponder Ryan’s disability.

More on Doctor Who

There are more issues with Doctor Who Series 11 onwards than I can cover in one blog post. But a friend of mine, Lizzie, has made a video on these last two Doctor Who series and how Chibnall has no sense of character or how to deal with political issues in this loved TV series that has been running (on and off) since 1964 in just the space of two episodes.

From its take on racism, to the use of guns.

So please, go and check it out!

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3 responses to “Bearing Disability —Dr Who: Ryan’s Vanishing Disability”

  1. This was a very interesting read – I think this is why many want actors and actresses who are disabled to get a chance at doing such a role, rather than having someone not with the disability who then have to pretend they have it. I am thinking really hard to try and remember where it has been done well in the past in film or television, and perhaps with the exception of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man – and I say that with generosity I think – I am unsure if it has ever been done.
    That being said, maybe it’s just me who hasn’t watched any good content?

    • Not just you – I can only think of Nemo (1&2), Hunchback of Notre dame and that’s only Disney and animation

      Greatest showman is amazing if you see the circus crew as disabled too

      But other than that, only good ones are bio pics like elephant man and my left foot

  2. I don’t understand why they don’t have really disabled people when doing these as how one minute he’s got a disability then be able to run and over take people without a disability it doesn’t make sense BBC

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