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Shirley Anne Bingham: Why Having an Ambulatory Wheelchair User in Doctor Who Was So Important for The Disabled Community by Hannah

The 60th anniversary specials of Doctor Who brought us a new character, Shirley Anne Bingham, played by disabled actress Ruth Madeley. Shirley is an ambulatory wheelchair user, and as an ambulatory wheelchair user myself, Shirley’s character made me feel seen. It is not often wheelchair users are well represented on TV, and it is even less often that an ambulatory wheelchair user is represented well. The choice to include an ambulatory wheelchair user in a major show like Doctor Who is likely to have helped challenge the widely held misconception that all wheelchair users are completely unable to stand and walk. Doctor Who being both a mainstream show and a family show means that it can also help educate the next generation to realise that not all wheelchair users are unable to stand or walk and that disability isn’t inherently bad.  

But more than that, it filled me with disabled joy and pride. It demonstrated that being disabled doesn’t mean you can’t be badass. The weaponised wheelchair was a fantastic touch! We saw her as a strong independent woman. Not someone who needed to be pitied or cured but someone who was capable and successful in her career. It was refreshing and exciting. It’s fair to say I jumped straight to social media to share my joy, and many of the people I follow did the same, excited about the representation. Excited about being seen. There is something so special about that feeling. About being from a marginalised community and seeing a character from that community being portrayed well. It’s a feeling I can’t quite explain due to the magnitude of joy. It is a feeling I don’t get often, unless I actively seek out media with good disability representation. However, I didn’t actively seek this. I have been watching Doctor Who on and off since Tennant’s first run as the doctor, and that made the representation feel even more special. 

It allows aspiring disabled actors to see that there is a place for them in the TV industry. And not only that, it shows them that there is a place for them that doesn’t require them to play a villain or someone who is pitied. It’s an encouragement to persist in an industry full of challenges because opportunities are opening up as the commitment to representation and diversity grows.

Good disability representation is possible, and this was a hugely positive step. Which we hope will pave the way for more opportunities for disabled actors and more positive representation for disabled people to enjoy in the future.

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