Soap fans reflect on how well storylines reflected their disabilities

A specific scene in Neighbours will remain forever etched in Jane’s memory.

It was a scene in the soap Neighbours in which Susan Kennedy’s character was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007.

‘I think Susan’s initial diagnosis resonated with me the most. It’s odd to describe, almost a surreal out of body experience,’ she reflects when chatting to

‘I heard the words but didn’t take them in for some time.’

Until she was hospitalised for tests, Jane Hawkes, 45, was unwell but, ultimately, felt it was ‘something and nothing.’

The scene echoes the abrupt nature of Jane’s diagnosis, as she explains. ‘I was 25-years-old, on the airline crew, and it was a life-changing diagnosis which firmly nipped my flying days in the bud.’

Like Susan, Jane has experienced several relapses and Optic Neuritis, which affects the eye and vision. Yet, she is grateful for the blunt, honest examination of life with a disability or chronic illness.

‘I wouldn’t say MS defines me, but it has always been me and my shadow since diagnosis.’

Stories like Jane’s illustrate a simple truth: authentic, true-to-life representation matters.

Soaps are known for tackling challenging subjects. Over the years, shows such as Emmerdale, EastEnders, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Neighbours have aired several groundbreaking storylines – but there hasn’t been as much focus on telling stories around disability and chronic illness as accurately or as personally until recently.

As Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the University of Sheffield notes: ‘Soaps are significant cultural spaces for our understanding of disability, illness and health.

‘So often, illness and the impairment that comes with a disability can be isolating experiences, so it’s helpful to see representations of these experiences in the mainstream to help people better understand their own lived realities of what it can mean to be ill. Unwell or disabled.’

For these reasons, a particular episode of Eastenders remains with Evie, 37.

It was told from Ben Mitchell’s perspective: it featured distorted and reduced sound, limited subtitles, and camera angles, which highlighted the disorientation experienced by those with hearing loss and the potentially isolating nature of the condition.

Ben was left partially deaf in one ear when he contracted meningitis in childhood, and it worsened after he was involved in a boat accident.

Evie recalls the viewer feedback across social media: the hearing viewers who found it challenging to follow and struggled with the ‘inconsistency’ in sound—labelling it ‘irritating’ and ‘annoying.’

It was effective. It communicated a little of the indescribable: the complex reality of navigating the world with hearing loss.

Evie has progressive, acquired bilateral hearing loss. Her hearing is fading in both ears. The deterioration has sped up considerably over the last few years.

‘I’ve been clinging to my place in the hearing world like my life depended on it.’

Until she watched the episode.

‘Without my hearing aids, my hearing level isn’t far off what the audience witnessed of Ben’s hearing during the point of view episode.’

She tells us that it gave her the ability to point to something tangible, to create a bridge fleetingly with the hearing world.

She is frustrated that, ultimately, the writers chose to then minimise his deafness ass he simply switched on a cochlear implant, which uses electrical stimulation to deliver sound, it seemed to no longer be an issue for Ben.

‘Deafness is not a storyline, it’s not cured, it doesn’t go in and out of focus – it’s part of who we are,’ Evie went on.

As Dr Liddiard adds, soaps can also get it wrong, and such storylines can be reductive and perpetuate old, false ideas about different conditions. We must acknowledge it and expect better.

However, she told us: ‘It’s well known that soaps are really improving on storytelling around illness and disability. That is primarily due to proper research and engagement with charities, disabled people’s organisations and, most importantly, those with lived experience themselves.’

For Victoria Massey, 37, the moment that personally resonated occurred when James Moore won the award for Best Newcomer at the 2019 NTAs for playing Ryan Stocks.

‘When he won the TV award. I was so happy. Not only was cerebral palsy represented on a soap, but it was being recognised and celebrated – it was also helpful to see representations of daily experiences.’

It demonstrated that disability is an essential part of a person’s identity, but it does not consume the rest. Moreover, it reinforced a simple and powerful truth: disabled people in the media shouldn’t be one-dimensional creations or convenient, throwaway plot devices.

‘It was refreshing to see Ryan in Emmerdale as I felt like I was being represented on the TV for the first time,’ Victoria continued.

‘He walked like me, had a quirky sense of humour like me, but more importantly, it showed the nation that a disability shouldn’t define you.’

Soaps don’t always get it right, but they can offer disabled and chronically ill people reflections of themselves, reflections of the realities of their lives – little pieces of connection.

They can also provide other viewers with an understanding.

Writing a disabled or chronically ill character shouldn’t be about outlines and superficial ideas. Instead, it should accurately capture reality: the light and the shadow.

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