Disability, mother blame and The Archers

Some of us, even avid fans of The Archers, have long lamented the inconsistent attitude towards disability in this phenomenally long-running radio drama. Set in the fictional village of Ambridge in the similarly fictional rural county of Borsetshire, the few disabled characters tend to appear fleetingly, a mere blip on The Archers timeline, which stretches over several decades.

This includes the character of Bethany, a child with Down’s Syndrome born a few years back, conveniently shifted to Birmingham when she reached school-age, thus depriving listeners with disabled children of the chance to hear their endless battles over education explored – and so validated – on air. Disability has also been associated with evil, as we heard in the character of Rob, a manipulative and abusive man, mocked by villagers when he became ill. This included almost knocking him to the ground as he hobbled away from an argument with the support of a walking stick. His illness was seen as a just manifestation of his evil nature, and so it was fair game to attack him.

‘Evil’ Rob

More recently, we have the harrowing storyline of Alice, who is an alcoholic. As befits this usually gentle radio soap, the issue is covered in a frank and informed way, made all the more alarming by the fact that when Alice discovers she is pregnant, she is unable to stop drinking. Her husband Chris, on learning of Alice’s alcoholism and the extent of her deception about her dependency, helps her to enter a support programme. But even then, Alice can only reduce her drinking gradually.

At the time of writing, Alice has given birth, unexpectedly six weeks early. Although baby Martha appears to be doing well, questions revolve around whether she will have been damaged in some way by her mother’s unhealthy pregnancy. Chris is torn between his strong love for his daughter and his fear that she might have a learning disability, for example. He constantly uses the word “perfect” to describe little Martha, thus raising the question that she might not be “perfect”. Alice meanwhile, is wracked with guilt that she might have hurt Martha through her drinking. Chris loves Alice deeply and understands that alcoholism is an illness, but he is conflicted over the impact it might have had on the baby.

Chris and Alice in happier times

One issue that has always dogged mothers of disabled children is that they are considered somehow to blame for their child’s disability. It is rife in certain cultures, and not exactly absent in the UK. This includes the idea that emotionally distant mothers – “refrigerator mothers” – cause autism in their offspring, or that giving birth to a disabled child is somehow punishment for wrong-doing.

The difficulty with Alice’s storyline is that disability is inextricably intertwined with mother blame. To explore alcoholism through pregnancy means that one cannot be separated from the other. If baby Martha has a learning disability and so is deemed not to be “perfect”, it will be Alice’s fault. Surely it must have been possible to develop an alcoholism storyline without opening the door to this unhelpful narrative of disability and flawed mothers. As a parent of an autistic child, I have experienced this directly: “I’m not surprised you have an autistic child” some relative stranger once threw at me, by way of an insult.

It is bad enough that the young female characters in The Archers must always be defined in relation to their status as mothers, let alone that the idea of having a disabled child is considered beyond the pale. I don’t know how things will pan out for baby Martha, but I suspect that her parents will love her regardless of any disabilities she might have. I look forward to the day when The Archers has a character who also happens to be disabled, rather than this being a dramatic or temporary device. A disabled character that stays as long as the matriarchal Peggy, in the soap for over sixty years, who, on learning that Bethany had been born with Down’s Syndrome, refused to look at her in her pram.

Read a book chapter by Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole and myself in which we explore attitudes towards disability in The Archers:

Runswick-Cole, K. and Wood, R. (2017) ‘Bag of the Devil: The Disablement of Rob Titchener.’ In Courage, C. and Headlam, N. (eds), Custard, Culverts and Cakes: Academics on Life in The Archers, Bingley: Emerald Publishing.