Doctor Who's disability representation proves why small moments matter
Ruth Madeley made her on-screen Doctor Who debut as Shirley Anne Bingham.
Doctor Who fans worldwide are being charmed by the highly anticipated 60th anniversary specials. However, one character has sparked excitement and intrigue among disabled viewers: Shirley Anne Bingham, played by Ruth Madeley.
This more nuanced portrayal of a wheelchair user in Doctor Who is an extraordinary step forward for representation in the beloved series — but amid the fantastical, fairytale things, there can still be hard realities.
Ruth Madeley’s work has never been about perfection, but complex, hard-fought realities, and the same can be said of Russell T Davies. Both can get to the personal, up-close, staring-you-right-in-the-face experience through their writing and performances. They possess a unique ability to bring audiences close, allowing them to leave a lasting impact.
In these seconds on screen, we see the full power of disability representation. Often, the small, up-close moments have the most unforeseen consequences. Upon close inspection, a subtle, perhaps unconsciously done detail becomes apparent in a scene: Ruth Madeley’s character crosses her legs.
This seemingly insignificant moment holds profound meaning for disabled people as it was picked apart across social media by non-disabled people. We understand all too well the scrutiny and misunderstanding we often face regarding our own bodies.
As a wheelchair user, I have endured so much: uncomfortable gazes from men on buses, questions about why my leg is “bent” or “warped,” and unsolicited comments about my muscular legs not appearing “disabled enough” not to work. One of the earliest questions I ever asked a stranger was, “Why are you looking at my legs like that?”, instinctively adjusting protectively.
So, the abundance of social media reactions about a wheelchair user in Doctor Who crossing her legs on screen, frequently mistakenly assumed to be a continuity error, was unsurprising. Non-disabled people know nothing of what it’s like to live in and around our wheelchairs through various stages and moments in life and health.
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This is still our burden, having to be explicit and clear on social media and everyday interactions. Knowing that this is a conversation that we very much need to be in control of — we need to be able to have these moments and question non-disabled ignorance — and get through it.
That is the core of good disability representation, even if it’s unconsciously done: the chance to acknowledge that ordinary disabled people still have these hard conversations and live in these moments.
Amid these fantastical fairytale things, there can still be small moments, small details that speak to an everyday truth — eliciting knowing nods from a disabled audience.
As Shirley asserts: “Don’t make me the problem, just get in there” when faced with a staircase that UNIT officers need to climb. This line serves as a knowing nod to the social model of disability, reminding viewers that people are disabled by barriers in society, not their impairments or differences.
But imagine disabled children getting to be Shirley.
Getting to play make-believe — to be the scientist, the leader. Getting to dress up or replicate and imitate that image, getting an earlier understanding that our society is built on half-truths and incomplete histories.
As a child, Doctor Who offered an escape, a reprieve from my “othered” existence, from the growing pains of existing in a disabled body, a place to rest my tattered mind. From the first “Fantastic!” we had each other with matching northern accents. We each wore muted clothing and a black leather jacket for a time.
I can’t imagine not pushing parts of myself down to relate to a character or escaping into other worlds without compromising my identity.
But, from the UNIT-branded wheelchair to including weapons as wheelchair accessories and the casual, calm confidence of “I don’t just fire darts, mate”, the show now embraces diversity in a way that will continue to resonate with disabled viewers for generations, and the disabled community will now go into inaccessible places and proudly proclaim, “Even the TARDIS is accessible now”.
Ultimately, it’s not just about the accessibility of the TARDIS or the ongoing conversations with those who aren’t disabled. It’s about this new generation of disabled children finally seeing themselves represented in Doctor Who. During frightening points, they will still experience the familiar jitters of monsters hiding under their beds or behind the couch, clutching at a cushion. They will have “their” Doctor, “their” companion, and “their” era.
One day, they will fondly recall that chilling moment when a Russell T Davies villain gave them nightmares. However, amid all the heartwarming nostalgia, they will also find comfort in knowing that disabled characters exist within the expansive Doctor Who universe, woven in whatever incredible guises they may take now or in the future. Action figures will bear their likeness and be beaten down in over-enthusiastic child’s play; drawings will proudly adorn fridges with the help of multicoloured magnets, and homemade or shop-bought Halloween costumes will be worn.
The inclusion of a nuanced portrayal of a wheelchair user in Doctor Who’s 60th-anniversary specials is a positive step towards greater disability representation — but it’s also a reminder that even amidst the fantastical, fairytale somethings, we can still experience the harshest of our realities.
Doctor Who continues Saturday 2nd December at 6:30pm on BBC One. Previous episodes are available on BBC iPlayer and on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.