Nuanced explorations of disability on our TV screens are still rare enough that it feels like each one should be celebrated.

So we were pleased to see last Sunday’s episode of BBC 1’s Call the Midwife explored disability discrimination in the 1950s through reactions to the relationship between Jacob Milligan, who has cerebral palsy, and Sally Harper, who has Down’s syndrome.

In the show, Jacob and Sally live in a hospital for disabled people, which was common at the time as disabled people – particularly those with learning disabilities – were considered to be unable to do much or make decisions about their lives.  Sally’s pregnancy is greeted with disbelief by the midwives and horror by her parents and the staff at St Gideon’s institution who assume that she was abused.  When it becomes clear that Jacob is the father of Sally’s baby, the couple are immediately separated, much to the distress of both.


The episode not only shows a side of disability history which is often forgotten, but highlights how far Britain has come in the way disabled people are treated and how far there still is to go.  Fifty years on, long stay hospitals are a thing of the past and disabled people are supported to live within their communities and enjoy the same independence and freedom as anyone else.  While much has changed in the way that disabled people are treated, some prejudices about relationships still need to be challenged and the overwhelming response to Sunday’s episode suggests that this may have already begun.

As shown by our recent Campaigns Panel report, ‘Superhumans or Scroungers’ report, the way that disabled people are portrayed in public life tends to be polarised as one of two extremes – either as superhuman Paralympian athletes or as benefit scroungers.  Both the 2012 Paralympics and next month’s Winter Paralympics showcased the amazing achievements of hundreds of disabled athletes and began to change perceptions of what disabled people can do.  However, at the same time as people’s achievements were being highlighted, the debate about welfare reform raged on, often leading to disabled people being portrayed as workshy or undeserving of support.  For most people, the reality lies somewhere in between.  As Shairaz, one of our Campaigns Panel members said: “we shouldn’t only be portrayed when we do something amazing or something bad.  We should also be portrayed when we are doing ordinary things.”


What could be more ordinary than being in a relationship and falling in love?  While opportunities for disabled people have changed dramatically since the 1950s, attitudes towards relationships have taken longer to shift.  Colin Young, the actor who played Jacob said that “to see disabled people in a relationship isn’t the taboo it used to be.  But it’s still difficult for disabled people to date.  Inaccessible venues, pressures to conform to stereotypes, and people’s attitudes all make dating challenging.”  Relationships were a recurring theme in Postcards from the Edges, as demonstrated by Eric’s heart-warming postcard about being a great boyfriend.  When talking about his relationship, Eric said: “some people don’t think we should be serious, but we are! Being together makes us feel wanted and valued. It’s good to have someone else to care about and to care about you.”


Sunday’s episode of Call the Midwife was a poignant exploration of how much life has changed for ordinary disabled people over the last fifty years, but also reminded us of some of the attitudes and barriers that still endure.  Over the coming months, United Response will be working with our Campaigns Panel members to explore these issues and help challenge some of these remaining prejudices. Perhaps you’d like to get creative, in which case our Postcards from the Edges website provides a great platform for you to express yourself. We think this is a conversation that is long overdue, and would like as many people as possible to speak out.


Rachel Bowen, campaigns officer.