Note: there are some mild character spoilers, but I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum; no plot details or details on any other character!
As a lifelong Doctor Who fan, I’d been waiting for this season and the new female Doctor with baited breath. Unlike a lot of naysayers, I had high hopes and one episode in I’m already thrilled. However, Jodie’s performance and all the other new and exciting things aside, I feel a special connection to a certain non-Doctor character. In his introduction, the 19-year-old Ryan mentions that he can’t ride a bike and says it’s because of a condition the listener already know about. We, the audience, don’t know what condition but my immediate reaction was ‘imagine if it was dyspraxia!’. I myself can’t ride a bike, so it was a very relatable confession, and my cause is dyspraxia.
Later another character confirms it as such, and I almost yelled at the television! Dyspraxia, also known as Developmental Co-Ordination Disorder, is a condition that affects physical and mental co-ordination. The most obvious symptoms are the issues with ‘gross motor skills’ and ‘fine motor skills’, which as basically larger body movement and smaller precise movements – balance, hand-eye co-ordination and things like posture or gracefulness. It can even effect speech, planning and your internal sense of time.
There are a lot of symptoms and issues, and they vary from person to person. Symptoms, separated into groups, are listed on the Dyspraxia Foundation’s Adults page [http://dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/dyspraxia-adults/]. People with dyspraxia don’t all have exactly the same issues to exactly the same extent, but it’s a very good resource for understanding dyspraxia in yourself or others. The large movement issues are the clearest and easiest to show, which is why the bike riding and ladder climbing were a good choice for his introduction.
The struggle of bike riding is a common one and a strong visual to introduce him. His feeling of failure and determination to succeed in this task spoke to me, and inspired me to try harder in my own bike riding. Another character’s outburst about his capability also feels familiar; whether the criticism from other people or my own feelings of inadequacy, dyspraxia is an invisible disability and the idea that you’re lazy and useless does come up. For me, as I don’t have an official diagnosis, the idea that it’s an excuse does feel like a familiar insult.
While I don’t have a diagnosis, I am part of a few forums and Facebook groups for adults with dyspraxia where many members do. While there were some that didn’t like his character, no group is a hivemind and the general consensus was positive. His most obvious problem is my own most telling issue, and others felt various levels of connection to it – some felt it a bit stereotypical. Others felt his mountain edge seat was unrealistic enough to break their belief, as they would be too afraid of getting so close to the edge.
Everyone I’ve spoken to agrees on one thing, though, and that’s that having a character with dyspraxia is fantastic representation! Being an ‘invisible’ disability and not a particularly well-known condition, telling someone that you have dyspraxia almost always needs an explanation of what it is afterwards. Ryan is potentially the first ever character with dyspraxia in main stream fiction; I can’t think of a single dyspraxic character and Google searching only brings up a handful of lesser known book that seem to be about dyspraxia. Being able to say “like Ryan in Doctor Who” can take the explanation of your condition from a long conversation to a single sentence.
However, representation by itself isn’t the be-all and end-all. If, as the rest of the series continues, their representation of Ryan and his dyspraxia doesn’t go beyond balance or is portrayed only as a problem, that would have negative effects for dyspraxic people everywhere. Being the first mainstream character with dyspraxia is a big responsibility for positive and helpful representation. There are nine more episodes of this series, and I’ll wait and watch on the edge of my seat to see how it unfolds.
One concern brought up in a dyspraxia group was whether the actor or writer are, themselves, dyspraxic. So far, it doesn’t appear that the actor who plays Ryan, Tosin Cole, has dyspraxia or any related condition. The new writer, Chris Chibnall, said in an interview that his decision to have a dyspraxic character was influenced by his nephew with dyspraxia. With non-dyspraxic people writing and portraying him, there is a risk that this will be an unrealistic, outside view of dyspraxia. One episode in seems good to me, though, so it seems a good amount of research has been done.
Having a dyspraxic actor play Ryan would be fantastic, but it isn’t a visible condition so it isn’t necessarily mandatory. How many actors with dyspraxia there are isn’t easy information to find, and Doctor Who may not have had anyone dyspraxic audition. Dyspraxic actors and dyspraxic roles are not as urgent or vital an issue as – for example – white washing, able bodied actors playing characters in wheelchairs, or transgender women being portrayed by cisgender men.
One actor who does have dyspraxia but would be wholly inappropriate for the role is now twenty-nine-year-old white Daniel Radcliffe! Celebrities with dyspraxia are few and far between, with the only other one I’m aware of being singer Florence Welch. Having a fictional character to add to this sparse group to look to makes a huge difference. The social media conversations about dyspraxia this will spark could also bring more famous person to mention their own experiences and diagnoses!
Doctor Who has always been a show with aspirational characters, and the big character for this in the new season is the female Doctor, letting girls have their chance to want to be her. Plenty of girls and feminist groups have been talking about their excitement since Jodie Whittaker was announced. Her appearance is also accompanied by a mostly non-white companion team, what appear to be other genuinely strong female characters and this character with an invisible disability. Some great characters for plenty of people to look up to! As well as another great series of aliens and adventures, the Thirteenth Doctor could bring some fantastic representation and conversation starters all round!