How ‘Doctor Who’ Does Its Best At Representing Dyspraxia, And Mostly Succeeds

'Doctor Who' shines in a media landscape where ideas that disabled lives are tragic or burdens are still prevalent.

Doctor Who Ryan

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Over the last few years of Doctor Who, there has been a notable push towards diversity within the main cast.

Within the latest batch of the Doctor’s companions, the show breaks a new frontier: one of the characters, Ryan, has dyspraxia, a condition characterised by traits like difficulty with fine motor skills, fatigue, issues processing sensory stimulation, which lead to struggles maintaining employment and advancing through study.

I know these symptoms well, because I’m a moderate-to-severe dyspraxic, diagnosed early because I had the luck of my mother having a family friend, who worked as a specialist in learning disorders.

This is rare: unlike many dyspraxics, I had a name for my condition, and because of it, the opportunity to pick up the skills and work-arounds comparatively early.

I’ve met dyspraxics diagnosed in adulthood, and a common refrain I hear is the wish that they’d known earlier, that they’d had an explanation for their constant clumsiness and difficulty doing everyday tasks. It is partly due to them that I am so pleased that a major TV show has a leading character with the condition.

For a show that’s taking on the task of being the first widely known depiction of this obscure condition, Doctor Who has done a great job.

“He Gets Cross Because He Can’t Ride It”

We discover Ryan has dyspraxia in the first episode of Series 11, first mentioned on his YouTube channel:

“I’m nineteen, and because of the thing I told you before I can’t yet ride a bike.”

Early in the episode, we see Ryan trying, and failing, to ride the bike, which eventually leads to his discovery of an alien artefact. When Ryan has to explain that he is learning to ride his bike, his grandmother and guardian Grace explains, “He’s got dyspraxia. It’s a co-ordination disorder.”

Her partner also contextualises his throwing of the bike by noting, “He gets cross because he can’t ride it.”

While it’s an off-hand remark, it’s an indication at the rare complexity with which the episode treats the condition — as it’s a factor in Ryan’s lack of confidence, which develops through the season.

Ryan isn’t defined entirely by dyspraxia but it’s an important aspect of his character.

Ryan’s frustration with his disability rings true. Dyspraxia and other motor disorders associated with a range of mental health issues such as higher rates of mental illness, as reported by the Dyspraxia Foundation. While there’s nothing inherent about dyspraxia that causes the stresses associated with it, awareness and the treatment that might follow could result in an alleviation of these problems.

Interesting And Frustrating And Difficult

I’m generally sceptical about discussions which talk about representation of particular identities as the be-all and end-all of social justice — like homophobia and racism will be switched off overnight should those affected by inequality get their fair amount of screen time.

Despite this, I’ll admit to a thrill when I heard the condition named aloud. General knowledge of what the term actually means would be a great improvement.

The Google Trends on the subject shows a huge spike in searches of ‘dyspraxia,’ which is deeply encouraging. The mental image of a concerned parent with a kid who can’t tie their shoes at the age of ten searching  the term is a powerful one.

However, the show occasionally struggles to handle the disability in an effective way, to the point Ryan, when it comes up, seems about to turn to the camera to deliver a quick PSA on the nature of dyspraxia.

The pool of disability narratives from which to draw on are often fairly limited and condescending — disability in science fiction is often presented as a plot device used to show the wonders of technology, or as a tragedy to be compensated for with superpowers.

There’s Jake Sully, protagonist of Avatar, who is a paraplegic — but all’s well, because he is allowed to transport his mind into that of a seven-foot-tall blue cat person. Or, in X-Men, it’s okay that Professor X is a cripple: he can read minds.

Narratives that involve compensation or miracle cures are designed for an abled population, who don’t know how to think about disabled people now we’re no longer locked out of sight or pressured to hide all signs of abnormality.

The ‘just-happens-to-be-disabled’ approach of Doctor Who is used sometimes to show the frustrating dead-ends that sit alongside the little wins, like in ‘Kerblam!’, the episode where the Doctor and her companions infiltrate a thinly veiled parody of Amazon, where it’s revealed that Ryan managed to get good at packing boxes at his job — but only after being terrible at it for weeks.

This is an example of where research has paid off, in that it’s accurate that with dyspraxia, a lot of things come under the category of things that someone ‘can do, but take more time learning than is normal.’

The short scene is a touch forced, as Ryan is talking to a stranger and also being surveilled, but it also allows for a beautiful summation of the condition: “I have a co-ordination problem. Not super serious, but you know, it makes life really interesting. And frustrating. And difficult. Especially at moments like this.”

Despite the slight awkwardness of the scene, it does serve to show how Ryan’s characterisation is partially informed by his disability, in a way that’s logical and individual.

Not Bad For A Kid With Dyspraxia

Ryan’s disability –in a roundabout way — fits into the show’s history of creating beloved and deep companions.

Doctor Who often has the companion’s background details coming to the fore and having a real impact on the plot: Season Four’s Donna’s office worker/ admin history allows her to spot a vital clue in a sinister organisation’s records, in Season Five Rory’s medical skills let him assess the victim of a space-vampire, and now Ryan’s dyspraxia adds tension to a scene wherein he has to climb a crane.

It’s also used to book-end the first episode: at the start, Ryan stumbles upon an alien artefact after trying to ride his bike — difficulty doing so in childhood is one of the classic anecdotes of dyspraxics — and throwing it down a hill in frustration.

At the end of the episode, he is seen still trying to ride his bike, and still failing at it. Bleak as it might come across, it raises an important point often overlooked in the inspirational narratives about disability: sometimes, you just can’t win.

Disability presented as something that can always be overcome through enough effort and positivity is insulting, because it suggests that those who can’t ride the bike / maintain the income / finish the exam just aren’t trying hard enough.

Yes, it’s important to note that you can win sometimes, without the right amount of support, but success is never as simple as inspirational stories about disabled people who beat the odds suggest.

Disability Narratives Are Becoming More Common

Good representation of dyspraxia in Doctor Who has come from a growing cultural awareness of the disorder, and a general realisation of disabled lives as complex and individual.

Doctor Who particularly shines in a media landscape where, while disability narratives are becoming more common, ideas that disabled lives are tragic or burdens on the abled are still prevalent.

For instance, protests were launched against screenings of Me Before You, the 2016 love story where the paralysed protagonist accepts assisted suicide, so his love can live unencumbered.

It is interesting to consider the possibilities of Ryan’s disability being explored further. The practical realities of journeying across space and time and the difficulties of navigating them could be used as opportunities for exploring the nuances of Ryan’s character, rather than hopefully not be hand-waved or forgotten.

At the moment, the show’s representation has done a great thing for awareness, but the show seems timid about organically involving this facet of Ryan’s character into storylines.

In the latest episode, a New Year’s special, Ryan saves the day and quips, “Not bad for a kid with dyspraxia,” like the writers figured it had been a while since the audience was reminded and a name-drop was due.

While it’s said ironically, it also works to sum up Ryan as an example of disability representation.

Let’s hope in 2020, when the show returns, Doctor Who builds on its unique achievement and continues to build understanding, support, and empathy.

Cameron Colwell is a writer of stories and criticism. He tweets at @CEColwell1.