My Kitchen Rules: Does reality TV do a better job of depicting people with disability?


Carly Findlay

Sheri and Emilie on MKR.

Sheri and Emilie on MKR.

Like most reality TV addicts of Australia, I'll be tuning in to the new season of 'My Kitchen Rules' tonight – for the cooking, the snark, and perhaps most of all for Emilie -- a Queensland contestant with a disability.

Emilie has been deaf since birth. She says she has no hearing in her left ear and wears a hearing aid in her right. She is candid about her deafness on the show's preview, laughing at the way punters talk to her and the way some people bizarrely dumb down their language.

On her disability, her sister Sheri jokes that her only concern is that Emilie's critique of other contestant's food won't be anything near discreet:


'On the show, when they're whispering to each other, I don't think I'll be able to do that because Emilie's going to be like, (shouts) 'It tastes like s--t Sheri.'"  

I am excited that Emilie's place on the show will help raise awareness and break down stereotypes and misconceptions about disability, and viewers will be able to get to know Emilie's personality and skills. I am hoping that viewers will take what they've learnt about disability on reality TV into the community.

Indeed, Emilie is not the first reality TV contestant with a disability.  From X Factor Australia's Emmanuel Kelly to MasterChef Australia's John in 2011, my friends who are reality TV devotees recently provided me with an extensive list of Australian and international contestants with disabilities.

Could it be that there is a greater representation of disability in reality TV than on scripted TV shows, news and entertainment broadcasting?

Emma Ashton, editor of popular blog Reality Ravings, seems to think so. "Reality TV has always been at the forefront in showcasing diversity in their shows then drama, and this includes casting of people with disabilities", she says.  

"It should also be noted that because of diverse casting on reality shows and seeing the viewing public embrace this has filtered across to casting of scripted shows. 

"Even though it would be great to see Australian reality TV producers cast more people with a disability, they are streets ahead of their fictional colleagues", says Ashton.

That said, it's important to pay attention to the framing of the story – where the shows feature pity narratives encouraging viewers to feel sorry for disabled contestants. And we should call these out.  Ashton also warns of stunt casting – where contestants are cast for rating's sake.

 "There were criticisms about a UK show Britain's Missing Top Model, a reality show where each model had a disability", says Ashton. Some people said it was making a "spectacle" of people with a disability. However once it screened this criticism died down."

Contestants with a disability may also face cynicism and ridicule from judges, as revealed by former Australian Idol judge Ian "Dicko" Dickson on ABC2's Story Club  recently. Dickson, known for ridiculing many contestants on the show, revealed that he was not sure how to react to Quentin Kenihan's appearance on Australian Idol in 2003. "What did the reality TV arsehole manual say about dealing with a metre high contestant in a wheelchair?" asked Dickson.

There is also an additional platform for contestants to endure ridicule from. Viewers watch TV and simultaneously discuss it on social media. The comments can be vile – with viewers not shy in dishing out personal attacks on the contestants. But there is the equal potential for the second screen to enable viewers to comment beyond the disability narrative, and call out pity stories and personal attacks from other viewers.

The potential for ridicule from judges, fellow contestants and viewers is one reason Parkinson's disease patient and activist Alicia Friday Wright  won't audition for reality TV. "I will never do reality TV no matter how much exposure it will give to Parkinson's or disabilities," says Wright .

"They will never tell the story my way, with the respect and dignity it deserves. It will just be sensationalised and there's no educational value in that."

Disability activist Jax Jacki Brown believes it's important that reality TV producers focus on more than just the contestants' disabilities. "Diversity representation in all its forms in the media is really important because it people to see experiences outside their own and for stereotypical views people may hold to be challenged", says Brown.

"This is true of people with disability were often when we see disability in the media it is depicted in particular ways: as a tragedy, or as brave, courageous or inspirational, when really, like anyone our lives are much more complex than that."

My Kitchen Rules airs on Channel 7 from 2 February.

Notable reality TV contestants with a disability:

  • Emmanuel Kelly from X Factor Australia 2011 was born without hands or feet.
  • John from MasterChef Australia in 2011 has cerebral palsy (he told me in a previous interview that he wanted to be treated like every other contestant
  • Katrina Chambers from The Block Australia 2011 has Crohn's disease.
  • Rachael Leahcar from The Voice Australia 2012 is blind.
  • Gemma KingHorn from Big Brother Australia 2014 has Marfan's syndrome – a condition affecting her height.
  • Sam Brahman from Big Brother Australia 2014 was born missing part of his leg.
  • Charla Baklayan Faddoul from The Amazing Race USA was born with achondroplasia.
  • Christine Ha from MasterChef USA 2012 is blind. She won season three and is now a restauranteur.
  • Andrea Begley won The Voice UK in 2013 - she is partially sighted as a result of glaucoma.
  • Sarah Herron from The Bachelor USA 2014 was born with one arm.