What that "Sex Education" disability story could learn from reality TV

Netflix's British comedy struggles to tell an authentic story for Isaac, who deserves better. Here's how to fix it

Published October 2, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

George Robinson as Isaac Goodwin in "Sex Education" (Samuel Taylor/Netflix)
George Robinson as Isaac Goodwin in "Sex Education" (Samuel Taylor/Netflix)

When "Sex Education" debuted nearly four years ago, the world was in a different place. For one, we hadn't an inkling of the imminent COVID pandemic, the U.S. was still under the tyrannical reign of He Who Must Not Be Named, and we hadn't yet been flashed by a locker room full of penises on HBO's gritty teen drama "Euphoria." In short, we were in desperate need of something to disrupt the straight, all-white, non-disabled, buttoned-up status quo. Cue the British teen comedy that did just that.

The trailblazing Netflix original, starring former child actor Asa Butterfield as Moordale Secondary's self-appointed sex therapist, Otis Milburn, impressively shattered our limited purview of decency and, more importantly, homogeneity on television. With its impressive racially and sexually inclusive cast of characters, the show dared to go where its predecessors had faltered. Across four seasons, Otis therapized his sexually ignorant queer, straight, Black and brown classmates on how to do it properly, safely and without kink-shaming. The inclusion only continued from there, making it clear that these characters weren't just afterthoughts but carefully considered forethoughts. 

This activist persona is a departure from the fully realized human Isaac as he had originally been written.

Then came its final season, which was released just this past month. Following the closure of Moordale Secondary in a triumphant finale, the fourth season opens with the student body newly relocated to the cushy Cavendish College. Where bee advocates, bike riders and LGBTQIA+ identifying persons all reign supreme, it's the kind of place that would like to think it's progressive and accommodating. Yet, somehow, it never has a properly functioning elevator. Several times, tetraplegic student Isaac (played by disabled actor George Ross Robinson) finds himself stranded in the broken lift, and each time, he's offhandedly reassured that an engineer has been called to fix it. Finally, to make his frustrations known, he sets off the building's fire alarm and blocks the staircase with chairs. "It's annoying, isn't it? Not being able to get where you need to go?" he yells at his panicked classmates before launching into an impassioned speech about the importance of listening to the needs of others.

In an instant, Isaac becomes the unofficial leading voice of the school's disabled population. "It's so much work," series newcomer Aisha (Alexandra James) chimes in, explaining the "draining" challenges she faces as a deaf student. "I wish people understood that our problems come from barriers in society, not from our disabilities," an unnamed wheelchair user adds. In a quick turn of events, the student body is called out for its performative activism in a way that, too, feels fairly . . . performative. 

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While the scene itself isn't all bad, it feels like it's written to explain disability issues to non-disabled people, which is to say, it doesn't feel authentic to the character but to a message. This activist persona is a departure from the fully realized human Isaac as he had originally been written. Initially introduced as the morally ambiguous neighbor of rebellious Maeve (Emma Mackey) in Season 2, Isaac served as a minor roadblock for Otis and Maeve's blossoming romance. However, as his feelings for Maeve developed, so too did his character's story and arc. We soon learned that he and his brother survived the foster care system and that an accident put him in the chair.

He and Maeve eventually embark on a whirlwind romance and are additionally given an intimate scene, showing that yes, disabled people are sexually intimate beings, who too enjoy sexual pleasure. This more in-depth portrayal proved that he was much more than just a tick on a diversity checklist. Thus, it made it all the more unfortunate to see his storyline culminate in such a clunky "a-ha" moment. You know, that all too familiar scene, when marginalized characters have to justify their existence, typically in a cheesy speech? As if to assure viewers, Don't worry, I'm here for a reason. I'm not just here to fill time. I'm also here to provide an important PSA.

Now, not to criticize "Sex Education" entirely, considering that only a few years ago it was commonplace to see disabled characters portrayed by non-disabled actors. Take for example "Glee," Ryan Murphy's cult classic series about a group of high school show choir misfits. Kevin McHale played the wheelchair-bound Artie Abrahams, despite McHale himself having full mobility of his legs. And even more recently, NBC's big box store sitcom "Superstore," which wrapped in 2021, saw able-bodied actor Colton Dunn starring as paraplegic employee Garrett. Netflix's comedy-drama "Atypical" also garnered harsh audience disapproval for casting neurotypical Keir Gilchrist in the lead role of young adult Sam, who falls on the autism spectrum. So while "Sex Education" may not represent the perfect portrayal of disabilities onscreen, at least it's cast with a person who shares that identity. This is essential for a more authentic portrayal, but also because disabled actors are not given the same chances for roles that non-disabled actors have.

Authentic and nuanced disability portrayals are necessary for everyone.

But there's more to a portrayal than just the right casting. The story has to also do right by the character, and there are examples of when both things align. On the raunchy Max comedy "The Sex Lives of College Girls," Lauren "Lolo" Spencer, who has ALS, plays the sassy, outspoken and incredibly horny co-ed Jocelyn. She also just happens to use a wheelchair, an assistive device that in no way draws the focus away from Jocelyn's outrageous personality and is never used as a storytelling device. Meanwhile, deaf actor James Caverly plays Theo on Hulu's comedy whodunit "Only Murders in the Building" over the course of the show's three seasons. While one episode in the first season was told from his point of view – complete with altered audio to approximate his condition – it was done with empathy and nuance. In addition, Theo has continued to be a character that's more than his deafness, also portraying a heartbroken son and cheeky neighbor in the apartment building. 

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Furthermore, if writers want to create a character that has a real-world disability, one avenue would be to pay attention to what reality shows are doing to include people with disabilities in a way that accepts but never hyperfocuses on their needs and experiences. For example, the last season of Netflix's "The Circle" added its first deaf contestant, Raven Sutton and included her interpreter Paris McTizic in the room with her. Not only did that allow her to participate in the game – which uses sound effects to alert contestants and needs audible dictation to use the in-room social media platform – but it also gave her someone with whom she could joke and share gossip. In "The Circle," having a big personality is essential for entertainment, and Raven was able to be chipper, goofy self.

Similarly, the current season of "The Great British Baking Show"  includes hearing-impaired contestant Tasha Stones while also introducing her interpreter to her fellow contestants. She's therefore able to understand the full instructions that Paul and Prue give, while focusing on the baking (and joking with Noel and Alison). In both cases, the series offer the accessibility necessary for the contestants to compete without any fanfare, thus allowing the contestants' personalities and skills to shine, rather than making their disability their only characteristic. This is not necessarily new, however. Back in the third season of "MasterChef," blind cook Christine Ha competed, stole hearts . . . and won.

Wouldn't it be refreshing if Isaac wasn't reduced to encapsulating a problem? If writers treat his character like a real person . . . or even a reality TV contestant, then accommodations like functioning elevators, proper ramps and door buttons would be part of the show. Having him then be a character enjoying his college sex education to the fullest would be the best way to show him as a human first. Who knows where his character could go on to do if the storytelling isn't the one holding him back?

Authentic and nuanced disability portrayals are necessary for everyone. Seeing as how 27% of the adult population in the U.S. identifies with having a disability, it's about time that these shows get it right. One important way this can be achieved is to populate the writers' rooms with disabled folks who can speak to their everyday lived experience, or at the very least ensure disability advocates are consulted. Plus, considering that anyone, at any age, can develop a disability through illness (COVID is still among us and continues to increase disability rates) injury or aging, the empathy that these shows engender through nuanced, fuller examples of disabled characters is something that we can all benefit from.

By Inga Parkel

Inga Parkel is entertainment writer, specializing in all things TV and film. She is currently based in New York.

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