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Homes that enable the disabled

  • 27 August 2014

The ABC's new reality TV series, The Dreamhouse, premiered earlier this month. I was curled up on my couch, watching with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement because we were finally going to see the portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities on primetime television. Apprehension because we were finally going to see the portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities on primetime television. I didn't know whether the topic would be handled with respect and sensitivity.

The inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in our television programming is long overdue. Three percent of Australians have an intellectual disability. However, like many other minority groups, they are rarely represented in our cultural lives. It is hard to imagine three of every hundred characters in Australia's dramas, comedies and current affairs programs having a cognitive impairment. Instead our televisions continue to bombard us with images of fit, sharp-witted, attractive Caucasian types who fall short of our reality in many ways.

Over the past 25 years people with disabilities have been coming out of institutions. They are in our streets, our shops and our schools, but not, it would seem, on our television screens. This is a loss for us as a society. It warps the lens through which we present and see ourselves. It is a yet greater loss for young people with intellectual disabilities, who often grow up without accessible role models, and are quietly pushed to the margins of our collective cultural life.

The Dreamhouse is important because it shows real people with intellectual disabilities living ordinary, socially integrated lives. More significantly it shows them in a positive light. The three people at the heart of the show, Sarah, Justin and Kirk, are portrayed as capable, likeable and funny. The program does not ignore the challenges faced by its participants, nor does it present them as insurmountable. This approach offers hope to many other people with disabilities and their families. By gently challenging fears and stereotypes, it also encourages a more inclusive society.

As its name implies, The Dreamhouse focuses on one significant challenge faced by many people with disabilities – finding liveable, affordable housing outside the family home. Moving out of home is a rite of passage for young people, yet people who need supported accommodation face long waiting lists. Sometimes the waiting time is so long as to be impractical or intolerable. For some families the heartbreak of legally relinquishing their adult children is the only