The Simon Heng column

It’s that time of year again: we look forward – or dread – another summer of the media being monopolised by Big Brother. Whether you see it as a sign of the times, or a blight on broadcasting, the show is hard to ignore.

This series has a different edge – two contestants have disabling conditions. In previous years, disability commentators and groups have complained about the exclusion of disabled people from the Big Brother House, claiming that their absence was down to the prejudice of Endemol, the show’s producer.

Ironically, the moment that Pete (Tourette’s syndrome) and Shabaz (clearly has mental health problems) became competitors, those same commentators found all sorts of reasons for being outraged. I’ve read that children with Tourette’s are more likely to be teased at school, and that the stress of being in the Big Brother House would exacerbate Pete’s condition. I’ve also read that vulnerable people like Shabaz shouldn’t be “allowed” to expose their frailties on television.

Pete and Shabaz are adults. They have lived with their conditions for long enough to know how they would be seen, and, by putting themselves forward, they see themselves as the equals of the other competitors. They knew that their behaviour would be scrutinised by the rest of the population, particularly the media, which will be relentless in their attempts to ridicule them. They are being allowed to do exactly what disabled people want: to be given an equal opportunity.

At the time of writing, Shabaz has left the show: his inability to cope with living in these conditions (no privacy, books, media, no choice of friends) says more about the strangeness of this social experiment than it does about his strengths or weaknesses.

Pete has given us a different perspective on Tourette’s. He seems to be level-headed as well as fun-loving. He seems very mature – perhaps because he’s had to deal with so many misapprehensions about himself: personally, I find his tics expressive and beautiful. Time will tell whether he changes the way we see Tourette’s.

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