Don’t call the co-writer and star of this new BBC comedy the dreaded I-word

New BBC comedy pilot The i-Word is authentic, fresh and funny.

You know it's coming, that word beginning with i, when you start watching this new BBC comedy short about an interabled wannabe couple grasping to make it big as social media influencers. But when the I-word finally arrives, courtesy of the gaff-spewing host of the fictional SWAT (South Wales Accessibility Trailblazer) awards, it still causes instant, unavoidable cringe. When he says, “You lot are an inspiration to us all”, the audience’s groans on screen are surely harmonising with disabled viewers’ groans at home. The sign language interpreter sharing the stage can barely make the necessary shapes with his fingers; he’s wincing so badly from that body blow of embarrassment.

This is precisely the effect that writers and co-stars Jake Sawyers and Emily Nicole Roberts want to have with their debut comedy pilot. “We call ourselves cringe,” Emily says. “It’s cringey on purpose. We want to make people uncomfortable, we want to make them go ‘oof’, and we want them to think our characters are cringe.”

It’s mission accomplished for this new comedy duo with The i-Word, which went out on BBC 2 Wales in January. Jake plays Sam, a visually-impaired influencer who boasts a million followers. Emily is Ella, a wheelchair user stalking him on his socials. After meeting at the SWATs, they hatch a plan to become a hot new influencer couple, increase their social media reach and haul in the free branded stuff. The result is innovative, authentic and highly relatable for disabled people plus funny for everyone watching, too. Now that’s inclusion for you.

We’re particularly proud to speak to Emily as she is Whizz-Kidz alumni. She received a wheelchair from the charity when she was a child, volunteered when older and has more recently contributed some brilliant content like this video about the importance of good mental health.

Luxury rug and flat-screen TV sponsorship deals excluded, The i-Word is Jake and Emily’s lived experience all condensed into a gem of a sitcom now waiting to be discovered on iPlayer. “You can take a piece of us out of every single scene,” says Emily. What, even the disastrously-compered SWATs where the host (deftly played by local Swansea radio presenter Phil Hoyles) can’t open his mouth without offending someone? Yes. “The awards scene, that actually happened to Jake. He recently went to an awards show where the host had to keep apologising for using terminology and mixing his words up and undoing what he had said earlier.”

The stories and experiences have been so lived that Emily and Jake, set initially to act in The i-Word, were soon asked by the BBC to write it too. No one else could tell their stories like they could. Jake and Emily had been creating content for the Welsh comedy platform BBC Sesh about their disability when they were put together. The pair had long collaborated over Zoom and Google docs but only met in person for the first time on day one of filming.

Writing something authentic was vital, according to Emily. “We were not going to write something about disability at first because we thought, has it been done, is it old news, is it cliched?” she says. “Are people going to look at us and go, oh, another load of disabled people talking about being disabled? So we battled with that. Jake was like we have so many funny stories. We have got our own voices we are going to use. We wanted to make it something new. We wanted to have those flawed characters and use social media because it’s such a modern thing.”

The other I-words: inclusion and influencer

One thing that makes The i-Word feel different is that Sam and Ella aren’t sympathetic characters. They aren’t anyone's idea of inspirational either. Was that important, as we’re not always used to seeing disabled people represented as unlikeable? “We did that on purpose,” Emily says. “We wanted people to see our characters before they saw our impairments. We wanted people to think we don’t like Sam; he’s too full of himself instead of Sam, the blind character. And it opens up an interesting conversation.

Can disabled people be unlikable or do they always have to be ‘aw bless they’re so amazing, look at them getting out of bed!’

There’s no doubt that as Jake’s character Sam says, “inclusion is very hot right now”. But is that positive for disabled people long term, we wonder? “We had fun with the script because we know even the BBC themselves are passionate about pushing disability forward as a topic,” Emily says. “But also, it’s a great platform. I'm glad that disability is hot right now because, hopefully, we can ride the wave and make some change!”

The image-obsessed world of social media influencers seems like a rich content stream for future episodes. But how does it fit with young wheelchair users? 
“It’s the access all areas thing, and that’s exciting for disability,” Emily says. “You’re educating the audience without even realising. They can learn how a disabled person cooks meals because it’s part of the comedy. It’s all about careful infiltration. With social media, it’s reaching younger generations. It’s important for young generations not just to be represented but also for disability to constantly be on TV, in the media, and for people to understand that disabled people can be influencers and disability is cool although our characters aren’t.”

Emily, you've been creating content for social media for years. Did you ever feel the negative side of being an influencer?
“When I started doing my YouTube videos, there was a set standard. My hair had to be perfect. My make-up had to be reapplied all the time. I felt like I had to present myself in a certain way. I can’t put that video out because I’m bent funny, and people think my legs look weird,” she says.

My outlook shifted. I started out wanting to be Kim Kardashian. But then I thought, why do I want to be Kim Kardashian when I’m me?

I had so much positivity from people that I realised there was power in being authentic and real… So it changed from wanting to be an influencer to just wanting to be normal. Because that shows disabled people and people in wheelchairs, look, I’m just a normal girl. I haven’t got perfect hair, I haven’t got perfect teeth, and I’m making a video wearing a normal top. I wanted to be as real as possible. I want people to look at me and think, number one, she looks just like me. Whether they are disabled or not…”

So what’s your problem with this I-word, inspiration, we asked Emily.
She told us: “I think disabled people can be seen as an inspiration simply for existing. And my problem with inspiration is if you’re calling me an inspiration for going about my daily life, that means you pit me lower and my ability lower than everyone else. You see me as a lower standard of a being.”

How can we avoid being like the hapless host of the SWATs and get it right when using the I-word, then, we asked?
“I would say to anyone using the word, as long as you’re calling someone an inspiration because you genuinely feel they deserve that title, fair enough,” she says. “But if you’re calling them an inspiration because you pity their circumstance or want them to feel good or give them a bit of self-worth, you're not. Disabled people don’t need others’ validation. They need acceptance. They don’t need others to go, ‘oh my god, you’re so brilliant’. They need to be treated as equals. ‘Oh yeah, you are brilliant, but you’re just like me.’ There is a difference. As long as you have pure intentions, call me an inspiration if you want; you’ll just make my ego bigger.”

Emily's heroes of humour

Emily’s comedy heroes include people like Billy Connelly and Micky Flanagan, as well as classic sitcoms Fawlty Towers and The Vicar of Dibley. If there’s a common theme, it’s that she likes “any comedian that is authentically themselves… I like strange people. People, who you think, ooh, who’s that? People who are different and embrace that difference. Because I see that within me.”

So how would you describe your humour?
She says: “It’s interesting. My humour has changed. I used to lead quite heavily with self-deprecation and thought that was the only way forward for disabled people to come across. I watched things like Little Britain and think that the way to get on in comedy was to take the mick out of myself.  But that quickly changed because I realised that it damaged my view of myself and damaged my self-worth. So I thought, I’m not going to take the mick out of myself; I’m going to take the mick out of how people see me and how they react to my disability.

“My comedy now, it’s about what’s happened to me as the result of being in a wheelchair. It’s not about my disability at all. It’s how others react to it, what they say about it. I say things like I hate being slowly catfished by a building. You look at it on Google Maps, and it looks fine, and then you get there, and there’s a step to get in. You know silly things about living day-to-day life in a wheelchair without poking fun at being disabled. That is not progressive at all. It’s actually quite damaging.

Because if a disabled person makes it normal to make fun of themselves, it will encourage other people to do the same. And that’s not my message.

The difference that Whizz-Kidz made

Do you think Whizz-Kidz helped you get where you are?
She tells us: “Whizz Kidz has been helping me since I was seven or eight. They gave me one of my first wheelchairs. Since then, I joined the Wheelchair Skills Training, which taught me how to navigate in my wheelchair. I used to go to their social clubs in my teams. We had a cinema club, and we used to go out on day trips. As I got older, I volunteered at this same club in my city of Swansea. In my twenties, I was volunteering for Whizz-Kidz doing things online. But the first thing was funding a wheelchair when I was a child.”

 And that had a significant impact?
“Oh gosh yeah. The independence a wheelchair gives you is insane, and also, it was amazing that they funded the wheelchair for me as it felt like I had a lot of involvement in the process. I picked the chair, and it was designed for me as much as possible.

A wheelchair is more than an accessory or a mode of transport, it’s a reflection of who you are.

At that young age, being given a wheelchair, you not only feel like you can express yourself, but you can also reach your full potential and feel comfortable doing so.”

We want to know where she and Jake would like to take The i-Word next.
She tells us: “Oh, lots of drama, lots of unearthing. If you’ve watched the i-Word, you know the relationship between Sam and Ella is a sham. It’s bound to come unstuck at some point. There’s going to be tears. There’s going to be heartbreak. There’s also going to be a bit of revenge.”

But what about her dream guest star for a future episode? Who would that be?
Why Mark Zuckerberg, of course, reckons Emily. The ultimate social media mogul would appear in a scene where he asked Sam and Ella for tips. As well as aiming straight for the top, Emily thinks 

there would be something hilarious about Mark Zuckerberg travelling to Cardiff for some bara brith and a cuppa.

We need to see that. Given Emily’s irrepressible enthusiasm, we wouldn’t be surprised if the Zuck does pop up in Sam and Ella’s luxury influencer flat at some point. But for it to happen, The i-Word needs to get a full series. The campaign starts here! In the meantime, Emily tells us her personal project is learning to ski with a wheelchair-accessible ski group in her home city of Swansea.

But finally, what would she say to other young wheelchair users who wanted to break into comedy?
“If I can do it, anyone can do it,” Emily says. “Honestly, for wheelchair users, the sky’s the limit. You can do anything you put your mind to. I think it’s so great that the potential of wheelchair users has shifted over time. When I was younger, people used to come up to me and say are you going to be a Paralympian. That was the only goal. Whereas now, for wheelchair users, you can do anything. You can be a vet. You can be a builder. There’s no limit. There’s no set standard.

If you want to write comedy, write comedy. If you want to go to space, go to space!

The i-Word is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer. 

Emily’s advice for young wheelchair users creating content

Emily is a full-time content creator, TV presenter and disability rights advocate. She started making  YouTube videos five years ago, showing how, as a young wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, she did everyday things like exercising and getting dressed. "It was born of me needing to see those videos when I was a child... So it really changed from wanting to be an influencer to just wanting to be normal," she says. She now makes content for BBC Sesh and presents on BBC X-Ray and other programmes. Here are her tips when you're starting out. 

  • Be yourself
    "Don't be afraid. I haven’t had many negative comments. That scared me in the beginning, being so vulnerable and so real, I thought, oh my god, what if I have hate? But the positivity I’ve had outweighs any bad comments."
  • There's only one you 
    "I also think if you do want to put yourself out there online, there’s only one person that’s like you. So it’s a strength."
  • You don’t need to be perfect to be online
    "You’d be surprised how many people notice you, and you make them feel less alone."
  • Try to have a vision
    "I wanted to create a community where we were all equal, and we all felt we could empathise with each and be like yeah, everyone gets it."
  • Embrace the positive side of social media
    "I would set out to help other people and then they would help me by being so kind and help me accept myself because they would accept me. It’s lovely, it really is."

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