Today's lesson: teens will be teens

24th July 2015 at 01:00
Documentary explores life and love for students with disabilities

"My new voice is getting every girl wet." Those are the first words in a documentary about National Star College, a residential college for young people with variety of disabilities. The words ring out from a computerised wheelchair's speech synthesiser, controlled by a student with an eye for the ladies and a new weapon of seduction.

I'll admit I harboured concerns that the potentially sensitive subject matter might not be tackled empathetically in The Unbreakables: life and love on disability campus - especially given that it is produced for BBC Three, home of such elegant cultural masterpieces as Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.

In my time teaching young people with complex needs, I quickly learned that students approaching adulthood were far more easily defined by the stereotypical traits of youth than by any physical or learning difference. This documentary unapologetically celebrates that priority of identity. By which I mean there is a lot of snogging.

Love stories

The main love story, however, is a platonic one; a bromance between Xenon, a charismatic lad's lad, extraordinary in his defiant ordinariness, and his roommate Nash, a successful Casanova who regularly apologises for Xenon's bawdy sense of humour. This life-affirming double act express their close friendship through competition and happy insults - or "men-talk", as Xenon puts it. There's a truly heartwrenching moment when the boys, both wheelchair users, chat without a shred of self-pity about having dreams where they can walk.

The documentary also focuses on the love story between two first-year students, recently arrived at the college, complete with snogging, tears and angsty drama. Beth, a shy young woman with cerebral palsy, ready for a bit of independence from her loving family in Wales, pairs up with Ed, a learner who is stroppy, boisterous and delighted by his freedom.

Although Ed has had major heart surgeries and lives with a brain injury, there is no immediate suggestion that he has a disability, which makes his coping method more surprising. His learning disability causes him to believe that he is a retired top-level footballer. His dad explains it as an alter ego that surfaces as a safety mechanism when he gets stressed.

Amid all the love, there's a fierce campaign battle for the role of student president, fought between Bradley, the ambitious newcomer, and incumbent Nathan, whose impressive leadership skills will no doubt one day see him become president of something bigger. Possibly the world.

The show is a tribute to victory over challenge, undermined only by its ill-conceived title and a bizarre soundtrack of foreboding orchestral music. But I can happily put up with both to spend more time at this exceptional college.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. The Unbreakables: life and love on disability campus will be broadcast on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC Three from 30 July

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