“The day after The Undateables was shown, I was on the way to work and came out from the station, a person driving a car hooted and started doing a Leeds salute. Then when I was waiting to get on the bus, someone took their phone out and took my picture.”
Raymond Johnson hoped that taking part in Channel 4‘s match-making show for people with disabilities would help to challenge viewers’ opinions – but did not expect the show to turn him into something of a celebrity.
Three months on from the broadcast of the latest series, he is still being recognised. People stop to chat to him or pose for photographs. “I love it,” he said. “I love a bit of the limelight.”
The Undateables followed Johnson, an ardent Leeds United fan, as he tried to find a new girlfriend after his fiance, Lolita, called off their engagement.
Over two series, the show has aimed to dispel the myths around dating and disability. Although it attracted criticism for the way it was marketed, it proved a hit, with an average audience of more than three million. The series was hailed for its “warm and inclusive” tone.
Johnson, who has just turned 50, says he was nervous about appearing in the series, and concerned about how he and the other participants would be portrayed.
“It was done really impressively, apart from the title,” Johnson said. “If there is going to be a third series, they should change the title.”
Johnson, who lives in Wood Green, north London, works for People First, a user-led campaigning organisation in the city for people with learning difficulties. He says there were concerns that The Undateables would undermine the achievements of organisations such as his. “Some people thought it put us down in a way, like it was a backwards step,” Johnson said.
The positive response from many viewers, he feels, proves it was worth putting himself through the experience. Johnson hit back at comments by people such as TV critic Victor Lewis-Smith, who said the participants in the show were vulnerable and should have been protected from exploitation.
“It is wrong to make assumptions about people with learning difficulties,” Johnson said. “I don’t think I’m vulnerable.”
He does add though, that when he was younger, he was not confident about public speaking and would not have been able to appear on television or be interviewed by a journalist.
Now he’s a member of the Social Care Institute for Excellence’s Co-Production Network, and has been working with a project called Cuts Action Now. The project has been campaigning against the coalition’s austerity measures, which he says have particularly affected people with learning difficulties.
“The self advocacy movement took quite a lot of time to come along in this country,” Johnson said. “But now we have a voice and it is important to speak about the cutbacks and do what we can to fight back. People with learning difficulties are not being consulted – we want to be part of the debate.”
He says, despite programmes such as The Undateables and coverage of the Paralympics, which have helped to change people’s attitudes towards learning difficulties, he still encounters discrimination. “Some parts of society don’t look at us,” Johnson said. “People want to push us aside.”
He adds that negative attitudes are most apparent on public transport or in shops, and he was once threatened with being thrown out of a theatre for laughing too loudly. “It is still happening, but less than it was. It is down to individuals to think about who we are and what we are about.”