In a simple fleeting scene set in one of the most common places on the cobbles Izzy Armstrong (Cherylee Houston) was seen in the café talking to Gary Windass (Mikey North) about their son, Jake Windass (Bobby Bradshaw).
Still, he was distracted due to the recent ordeals Maria Connor (Samia Longchambon) has endured.
‘Nice to see you, he commented off-handedly.
It was necessary for its ordinariness — incidental and non-descript. The exchange came three years after Cherylee took an extended break amid the Coronavirus pandemic as she has Ehlers-Danlos, a rare connective tissue condition.
As a result, she faced an extended shielding period and couldn’t film. In 2021, viewers also briefly saw Izzy in a storyline highlighting the plight of disabled people who encountered similar extreme isolation.
These scenes underline the difficulty, how the experience stripped disabled people of the most basic interactions, and how society has moved on around us.
Her tentative reintroduction was confirmed in a following episode, interwoven with other more prominent storylines, when she returned to the café to buy a cake and chat with Bernie Winter (Jane Hazlegrove).
It is this gradual reintroduction that Cherylee Houston reflects on. ‘Izzy’s not working full time as Carla is reintroducing her slowly so as to help her acclimatise,’ she explained.
It’s honest about an often untold, ignored story: the millions of disabled people who were cut off suddenly and thoroughly from society but were expected to return unscathed.
Cherylee concludes: ‘It’s incredibly important that Coronation Street has highlighted this issue, as often disabled people’s stories are left untold.’
Here Coronation Steet can tell a deeply personal, widely felt, often ignored or forgotten story.
When I stopped shielding, I struggled emotionally and physically because I had become accustomed to the smallness of my existence, seeing strangers and loved ones through the barrier of a single window and having to confine movement to a group of unchanging rooms.
I missed these mundane interactions. The ordinary missing moments: celebrity gossip shared and analysed, opinions sought, and work dilemmas exchanged.
I recoiled instinctively when strangers touched me, and my eyes narrowed mistrustfully.
My brows would furrow, and I would tense so completely my knuckles whitened. I had become used to a new reality.
My reaction was visceral because I had learned a new way to live. I had become detached from the world outside of my door. Every small interaction flooded my senses when it was reintroduced.
Those first days were some of the most overwhelming and unnatural. I longed for bland exchanges in 3D when I was shielding, but the process of getting used to the outside world remains with me — an experience that bit into my very core.
Having that slow reintroduction represented on the screen means so much because we don’t often consider the nitty-gritty details of disabled characters’ minds.
The reality is that millions of us were and continue to be cut off from the world. We’re human beings left to cope with that impact — that scar.
Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the University of Sheffield summarises the experience: ‘Shielding precludes leaving the house, and for some, even socially distancing from others in their household, making it the most isolative experience in the Covid-19 crisis.’
Such essential but inhumane isolation, which often meant being parted from parents, partners and children, had to happen for shielding to be an effective life-saving practice. I became used to making calculations about my health and safety.
I would pick over those calculations endlessly because I feared, as most people did in those early days, what Coronavirus could do to my body, which was already weaker from having sustained a brain injury in the earliest moments of my life.
Already under the strain of moving through day-to-day life.
As official support has fractured and lapsed, mask-wearing has become politicised, and lockdowns have been lifted. As a result, it feels as though disabled people have become more detached from the ordinary and too aware of it—decisions about risk undermined by the increasing need for human connection.
The government formally ended shielding on March 31 2021, yet many disabled people and their families continued shielding beyond this point.
Dr Liddiard continues by noting the power of highlighting the experiences of Houston and her onscreen counterpart.
‘Houston’s is not an isolated case — Covid-19 isn’t over for many people, and many live in significant risk every day,’ which must be managed and negotiated across our social, work, and family lives.
‘Living with Covid — the government’s current strategy — means very different things to different people.’
Further, people learning about those experiences through their love of Coronation Street ‘is a crucial way to extend what we consider the impacts of Covid-19 to be.’
What Coronation Street has done so beautifully is consider and interweave Cherylee Houston’s lived experience and the lived experience of others.
The approach is natural because it comes from a place of harsh truth. No non-disabled actor or writer could fully describe the disabled person’s experience — we understand. We get it. There’s shorthand for our reality.
Vaccines offered reassurance, but many months after I stopped shielding, a process which waned over time, I still didn’t enjoy others’ presence within my home.
I didn’t hug anyone for over six months until a family member instinctively reached for me.
Having disabled characters re-enter is crucial to giving disabled people a voice — telling our stories entirely.
Seeing that fleeting moment of Izzy in the café with a preoccupied Gary was powerful in its ordinariness. It’s a reminder of where we’ve been and where many disabled people remain.
Every stage of this pandemic has worn disabled people down, and we all need the chance to return safely to every day, distracted human interactions in cafés.
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