From a ripple to a tsunami

First published on November 2011.

20 or 30 years ago, specialist disability programmes such as BBC’s From the Edge or ITV’s Link provided practically the only route into the media for disabled people. In these somewhat protected environments, virtually any access issue could be surmounted with the right support and adaptation. I still remember The Sun getting very excited about the BBC training up a blind person as a director, comparing it to BA training up a blind pilot…

With the shift away from specialist shows to more mainstream, incidental inclusion of disability – across everything from Big Brother, through Location Location Location and The Sex Education Show to all the major soaps – the loss of those disability series removed significant opportunities for disabled people to develop programme-making skills.

So it was important to extend that on-screen mainstreaming spirit to the development of talent behind the camera. Channel 4 did this through a combination of commissioned series and supported work placements. Maverick/ RedBird’s deaf series Vee-TV employed deaf researchers, editors, directors and presenters. After six years, it was replaced with New Shoots, a series of half-hour documentaries which gave 12 disabled and deaf directors their first broadcast credit; then The Shooting Party which followed nine disabled filmmakers as they each created a short film; then Eleven Film produced the drama series Cast Offs, with a team including two disabled writers and six disabled actors.

Key to success was that, rather than hectoring indies to employ more disabled people, quoting antidiscrimination legislation or slapping quotas on our productions, we used commissioned programmes to create an environment that would allow new disabled talent to shine. Other new talent series such as Comedy Lab, Coming Up and First Cut also provide essential rungs on the talent ladder for disabled people, and slowly at least some of this talent is gaining a toehold in the industry – directing, producing, setting up their own companies.

In addition to these broadcast opportunities, from 2003 onwards, working with our suppliers, Channel 4 introduced entry-level short-term placements and, since 2006, an annual Production Training Scheme has offered six places ring-fenced for disabled trainees working across everything from drama to documentary, sport to entertainment. Channel 4 pays 50% of salary plus 100% of training costs. Graduates of the scheme have gone on to direct, produce and production manage on a range of programmes.

All this – and the schemes offered by other broadcasters including ITV and BBC – has made it easier for disabled people to get a foot in the door of the industry. What happens next is crucial: will the company keep them on? Can they find a job on another production? How does this new talent build a successful career without the safety net of schemes and supported places? If graduates can’t get their next job on merit, the system isn’t working. Training company thinkBIGGER! spends the latter part of the Channel 4 scheme aiming to equip trainees for life as a freelancer in a highly competitive industry.

We need honesty and realism on all sides. Broadcasters and production companies can put money where their mouth is and show that disability adds to the creative possibilities rather than making life difficult or blowing the budget. But it’s not helpful for disability organisations to produce stats telling us most disabled people don’t cost much to employ. Some disabled people do require support, and sometimes it’s expensive, eg, sign language interpreters or a camera op for a director whose impairment dictates that they cannot self-shoot. These costs are not always fully recoverable from government Access to Work funding – and it’s getting harder in these cashstrapped times. We need government to keep Access to Work topped up, supporting the companies that do the right thing by encouraging disabled creatives.

Disabled people also need to play to their strengths – avoiding the roles or types of productions that are going to make impossible demands if they have stamina or mobility issues, for example, or deciding against aiming to be a researcher if deafness makes it difficult to spend all day phone bashing, conducting tricky or sensitive conversations.

On the other hand it’s not helpful if employers make assumptions about a potential recruit’s impairment, if they don’t bother to assess their skills and strengths first before discussing access issues, or if they move to new premises and don’t make an effort to find a building that’s accessible or can be easily adapted for wheelchair access.

Channel 4’s plans to broadcast the London 2012 Paralympics include disabled talent commitments on screen as well as support for production trainees behind the camera. We want the best of that talent to build careers beyond 2012. If all goes to plan, what started as a ripple with Big Brother could become a tsunami of disabled talent both on screen and off. Watch this space.

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Illustrations by Paul Davis -