BBC Pledges £100 Million To Stop Disabled Talent Being ‘Shut Out’ Of U.K. TV !!




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In what the BBC is looking "the biggest financial investment to on-air inclusion within the industry,” the corporation announced last week that it's allocating £100 million to the assembly of “diverse and inclusive content.”

The all-round diversity investment, described as a “big leap” by Director-General Tony Hall, runs up to 2024 and is supplemented by a commitment to making sure 20% of off-screen talent comes from under-represented groups.

These include disabled people, ethnic minorities and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

According to the most recent annual Diamond Report published by the Creative Diversity Network, widely known because the most authoritative diversity monitor across the U.K. TV industry, disabled people are currently the foremost under-represented group in television.

The report, backed by broadcasters like the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, found that disabled people form up just 5.2% of the off-screen workforce and seven.8% on-screen.

This is in spite of the very fact that the general figure for working-age disabled people within the U.K. is around 17%. The report’s authors broadly conclude that, currently, “disabled people are keep out of the industry.”

Last October, the BBC announced targets of 15% of on-screen roles for black, Asian and minority ethnic groups (BAME), with a figure of 8% for both disabled and LGBT talent.

Responding to the most recent announcement, Fazilet Hadi, Interim Head of Policy and Research at Disability Rights UK, addressed the problem of demographic disparities, while acknowledging a “good commencement.”

“We want to determine representation, reminiscent of that which women and therefore the BAME and LGBTQ groups have received,” he said.

“The BBC has set more representative targets of 15% for the BAME community, which makes up around 14% of our population, 8% for the LGBTQ community, which makes up nearly 7% of our population and only 8% for disabled people, which makes up almost 21% of our population.

“We would turn the BBC to elucidate why it's put in situ such an unambitious figure for disabled people.”

Responding to the questioning of those targets, Miranda Wayland, Head of Creative Diversity at the BBC, says the broadcaster is heading within the right direction.

“Our targets are designed to assist us move the organization forward by being both challenging and achievable,” she says. “We review and adjust them over time as progress is formed.

“The latest Diamond Report showed we've got exceeded our 8% on-screen target for disability at 9.4%, and that we have adjusted it upwards to 12% by 2021.”

“We recognize that more has to be done to boost the representation of disabled talent in our industry.”


Disabled people invisible in society

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An empty wheelchair in a room-Getty

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Media Trust is a charity working in partnership with the media and creative sector across the U.K. to increase representation for marginalized groups.

Last October, the organization hosted a Reframing Disability Summit, which brought together leading media organizations and tech giants, including BBC, Buzzfeed, CNN, Facebook and Google to sit at the table with charity organizations such as Scope, Disability Rights UK and the National Autistic Society.

Su-Mei Thompson, Chief Executive of Media Trust, says that the current level of exclusion of disabled people across the industry marginalizes individuals and communities, as well as distorting societal perceptions.

“20% of us have a disability and there are disabled people who are experts in every area of life,” she says. “However, you hardly ever see a disabled person being interviewed on the news unless it’s specifically about disability.”

“If disabled people are still largely invisible when it comes to news and advertising, what does that do for the self-esteem of disabled people themselves? And what does that say to potential employers, not enough of whom, are currently recognizing their talents?”

“It’s equally important to show people on-screen with a different life experience because of the power of the media to help us relate to stories that aren’t our own, to walk in someone else’s shoes, to go on their journey and to see life through their eyes. Through this transcendental power, media makes us realize what unites us is far greater than what divides us.”

With respect to coronavirus, Thompson feels the pandemic may have brought about some benefits for disabled representation, at least as far as news and current affairs content is concerned.

“In terms of disability, Covid has paradoxically opened up new possibilities for disabled people, given so much more of life is now being conducted online.”

“Now that newsrooms have adapted to doing the large majority of their interviews with expert contributors remotely - they now know how easy it is to do. This should open up possibilities for a much larger pool of potential contributors, including disabled experts, and should lead to more disabled voices in news and current affairs.”



Disabled characters in films and TV are victims and stereotypes

Another complex layer, in addition to recruiting more disabled people to be both behind and in front of the camera, is the way disabled characters are portrayed in films and drama.

Last year, one of the BBC’s flagship dramas EastEnders, which tells the stories of the lives, loves and machinations of an assortment of characters living around a street market in London’s East End, featured the story of Dinah Wilson.

The character, portrayed by Anjela Lauren Smith, suffered from multiple sclerosis and was largely confined to a wheelchair. 

Once the character of Dinah had become established in the storyline, a real opportunity existed to fully incorporate a character who could reflect the daily life and experiences of the 110,000 people living with MS across the country.

Instead, after only a few short weeks on the soap opera, the creators elected to kill the character off, as Dinah committed suicide to end her suffering and to not be a future burden on her cherished young daughter.

Commenting on Dinah’s EastEnders storyline, Ed Holloway, Director of Services at the MS Society, says, “We gave EastEnders information and advice about MS, including insight and evidence from MS specialists, and also introduced the team to people with MS to share their personal experiences. 

“We were disappointed that the character died by suicide, and communicated this to senior executives, but ultimately the producers and scriptwriters decided that was how the character’s storyline would play out.”

This tendency to sensationalize disability and make it the singular and defining characteristic of any role depicting a disabled person, reducing them to little more than an embodiment of a medical problem, is frequently seen across the film and television industry.

As Media Trust’s key insights report from the Reframing Disability Summit states, “The way the media currently frames disability – as helpless victims, brave tragic protagonists or as superhuman Paralympians – isn’t helpful to creating the social norms that will allow disabled people to be who they are. We need more relatable, middle ground, diverse disabled characters.”

The BBC is by no means alone in doing this and even the long-awaited “winner” of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the paralyzed Bran Stark, was not accorded a moniker befitting his wisdom or magic powers but simply referred to as “Bran the Broken.”

Of course, there are great examples of incidental, non-defining disability depiction as well, such as disability rights activist and actor Liz Carr’s dead-pan and authoritative portrayal of forensic examiner Clarissa Mullery in the BBC crime drama Silent Witness.



Able-bodied actors portraying disabled characters


Accurate depictions are, of course, most reliably achieved by casting disabled actors in the first place. A tendency still exists industry-wide to cast able-bodied actors in disability roles, and in addition to lacking authenticity, this diminishes the unique identity and physicality that accompanies being a disabled person.

So-called “cripping-up” can bring actors like Eddie Redmayne critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything but also prevents disabled actors from building any kind of profile or name value.


In December last year, a number of leading lights in Hollywood, including Bryan Cranston, Danny DeVito, Edward Norton and Ruth Madeley signed an open letter to executives demanding they “embrace disability as a key facet of diversity.”

The letter further stated, “In the history of the Academy Awards, among the 61 Oscar nominees and 27 winners playing characters with a disability, only two were authentically portrayed by an actor with disability.”

Ultimately, the entire film and TV industry requires a reboot and a shift of mindset when it comes to employing disabled talent both on and off camera. 

Perhaps it will require more Hollywood luminaries, to convince the studios to allow more disabled actors to tell their own stories, but without the right level of input from disabled media professionals, those stories will never be as credible or pure as they otherwise might have been.