Disability and the Media in the United Kingdom
By Simon Minty (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Disabled people get involved with the media for a variety of reasons; because they are of a creative or journalistic nature; to improve the accuracy in portrayal or because they just want to show off in front of an audience. Whatever the reason, disability arts and the media in the UK have a firm base from which to flourish. However, there is a long way to go until disabled people will be seen regularly in the media as whole human beings. Once the illusions of pity, of bravery and the medical elements are reduced to sensible proportions, then the situation will improve.
In the UK, there is some debate as to the best approach of harmonising disability arts and the media, to achieve a mutually beneficial collaboration. Differences of opinion are not restricted to media representatives and disabled people but also within disabled groups themselves.
The media is a notoriously difficult and agenda driven industry. I have lost count of the times I have read an interview with a non-disabled actor who explains how the work is scarce, the training hard and the rejections painful and plentiful. With a disabled actor, he or she often has the additional perceived disadvantage of difference that, supposedly, the audience will not be able to mentally accommodate. I say 'supposedly', as I think it is often the writer, producer or director who have the problem of accommodating.
Inclusion vs. Ghettoisation
Within disability groups, the debate may focus on the positives and negatives of disability specific magazine programming versus inclusion of disabled people into mainstream programmes. It highlights the drawbacks of seemingly self-imposed ghettoisation programming, produced by disabled people with an exclusively disability content. The positive is disabled people are making programmes but should they not be working on all programming across all genres? Are magazine programmes really satisfying a need?
Questions are asked of disabled people who 'prostitute' themselves by having to use their difference negatively or as a gimmick to get the work. As an individual they are of course allowed to do such work, but what does it do for greater inclusion of the whole? Do such individuals really have a choice? Is this style of performance the only route they have available to them? On the other hand, to retain the disability political movements' purest and furthest reaching mantra, it may mean you get little or no work in the media. Does a boycott by disabled people stop the media from producing disability programming? Does it heck!
Further debate rages around certain practices in the media that encourage exclusion of disabled people. Today, it is accepted as given that a white actor would never 'black up' to play a role of black character. However, when it comes to disabled characters, it is accepted that the likes of non-disabled actors such as Tom Cruise, (Born on the 4th July), Daniel Day Lewis, (My Left Foot), Tom Hanks, (Forrest Gump) and Dustin Hoffman, (Rain Man), will play the disabled character and usually be applauded for it.
So what's the solution? Until disabled people become the producers, the commissioning editors, the stars, it is hard to see one. Until production teams have disabled technical professionals as a matter of course, discriminatory practices may remain. Until writers consider including a disabled character in their work because they are an interesting or pivotal character to the story line, irrespective of their disability, we have some way to go. Let's not forget the occasional and welcome examples of good practice. The British film, 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' has the lead character's brother being deaf and a sign language user. He is central to the plot, not cumbersome or forced, without pity and certainly not depicted in a medical light. Sadly, this example along with several notable others, are only the start in building a bridge to gap the disparity between accurate disability portrayal and the media's industry own out-dated view of disability.
One useful way of bridging this gap is by producing work to showcase disability and the arts. Short films to get producers and commissioning editors to widen their vision have been made. Such wider vision is a crucial element in creating a successful collaboration that both disabled people and broadcasters benefit from. The films illustrate an under-utilised source of talent, a new vein of interest, a wealth of intellect and ideas and the opportunity to represent realistically, a significant number of the audience. All positives that make the media executives listen. Conversely, if we bang a drum and simply tell them they are doing it wrong, the barriers increase, not diminish and disabled people will end up seeing more well-intentioned but poorly thought out and unrepresentative programming. Creation of ideas and talent are necessary pre-requisites for working in the industry, irrespective of disability.
Disability and diversity databases
However, promising a source of talent and idea creation is one thing. It has to be supported and access to this source must be easy and tangible. With this in mind, a web-based 'disability database' is already up and running containing contact details and personal histories, funded and produced by Channel 4 Television. The BBC also have produced a similar but wider ranging 'diversity database' to answer this need. The longer-term aim is that databases will become accessible to all or if this is not possible, a new industry-wide database should be developed. My own experience is that there are individuals within the media industry who are willing to re-think their approach but they need some hand holding, encouragement and advice in order to achieve this.
Sources of talent
So with such issues and problems obviously evident, what is happening in the UK to overcome them? Where are these sources of talent? I have detailed some projects below but stress it not exhaustive. Irritatingly, the work is principally based around London which, in part because I live there and have knowledge of them. Secondly it is where much of the industry is based. That is not to say there isn't a lively, well co-ordinated, flourishing disability arts scene around the rest of the UK.
http://126.96.36.199/www/index.htm Search for BDN
An organisation made up of the major television broadcastors' in the UK including the BBC, BSkyB, Carlton, Channel 4, Channel 5, GMTV, Granada, LWT, Pearson, Turner and United Media. The PACT television union is also a member. Each member is committed to improving employment of disabled people and for greater accuracy in portrayal on television. Such commitment is evidenced through regular meetings, discussing, sharing and creating ideas, reporting progress and assistance in implementing activities. It also extends to a monetary contribution from all the members to fund the BDN's staff, a regular newsletter and specific schemes such as the annual Edinburgh International Television Festival.
The BDN has maintained a presence at Edinburgh for the last two years. Two audience participating sessions have been produced; the first in 1998 asked senior television executives why there aren't more disabled presenters on our screens. As a result, there are a few more now! Last year the session centred on the launching of a cable/satellite disability channel. Every year, twelve disabled people in or around the industry have gone to Edinburgh to mingle, cajole and flirt with the great and the good of the television industry. Many of the 'minglers' are now working in the industry.
The National Disability
Arts Forum (NDAF)
Whilst there are a few possible exceptions, disabled people do not have their own media 'face of disability' in the UK. NDAF, set up in 1990, is a nation-wide organisation for disabled people wishing to work in the arts. Sources of disability arts groups like the ones below can be found via NDAF.
GRAEAE Theatre Company
GRAEAE (pronounced 'grey eye') run training courses throughout the year for budding actors. The courses normally end with a tour of the play, which has been learnt and rehearsed, so the new actors can practice their trade. GRAEAE has been in existence for some 20 years now.
Cando Co Dance Company
Cando Co has a growing reputation for innovation in dance and disability.
Heart 'n' Soul
An extensively touring band of people with learning disabilities. The 'Heart and Soul' band have played gigs across the UK and Europe and performed at last year's Glastonbury Music Festival, the UK's premier annual music festival. They also host a bi-monthly nightclub called the 'Beautiful Octopus Club' in South East London. The Beautiful Octopus Club's reputation and popularity is outstripping its' venue's capacity and in excess of 500 learning disabled people arrived for the January 2000 club night.
Strathcona Theatre Company
An actors training workshop for people with learning disabilities who write and perform their work to a fee-paying audience.
An arts venue in North London that in 1998, staged a month long disability arts festival with performance, workshops, debates and interviews from across the disability arts spectrum. Plans for a similar but bigger event in the autumn of 2000 is underway.
A major success being the second largest poetry group in the UK. It comprises poets who have 'survived' the UK's mental health service system. The poetry explains and explores the survivors' experiences living with mental health issues. Regular poetry performances by the authors can be found in London and the UK.
Drake Music Project
Orpheus Centre, Surrey
Based in the Home Counties, disabled people collaborate with musicians to learn and write music. People with severe disabilities have emerged as talented creative individuals who with the assistance of technology can perform their music.
A disability arts organisation based in London to co-ordinate and aid aspiring creative individuals.
'DAIL' Disability Arts
'DAIL' is a regular arts magazine that has reviews and articles from the arts world, often featuring painting and sculpture exhibitions, as well as advertising for employment and training courses within disability, the arts and the media. They are closely associated with London Disability Arts Forum (LDAF) set up in 1986.
In terms of collaboration to improve access to, and information on, arts and media venues, Artsline are the key providers.
Raspberry Ripple Awards
For the last three or four years there have been awards to celebrate (and commiserate) the best (and worst) portrayal of disabled people in the arts. Known as the Raspberry Ripple Awards, (Raspberry Ripple being tongue-in- cheek, cockney rhyming slang for 'cripple') individuals cast votes for various categories including film, television, radio and theatre. The winners are invited to accept awards and sometimes, even turn up!
BBC's Disability Production
www.bbc.co.uk Search for DPU
A past winner of these awards, the Disability Production Unit, (DPU) has been existing for more than a decade now. It is a dedicated unit of disabled people within the BBC and produces a magazine television series on disability issues. Last year they also produced the extremely well received 'Disabled Century'. This was a stylised, history of disability in the UK since 1900 shown over three 50-minute documentaries finishing with a debate as to where disabled people are today in our society.
BBC Radio 4 'Yes Sir,
I Can Boogie'
Now into its second radio series and with a television pilot in the can is the comedy show called 'Yes Sir, I Can Boogie'. The shows' sketches are written and performed by both disabled and non-disabled writers and actors. While the humour sometimes reverts to crude impairment based gags, the concept of disabled and non-disabled collaboration in writing and performing quality humour as it often does, is something to be applauded.
Channel 4 Television 'Freak
Currently in production, Freak Out is a programme which will celebrate disability but in a quirky and modern light. Whilst there will be some inevitable backlash as I am sure a handful of the vignettes will be verging on bad taste wrapped in edgy humour, it is presented and researched by disabled people and will be a world away from the often more serious output of the BBC's DPU.
BBC and Channel 4 Television
Both the BBC and Channel 4 have recently run trainee-ships or work experience programmes for disabled people to work with and in, various production departments. Other members of the Broadcasters' Disability Network also run bursaries for disabled people to gain experience and ideally obtain employment within various sectors of the industry.
Channel 4 - 'Travelog'
I was involved with this 1998 travel documentary series, in which eight presenters, who 'happened to have' disabilities were reporting on various destinations through out the world. This was part of Channel 4's annual disability television season entitled 'Access All Areas'. I went to Beijing and the programme won the UK Travel Writer of the Year - Best Television Feature. Personally proud (and equally embarrassed) I was pleased, as the award is not disability related. It proved that good quality programming can be made with disabled people that will not only retain and improve audience figures but also can win awards against mainstream competition.
London Arts Board
I have recently been interviewed to sit on the London Arts Board, (LAB). They approve funding in many areas of the arts in London. If successful, I suspect I may be the only disabled board member but it will be a privilege as well as an opportunity for me to promote the cause of progressive and innovative disability arts in London.
As I mentioned this list is not comprehensive and many other organisations and individuals are making headway in the field of disability arts and the media. Despite the great work, there is a problem when disability arts cannot make the leap to a mainstream audience. Sometimes this is not necessary or even desirable as disabled people have their own culture. But to really break down the barriers, it would be good if more non-disabled people watched and enjoyed the work.
Cautions and conclusions
Maybe with the training schemes, the organisations, the increasing awareness levels and the burgeoning talent, disabled people will work in the media because of their talent and interests alone. We have to be careful; there are already traces of a hierarchy where certain impairment groups are seen as more 'screen friendly' and people with speech impairments or facial disfigurements are not. The opportunity to work within the media, after reasonable accommodations and with a more prevalent shift of attitudes, should be a meritocracy, based on innovation and ideas.
And who knows, the creative, journalistic type, technically gifted, show-offs may get some of the work they deserve and not be excluded because of prejudice or fear from the media industry controllers. Well, it is a good idea...
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