Channel 4’s iconic headquarters on Horseferry Road provided the venue for a ever-prescient debate within the media industry. Where Have All the Disabled People Gone? was title of the Royal Television Society’s latest panel discussion, featuring the expertise of comedian and host of The Last Leg, Adam Hills; TV researcher and stand-up comic Rosie Jones; actress and broadcaster Shannon Murray; and CEO of Creative Diversity Network, Deborah Williams. The evening was hosted by presenter and Paralympian athlete Ade Adepitan.
Shannon, a wheelchair user since the age of 14, felt that one of the greatest obstacles facing disabled people wishing to break into television is simply “getting through the door for an audition”. Her experience was that, if a part was not specifically written as ‘disabled’, then she would never be considered. She also bemoaned the fact that, among her many roles, she has “never played a character who had a job” – a stunning reflection of the pejorative associations that continue to be connected to disability.
Deborah Williams reiterated this, voicing her belief that many people continue to immediately associate disability with sickness. She encouraged everyone to “check your own prejudices”, and highlighted one of the benefits of deliberate schemes as being to “put people in front of people they wouldn’t ordinarily look at, see or know exist. And that’s why, to a certain extent, schemes work and we need them, but then you need to be able to turn up the temperature each time”.
Rosie, who has cerebral palsy, also praised schemes to an extent – explaining that she got into TV initially through a scheme which allowed her to leapfrog the usual necessity to act as a runner. She felt that things were “moving in the right direction, but very slowly”.
Shannon was less complementary of schemes and quotas, confiding to Ade that she “can’t believe we’re still doing this” having spoken on many panels over the years. “It always comes back to fear”, she claimed.
The panel agreed that the UK has made progress on this front compared to other countries (in the USA, despite an estimated 39.9 million disabled citizens, there are only eight disabled characters across the spectrum of programming – and only two of those are performed by disabled actors), but that more needs to be done. The consensus was that for real change to be seen – particularly within the scripted genre – disability representation needed to happen at a decision-maker level e.g. commissioners/producers/directors. None of the panel had ever been to a meeting with a disabled decision-maker and felt that, when that finally happens, it will filter down to onscreen.
There was much to take away from this hugely insightful and timely discussion and our thanks as ever go to the RTS team for yet another fantastic event.