George Webster, a twenty-year-old actor and Mencap Ambassador from Leeds, made history recently by becoming the BBC's first ever children's TV presenter with Down's syndrome.

His appointment was met with positive praise across social media with many disability champions and campaigners calling it "a great example of equality in the workplace".

Yet, although George said he was 'positive and excited' by his new job, he insisted there was still a desperate need for more representation of disabled people on television. He added: "Even though we are different we need to be treated equally."

With National Inclusion Week taking place this week, it is a good time to talk about why we need more disabled role models in the media discussing not just disability issues, but also non disability topics too.

Disabled people in front and behind the camera

More people in front and behind the camera, radio and print publications would help to knock down barriers in society currently for disabled people with ambitions to get into the industry.

This Year at the Edinburgh TV festival Jack Thorne gave a lecture on disabled representation in the TV industry specifically.

Jack is a celebrated, multiple award winning creator and writer of TV shows, films and stage plays, ranging from His Dark Materials, Kiri, This is England 88, 86 and 90, The Virtues to Enola Holmes, The Secret Garden, Don't Take My Baby, The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. All as a disabled professional.

Thorne is a vocal champion, campaigner and ally of other disabled creatives, both in front of and behind the camera.

He said that a recent industry survey found that a mere 22% of disabled roles in drama were played by actors with a disability, on streaming platforms it was worse at 20%. 

Jack said a big problem is the reliance on able-bodied people to play disabled characters, sometimes in the belief that disabled actors would not have the ability to play a role.

He added: “Since 1988, about one-third of all the lead actor Oscars went to actors who portrayed characters with disabilities, yet not one of them had the disability which they played."

As 20% of the global population have a disability, a mere 8.2% was represented in the broadcasting industry with 5.4% working on screen and just 3.6% within senior TV executive roles. The current growth is just 0.9% even though campaigners had hoped to double that by 2020. It's now forecasted that this growth may only reach expected standards by 2041.

Jack's speech was rousing and moving. His words resonated as many people feel this within my industry. Like me he advocated for more people to be on screen to share their stories.

One of the shows he hailed was CripTales, a 10-minute short that was written, directed and performed this year for the BBC by a disabled producer and actors. It was nominated for numerous awards.

Paralympics and Channel 4 coverage

A good representation in the media has been Channel 4 coverage of the Paralympics in London 2012, Rio 2016 and more recently, the delayed Tokyo 2021 games.

The channel broadcast over 150 hours of coverage each time, beamed to over 100 countries, and reaching a cumulative audience of 3.8 billion people. This was a life changing moment for the global disabled community.

After the Paralympics, one in three people surveyed in the UK changed their attitude on people with an impairment, with 65% agreeing the games delivered a breakthrough in the way people with disabilities are viewed.

Many of the Paralympics presenters have a disability, and stemming from the coverage was The Last leg with Adam Hills. This is a magazine late night talk/sketch show featuring a mix of comedy guests and views of current affairs. The show initially received mixed reviews, but regularly pulled in more than a million viewers each night of the Paralympics in London 2012.

The host Adam Hills, a stand up comedian, was born without a right foot and wears a prosthesis. His co-host Alex Brooker was born with hand and arm deformities and a twisted right leg, which had to be amputated when he was baby and he also wears a prosthetic leg. Alex won a presenting place on the show via a disability career pathways program created by Channel 4. The last of the presenting trio is Josh Widdicombe, a stand up comedian without a disability.

After it's inception in 2012 the show was commissioned as a stand alone hour long Friday night entertainment show. Nine years on, it has run every week, also alongside three more Paralympics.

The most challenging Paralympics yet has been Tokyo as most of it has been covered remotely due to coronavirus restrictions. Channel 4 still hosted 300 hours of round the clock coverage, which was another ground-breaking commitment to representation, as 70% of the presenting team were disabled.

More 4 was the first dedicated Team GB channel, also an online games micro site, and featured 16 live streams and over 1,000 hours. This was a first from a UK broadcaster and the channel deserves massive credit for this.

Another first this year was BT Sports coverage of the FA Disability Cup from St George's Park in England. Over the two days they broadcast five finals: power chair, cerebral palsy, deaf, amputee and blind football.

The channel also utilised British Sign Language and Enhanced Audio Description and for this season, BT Sport will also trial the inclusion of accessible features on coverage of several mainstream sports.

It would be encouraging if other networks were as committed to making these features available as standard for all sports in the future.

Comedy and disability representation

It's not just sports where we are trying to break down the barriers. Back in 2018, Britain's Got Talent had two people with a disability in the final. The winner was a stand up comedian called Lee Ridley, aka Lost Voice man, who has non vocal cerebral palsy and was accompanied by his IPAD voice synthesiser. On that night his talent was judged, not his disability.

The runner up was fellow stand up comedian Robert White, who has Asperger's Syndrome.

In soap land too, art is coming closer to imitating life, as more actors with a disability are leading the way in representation. 

Coronation Street cast their first actor with Down's syndrome in a main role in 2015 when Alex Warner first arrived on the cobbles. Cherylee Houston arrived in 2010 making her the first disabled character in the soap in 50 years. She became a wheelchair user at the age of 23 when she was diagnosed with rare connective tissue disorder.

In EastEnders, Grace (the actress does not publish her surname) first appeared as a baby in 2006 when Billy and Honey Mitchell had a daughter with Down's syndrome and she has grown up in the same role. She also received a nomination at The British Soap Awards 2016 in the "Best Young Performance" category. 

Chatham and Riley Taylor joined the cast in 2017 as brothers who have learning disabilities. They were played by brothers Alfie and Tom Jacobs who themselves have learning disabilities.

Deaf actress Rose Ayling Ellis arrived in February 2020 in a major role, also now becoming first ever deaf contestant on Strictly Come Dancing.

Over in Emmerdale, actor James Moore has Ataxic Cerebral Palsy and struggled to find parts after leaving university. He has since won the best newcomer award at the National Television Awards for his portrayal of Ryan Stocks, reunited with his screen mother as an adult after being given up at birth.

Improving representation in the future

In his speech, Jack Thorne said that while many networks had made positive noises about improving representation, setting targets was required to bring about true change.

“I know the Black Lives Matter movement has a long way to go, and that no one is satisfied with our current state of affairs, but I can’t tell you the difference it has made to casting conversations,” he said. “However, the conversation on disability representation is nowhere near as advanced; I have had conversations about disabled talent for years where some of the most appalling things have been said.

"In order to get this diversity, disability needs quotas. Desperately needs quotas," he said. "There is an intention to change, but that intention is not backed up by impositions on the makers to change their ways."

 


 Michael McEwan is a freelance journalist and disability campaigner