Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Disability representation in the TV industry: can we really wait 20 years?

In the past decade, TV has given a crucial platform to para-athletes, not just in sports events, but in entertainment shows like Dancing On Ice, with Libby Clegg reaching the final in third place.

In the same year on Celebrity Masterchef, TV personality and business owner Amar Latif was the first blind person to compete. Strictly Come Dancing has also featured disabled people. Rose Ayling Ellis, a deaf actress who plays Frankie in Eastenders, was crowned as the first disabled Strictly Come Dancing champion. Other contestants were Ellie Simmonds who has Dwarfism, and Jonnie Peacock who is an amputee.

Despite these strides, disability representation in front and behind the camera is still falling way short of expectations. According to Creative Diversity Network (CDN), it will take almost two decades for people with a disability to be properly represented in the industry.

The report found that disabled people are still very under-represented across UK programmes. Off-screen, disabled people make just 6% of contributions, and on-screen contributions are only slightly higher at 8.3%. These figures compare with 18% of people in the UK population identifying as disabled.

It would take 13,000 employees with additional needs or a disability to enter the TV industry for figures to reflect the general population. At the current rate of progress, it will take until 2041 for disabled people to be properly represented in the sector.

Children’s programmes leading the way in disability representation

The CDN report found that the highest proportion of contributions by people with a disability have been in BBC programming, 7.3% in 2020, followed by Channel Four programming, which was 6.2% in 2020 according to the report.

The BBC saw the greatest rate of growth from 4.9% of contributions in 2018-19 to 7.3% in 2020-21, whilst there has been a slight reduction in contributions to Channel Four programmes year on year.

ITV and Sky have the smallest proportion of contributions by people with a disability, though both broadcasters saw recent growth in off screen representation, from 31% in 2018-19 to 4.5 in 2020 for ITV and 2.8% to 3.4 for Sky. Off screen representation has fluctuated between 4.4 and 6%.

Children’s programming has been leading the way with year-on-year growth in the representation of people on screen. There has also been on screen increase in drama and comedy, though this representation still “very low”.

Less than 2% of characters in the top TV dramas are disabled, which is a pretty poor show. Notable exceptions are Izzy Armstrong in Coronation Street, played by Cherylee Houston, who is a wheelchair user and neighbour Alex Warner, played by Liam Bairstow, who has Down’s syndrome. Terry Boyle in The Line of Duty, played by Tommy Jessop, has Down’s syndrome, and Curly in Peaky Blinders, played by Ian Peak, is neurodivergent.

What would disabled people like to change?

National disability charity Sense recently conducted research found that around a third (31%) of the public feel there isn’t enough representation of people with a disability on TV.

In addition, a quarter (25%) of the public say they are more interested in the experience of Deaf people since Rose Ayling-Ellis started to appear on Strictly Come Dancing.

For disabled people, it not just in TV programmes were they would like to see people with a disability, it’s in the advertising breaks too. According to a recent eye opening report from Channel Four, disabled people only featured in 4% of TV adverts.

From a young age, I’d always wanted to work in the media, radio initially, but when I was growing up I rarely saw or heard someone with a disability on media platforms. I started in Hospital Radio at 16, then progressed over the past decade onto TV, mainly news media. It’s been in no way an easy journey and still today there are limited training paths to TV, and very little change to enter the profession at ground level.

Children’s TV was the genre most representative of disabled people with 11.9% in 2020-21. This is important as those viewers are the future advocates for change.

It’s critical to reinforce the message that disability is an integral part of society, not a “side show”. Disabled people often face inequality when cast in TV roles. This was highlighted in BBC show The A Word, where lead character Joe, who has autism, was played by young actor who is not neurodivergent. Whilst the show was award winning and informative of issues faced by those growing up with autism, it was not relatable in real life.

For a long time disability was discussed on TV and Radio, but rarely included people with lived disability experiences. A big moment was in 2012 when Channel 4, who hosted the Paralympics in London, put a call out for presenters, reporters and production crew with a disability.

It was a ground-breaking development to see para-athletes, but also presenters with a disability. In addition, running alongside the Paralympics coverage was a show called The Last Leg, with round ups of the action and interviews with para-athletes. It has now been running for 10 years and they take a look at the week’s news with different guests.

As a member of the online community of disabled TV professionals, I was able to gather some feedback, one told me: “My daughter, who has autism, is currently writing a series of animations, but she might not have the same opportunity as she has a disability.”

Another added: “All too often disabled people are only called on to talk about disability issues, we can talk about other topics, so the representation and narrative are in a perpetual loop.”

My hope is that the next generation of disabled performers and backline support will feel more inspired to aim for careers in TV and media, as there are more role models to aspire to, but I fear they might still need to force that door open much harder than those without a disability.

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