Rosie Jones and Deborah Williams question where the disabled people are in TV

Rosie Jones and Deborah Williams question where the disabled people are in TV

By Rosie Jones, Deborah Williams,
Monday, 8th March 2021
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Rosie Jones and Deborah Williams discuss television’s failure to hire more disabled people.

If you want some light reading, please do not dip into the Creative Diversity Network’s recent report, “Diamond: The Fourth Cut”. The statistics are grim, particularly when it comes to disability. According to the report, the UK TV industry has “urgent” work to do on disability representation, both on- and off-screen. This is an understatement of monumental proportions.

As a disabled person who has been working in the TV industry for 10 years, straddling both sides of the camera, I am not surprised by this report. I am almost always the lone ranger, working in an environment with not a single fellow disabled person in sight.

I started working as a TV researcher in 2011 at one of the biggest production companies in the country. Despite there being well over 100 employees at the company, I was the only disabled person working there. This picture continued throughout my time in production.

The stats in the report support my own experiences in production. In the last year covered, disabled people made up just 5.8% of off-screen contributions, well below the national workforce estimate, which is 17%.

While there are several different, and brilliant, diversity schemes in TV production, these are still too few and far between. And once we start talking about disability representation in senior roles – well, we can’t start talking about that, because there simply aren’t any disabled people in senior roles in television.

The on-screen representation of disabled people is also shockingly low, accounting for just 8.2% of contributions. As a comedian who appears on panel shows and comedy programmes regularly, I can’t remember a single time where I’ve appeared with another disabled person... oh, apart from on The Last Leg, obviously! 

I don’t understand why we’re ignoring a fifth of our country. When it comes to TV, people with disabilities are purposely overlooked and ignored. And, let me tell you, as a disabled person, that this has a crushing impact not just on society’s opinion of us, but on how we perceive ourselves.

When I was growing up, I never saw anyone like me on television. Despite being a fiercely independent and strong-willed kid, I started to feel ­invalid and unworthy because people “like me” were never shown to be just like everyone else.

On the few occasions when disabled people were on TV, it was to play the victim or the angelic creature... and those were things that I could never relate to. Sure, I’m disabled, but I am not a victim and, my God, I am certainly not an angelic creature.

How disabled people are perceived has also had a damning effect on ­society as a whole. On a daily basis, I am still mocked, patronised and underestimated. 

Very few of these instances could be described as “malicious” – I believe that they come from a lack of understanding and education.

If there were more representation of disability on TV, there would be less of a sense of “the other” when a non-­disabled person meets a disabled person in real life.

Having more disabled people on- and off-screen must happen... now! If you carry on ignoring a huge chunk of our world, you will alienate us and only widen the gap between the different sectors in society, and no one wants that – do they?

How could choosing to celebrate how wonderfully diverse our country is ever be a bad thing? By embracing minorities, we are able to tell more interesting and richer stories through television.

We can educate, entertain, and all become better people, working in an industry that is a true representation of the beautiful world we live in. Now is our time. 

Rosie Jones is a comedian.

Fragile gains are at grave risk

Deborah Williams Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian
Deborah Williams Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian

It is impossible to put into words what it has been like this last year, living and working as a disabled person in British television. I can’t begin to share the levels of distress and depression that I have experienced myself and have had expressed to me by other people.

From a Creative Diversity Network perspective, 2020 should have been the conclusion of our Doubling Disability programme, launched in 2017. It was clear from the first report, 2017’s ‘Diamond: The First Cut’ – even though it was based on limited data – that, on- and off-screen, disabled people were shockingly under-represen­ted in TV.

That did not mean that there were no disabled people working in TV and that progress hadn’t been made. However, if you look at the UK as a whole, around 17% of the workforce is disabled. Diamond revealed that, in tele­vision, disabled people comprised no more than 5% of employees.

We commissioned additional research, from which came Doubling Disability, a commitment to double the percentage of disabled people in off-screen roles by the end of 2020. The target was 9%. We even got the Department for Work and Pensions on board. We were in an incredibly positive and powerful place.

The approach was two-tiered: first, there was the indirect impact involving cultural change and discussion of what the industry needed to do to bring this about. 

The second level concerned how Diamond could help monitor the changes and how broadcasters would develop projects that backed disabled talent in areas such as writing and directing and employ disabled people in all areas of production.

At the end of 2019, some broadcasters announced what they were committed to doing. For instance, Channel 4 was looking forward to extending its Paralympics production training programme.

Then the pandemic hit. Across TV, production was halted. Our initiatives were stopped dead in their tracks. In the past year, what progress we had seen was rolled backwards.

Disabled people have told us that they are not being contracted: as freelancers, they are especially vulnerable in the age of Covid. We’ve been told that they are an insurance risk – or perceived to be – due to the high cost of insuring them.

Our fourth report, published in January was emphatic: the UK television industry has ‘urgent’ work to do on disability. We found that disabled people are only making 5.8% of contributions off-screen and 8.2% on-screen. These were meagre gains on 2019; overall, there is ‘significant’ under-­representation across senior production roles.

The pandemic is being used as an excuse to roll the clock back 30 years, which is just shocking. We must not allow this to happen.

What we must do this year is pick up the baton from Alison Walsh, the former pan-BBC disability lead and disability executive at Channel 4. Her leadership and determination gave disabled people hope. Alison is the Don of this space.

No one has come close to her. As an industry, we need to take her example and carry on and complete the race in style. There is much work to be done. We’ve got to fix disability in the industry.

We cannot allow people to arbitrarily assume they know what a disabled person is capable of by just being introduced to them; we cannot allow 
a mediocre representation of disabled talent, on- or off-screen.

It needs sorting, and we are in a unique position now to fix it. 

Deborah Williams is executive director of the Creative Diversity Network.

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