Disability & TV
28th April 2021
There are more than 14 million people in the UK living with a disability. 19% of working age adults in the UK are disabled, and 44% of pension age adults. But how often do we see people with a disability on our television screens, whether that is in Scripted or Non-scripted roles? In its January report, the Creative Diversity Network said that the UK television industry had ‘urgent’ work to do on disability after it found that disabled people are only making 8.2% of contributions on-screen (the figure is even lower for contributions off-screen).
We asked three actresses working in the industry for their take on how the TV industry is doing when it comes to disability on-screen.
EH: I have been with my agent, VisABLE, since February of 2021 and have been fortunate enough to book jobs ranging from a campaign with a leading UK charity to working on a major BBC TV series. All of these opportunities have arisen because they were specifically looking for a disabled person. It’s great to know that the industry is actively working towards increasing representation; however, there is always the thought that you are maybe being cast to ‘tick a box’. Once we are at a point where disabled actors can audition for ANY role and not just those casting a disabled character, I will feel like we are then truly accepted. This is why I chose to be represented by VisABLE as their whole ethos is “Creating mainstream professional opportunities for actors, presenters and models with disabilities”, which I feel is the ultimate goal.
AC: I’ve been working as an actor, predominantly in television, for almost twenty years. It’s been something of a roller coaster ride with various peaks and troughs, largely governed by how inclusive (or un-inclusive) the industry is feeling at any given time. I’m an actor with a visible disability, so still only tend to get seen for parts where a casting director is specifically looking for someone with my impairment - blindness. Having said this, in recent years there’s been an increase in the availability of work for performers with disabilities and 2019 felt like a real turning point for me: I had castings most weeks and I was hired to play MP Della Winn in the BBC’s dramatization of Lethal White. Then Covid hit, and there was literally nothing for almost a year. Things are finally picking up again now. I’ve had several castings in recent weeks and will be filming again in June for another TV role. I’m looking forward to getting back on set and thankfully production companies seem very aware of (and not put off by) the extra assistance I will need to maintain social distancing, so I’m hopeful that the after effects of Covid will not impact too severely on my career. I was very concerned that social distancing measures would become a barrier to work for me, but I’m delighted that the industry’s commitment to inclusion seems to be surpassing these fleeting challenges and feel hopeful that, despite the temporary setbacks, progress will continue.
TZ: The TV industry seems gradually to be realising the value of diversity and the consequential richness of equality within its productions. Historically, the only disabled characters, if included at all, were played by able bodied actors. In recent years, however, there has been a marked step-up in not only the number of characters we now see that are disabled, but importantly by the fact they are now played by disabled actors. The BBC in particular is very keen to offer disabled character roles only to actors with that specific disability, the result of which offers a genuinely truthful portrayal. The industry also seems to be waking up to the notion of disabled actors playing non-disabled roles and, equally as importantly, disabled roles where the focus of their character is not the disability itself. These important changes offer long overdue hope to an astoundingly talented pool of grossly under-utilised acting talent.