How do we increase disability representation in the media?

Michael McEwan explores disability representation in the media and how it can be improved to better showcase the varied lives we lead.

When I was growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people with a disability on TV. While there has been progress in recent years, there is still a long way to go.

Around one in five (20%) of working-age people have a disability. However, data indicates that disabled people are still under-represented in broadcasting roles.

In 2020, the proportion of disabled people working in on-screen roles in TV production sat at 7.9%, while just off-screen roles sat at 5.4%. Disability representation is also particularly low among Executive Producers, at just 3.6%.

Disability representation in the media is important because it can help to break down barriers toward people with a disability. We need to see more disability role models on our TV screens to break down these barriers.

Further opportunities also need to be accessed off-camera, such as producers and directors to encourage diversity and equality in media.

Coverage of the 2012 Paralympics was a “big moment” for the disabled community

The Paralympics in London 2012 was a big moment not just in sport, but on screen. For the first time, the general public saw disabled athletes, reporters, and presenters as role models.

Channel 4 coverage put the Paralympics on the map, and after more than half a century of obscurity, the channel screened several high-profile programmes to raise disability awareness.

The TV programme ‘The Last Leg’ began as a spin-off to highlight coverage of the 2012 games, and 10 years later, it is still running.

In the same year, Channel 4 launched The Undateables, a show about navigating the dating scene with a disability.

This year, Paralympics swimming gold medallist Ellie Simmonds will be the first dwarf to take the floor.

Earlier this year she presented a documentary called A World Without Dwarfism. I feel it was more powerful to watch someone that has the disability present it.

EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale have all featured disabled actors

Over the years, we’ve seen more people on our TV screens in soaps, dramas, documentaries, and adverts.

Just last year, we saw in EastEnders the first ever deaf actor to play a regular deaf character. The character, Frankie Lewis, is played by Rose Ayling-Ellis. Last year, Rose was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing and went on to win the series.

The show has since continued to showcase disability talent, and this year is no different.

Coronation Street cast the first down syndrome actor in the soap’s 55-year history, actor Liam Barstow has appeared on the cobbles since 2015.

Emmerdale followed suit in 2018, when James Moore, who has cerebral palsy, saw his character reconnect with his birth mother who wasn’t aware of his disability.

In 2019, James won the Best Newcomer Awards at the National Television Awards.

More disability roles are opening up in the media

In 2018, Britain’s Got Talent saw stand-up comedian, the Lost Voice Man (aka Lee Ridley) win the show. Unable to speak, he uses a communication aid to tell very funny jokes.

Recently on Question Time, comedian and presenter Rosie Jones, who has cerebral palsy, appeared on the show, discussing both disability and mainstream issues.

ITV daytime chat show Loose Women has also featured a number of people with disabilities on their panel. This includes disability advocate Sophie Morgan, former athlete Tanni Grey Thompson and presenter Katie Piper, who has gone on to host her own weekly Sunday breakfast chat show.

It’s encouraging to see many disability roles opening up, to inspire future generations to aim for this and believe in ability beyond disability.

Not enough disabled characters are played by disabled people

At last year’s Edinburgh TV festival, director Jack Thorne gave a lecture on disabled representation in the TV industry.

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

He said: “Since 1998, 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.”

In saying this, Jack highlights that many people are waiting to get into the industry but haven’t managed to yet. The media industry needs to be more diverse in filling key roles to benefit society as a whole.

Looking beyond disability

If there is one message to take away from reading this blog, let it be this. There must be equal opportunities in the media and the wider workplace for people with disabilities.

To achieve this, we must encourage the general public to look at the person and their skills, beyond their disability.


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