UK Disability History Month takes place between 22 November – 22 December every year. With this year’s theme being Portrayal of Disability in Moving Image Media, what better place could there be than the BFI to host an opening conference addressing the subject. Joe Turnbull was in attendance.
We are now well and truly in the age of the image. The image as spectacle. The image as arbiter. The image as the dominant form of mass communication. Just as the language around disability has for so long been an important terrain for political struggle, now the image and portrayal of disability is of increasing significance. Progress has been made on many fronts in this regard, but representation is still shockingly disproportionate: some estimates suggesting less than 1% of the film and TV industry is staffed by disabled people who make up nearly 20% of the population.
Co-ordinator of UK Disability History Month and chair for the day’s proceedings, Richard Rieser got the ball rolling with an historical overview of the portrayal of disability stretching as far back the Graeco-Roman attitudes towards the ‘body beautiful’ via myths about disabled people as evil in the middle ages right up to notion of ‘superhumans’ propagated at London 2012.
Eschewing any liberal historical notions of ‘linear progress’ – especially with recent media portrayals as ‘scroungers’ – the presentation nevertheless gave some cause for cautious optimism. Rieser presented a number of mainstream media portrayals of disability, starting with a string of stereotypical negative representations before moving on to some more realistic depictions.
Some of the former were flagrantly derogatory, such as a BBC series Hamish Macbeth from 1997 that had a ridiculous caricature of man with a patch, hook and prosthetic leg as the villain.
BBC3’s docu-drama Don’t Take My Baby was heralded as one of a spate of much more progressive pieces of work, telling the real-life story of a disabled couple fighting to keep their child from being taken into care. The director, Ben Anthony was in attendance and described how difficult the process of finding two disabled leads had been, given the lack of talent development in the industry. A particular success story though was the fact that Anthony was able to cast a disabled actor for a non-disabled ancillary character. It was generally agreed we need to see much more of this.
The Stephen Hawking biopic A Theory of Everything was mentioned when discussing the vexed question of non-disabled actors playing disabled roles, a film which also sparked much debate on the Dao Facebook group. Ju Gosling, director, producer and organiser of Together! had a firm stance: “In truth, non-disabled actors can only be convincing [playing a disabled character] while we ourselves remain invisible”.
The rest of the day took the format of panel-based discussions firstly with actors, then with writers and finally with producers and directors. An amusing feature that developed throughout the day was for the blame for low levels of disability representation and poor portrayal to be seemingly passed up the chain at each turn: actors blaming writers and producers; writers blaming directors and casting; directors and producers blaming the owners or CEOs of media companies. In truth, there is a role for everyone to play in making improvements.
From the actor’s panel, Liz Carr was typically erudite, and as a prominent actor on the BBC’s Silent Witness it was frankly alarming to hear the barriers she still experiences on a daily basis on the job. Even someone as forceful and gutsy as Carr finds herself constantly self-censoring when it comes to her needs on set. As she rightly points out “It’s not just about getting disabled people roles…it’s about what happens when you’re there”.
Coming from a non-disability perspective Danny Sapani drew parallels with his own travails as a black actor and fittingly called for a “more accurate portrayal of our collective past,” which is so often overlooked in period dramas.
Meanwhile, writer Rahila Gupta felt the increased financial imperative of TV and particularly film presented a barrier to disability representation and posed the question if the ‘disability moment’ had passed in favour of the transgender one.
Writer and Dao regular Allan Sutherland remarked that “disability is not a spectator sport, it’s about personal experience”. He expressed how challenging it is to portray on screen so-called ‘non-visible disabilities,’ without making the character’s impairment central to the story – which itself can prove problematic.
Critic, Dr. Paul Darke and executive producer Colin Rogers both felt it was time for quotas in order to increase the number of disabled people both on screen and behind the scenes in the film and TV industry, particularly when public money is involved. Darke quipped: “most popular culture is shit anyway, why can’t we make 20% of it?”
Although much of the debate centred around numbers and representation there were some other important points raised, with an action plan drawn up including: more training – on and off screen; championing alternative voices and real life stories, with support for initiatives like Act for Change; holding to account those who run and control the media; the need for programmes which put forward the view of the disability rights movement. Media portrayal is of course one small element of the wider social and political context of disability – but it’s nonetheless an important one. The media has the power to influence wider society on disability. It’s high time that influence was a positive not a negative one.
Watch the panel discussions in full below: