I’d like you to name five athletes. Now I’d like you to name the last five people you saw on TV or film. Looking back at that list, how many of the 10 people have a disability? I’d hazard a guess that it would be one, maybe two. My list would be very similar. Inclusion in sport, TV and film is getting better. The popularity, and size of the Paralympics continues to grow with each cycle. Channel 4’s coverage of the 2020 Paralympics was viewed by over 20 million viewers in the UK. That’s a third of the population. Looking back at TV and film 10 years ago there is certainly more inclusivity now. However, representation of people with disabilities in TV is still only estimated at around 2.5%.
Inclusion in sport
For 12 days this year athletes with a disability were centre stage of our TV’s during the Paralympic Games. During this time Channel 4 were trailblazers of athletes with a disability. They showed over 1,300 hours of coverage and 16 live streams which was more coverage than was on terrestrial TV for the Olympics. Almost three quarters of their presenters and commentators were people with a disability. They also increased the number of senior personnel with disabilities behind the camera.
This is fantastic for the 12 days of the year the Paralympics aired but what about the other 353 days of the year? Channel 4’s streaming service, All 4, recently revealed a section dedicated to fuelling conversations about disabilities. ‘We Don’t Dis-ability’ includes programmes such as Jonnie’s Blade Camp, Mission: Accessible and signed versions of Derry Girls and The Inbetweeners. This not only builds on inclusivity but is also making their programmes more accessible.
But can we do more? In short…yes. Events such as the London Marathon and the Great North Run have always welcomed wheelchair athletes. Other than single events like this and the Paralympics I can’t think of a time I’ve seen athletes with a disability compete on TV.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could turn on the TV and instead of reruns of Come Dine With Me or Bargain Hunt you’re greeted with a disability football game or a wheelchair basketball match? It’s time that athletes with a disability are given their time to shine, not just for 12 days of the years, every four years.
What can we do to improve inclusion in sport?
The Football Association recently announced it is aiming to increase the number of people playing disability football by 50% over the next three years which is obviously a positive. It’s all very well putting the emphasis on broadcasters and sporting associations but is there anything we can do to help include inclusivity at a grassroots level? I have recently completed a guide running course with English Athletics to become a licensed guide runner. As part of our training we were put into pairs. One of us blindfolded while the other one took the guiding responsibilities then vice versa. Both roles were equally as important to gain an understanding in what is needed to be a guide runner. The following day I went for a run along my normal route and realised how many obstacles I encounter but never realise but a runner who is visually impaired would need to be informed of such as overhanging branches, changes in gradient and the pavement curving round a corner.
Inclusion in TV and film
Did you watch any TV or films last night? Maybe you’re getting on the Squid Game bandwagon or did you watch James Bond’s latest offering in No Time to Die? Whatever you watched, was there a character with a disability featured? Moreover, was that character defined by their disability? TV is becoming more inclusive. Rose Ayling-Ellis, the EastEnders actress who is deaf, is currently smashing it on Strictly Come Dancing and Paralympian Stef Reid MBE has recently announced she will be on the next series of Dancing on Ice. CBBC has also announced their new presenter will be George Webster, a 20-year-old actor and presenter with Down’s Syndrome.
Calling out exclusion
Sadly, not everyone who is in the public eye who has a disability has a positive experience all of the time. After her recent appearance on Question Time, Rosie Jones the well-known comedian who has cerebral palsy tweeted:
“The sad thing is that I’m not surprised at the ableist abuse I’ve received tonight regarding my appearance on Question Time. It’s indicative of the country we live in right now. I will keep on speaking up, in my wonderful voice, for what I believe in.”
By speaking out about the ableist comments Rosie is highlighting there is still a long way to go before we reach full inclusion. In an interview a few days after her appearance on Question Time Rosie said “It doesn’t stop me speaking out and if anything, it’s made me more determined to get out there, be myself and like I say speak for people like me.”
When characters with a disability are featured in films and TV, they are often portrayed in a negative light which can have a detrimental effect on the disabled community. Changing Faces are another example of someone speaking out to highlight the distance we have to go before we reach full inclusion in film and TV. Changing Faces is the UK’s leading charity for everyone with a scar, mark or condition that makes them look different. They recently wrote an open letter to the Producers of the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die. I’d like to share an extract below:
But for us, a group of volunteer campaigners with disfigurements and visible differences, the release of No Time To Die also fills us with dread. Once again, the villains are marked out by the scars on their faces, a physical disfigurement, an impairment. It’s a trope, it’s old fashioned and it’s outdated. And it has an impact.
The daily reality of living with a visible difference such as a birthmark, skin condition, or scarring, is contending with staring and comments. And for too many of us, we regularly experience abuse and hate, just because of how we look. We are hyper visible when we open our front doors.
Yet onscreen and in popular culture, we are virtually unseen. Unless you want a ‘baddie’ of course. Research has found that only one in five people with a visible difference have seen a character who looks like them cast as the hero in a film or on TV. Even fewer (15%) have seen someone with a scar, mark or condition that makes them look different playing the love interest on screen. Yet nearly double have seen someone with a visible difference cast as the villain or ‘baddie’.
You can read the full open letter by Changing Faces here.
Inclusion will lead to empowerment
I’m a strong believer of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. By making sport, TV and film more inclusive viewers with a disability are seeing people they can identify with succeed. Weather that be winning a gold medal, dancing the samba in front of millions of viewers or presenting children’s TV. I’d like to end this blog with a quote from George Webster which I feel sums up the topic perfectly:
“I have always wanted to be an actor; I love film and performance. I want to be given the opportunity to do more films and be equal and treated like everyone else and not be judged,”