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Disabled workers in TV are held back by employers’ lack of awareness of their legal responsibilities, which puts the onus on individuals to make the case for their own access requirements, according to the latest research.

An Edinburgh TV Festival panel, hosted by disabled Sex Education actor George Robinson, weighed up evidence gathered for three pieces of research: the Creative Diversity Network’s Doubling Disability Interim Report, published in June; a Lenny Henry Centre-funded survey, out today; and an upcoming report from Bectu, the University of Bournemouth and Equity.

All three highlight a lack of internal training about the Equality Act, which outlines the measures employers must take on accessibility, and exasperation among disabled workers about a lack of consistency across the industry that forces them to start new conversations about their needs every time they change employer.

Kate Ansell, an executive producer who spoke to contributors to the latest survey, Career Routes and Barriers for Disabled People in the UK TV Industry, said: “Every decision made in the industry at every level needs to be made through the prism of disability… Everyone should scrutinise their practices to make sure they’re not inadvertently shutting out disabled people.”

She pointed out that the first responses to helping the industry get through the Covid pandemic made no mention of disability, with disabled freelancers effectively shut out by restrictions on location work.

Wayward career path

The report reflects Ansell’s own experience of the “wayward career path” often taken by people with disabilities, as they find that certain restrictions in one role force them to switch to another production or even genre at the expense of their development.

Of the 100 respondents to the survey, 80 said their impairment had impaired their career path.

Examples in the report include being frozen out by a requirement to drive, people abandoning location-based roles, or ones that involved carrying equipment, because their producers were not making the necessary adjustments and it proved hard to make the case for a causal link between the work and the impact on their condition.

“Think about who you’ve excluded and who you’re trying to attract,” she said.

Production manager Shari de Silva, who is working on the Bectu-backed report, said employers’ lack of knowledge of their legal obligations is exacerbated by the freelance nature of the workforce.

“I’m often onboarding new people but I’m a freelancer and I’ve had no training about Equality Act,” she said. “All people in those roles are on freelance or short-term contracts and are asked to crew up quickly, with no time to address the concerns.”

CDN executive director Deborah Williams said one simple option to make change would be to establish a budget line for provision for access in production contracts.

De Silva called for standardisation of budgeting for subtitles and closed captions, which she said are often an “afterthought”.

“They need to be giving us more time and more money and letting us put those provisions in from the start, otherwise it’s not going to happen,” she said.

"You cant crowbar it in - it feeds the attitude that it's this imposition, this extra step to go through. Shift your mindset and factor it in from the beginning and its not this extra 'kick-bollock-scramble'."

'Be bullish'

Rockerdale Studios chief executive Stu Richards, whose chronic back pain was only recently diagnosed as a disabling condition, said employers needed to “grow up” and get over their fear of offending disabled people by asking about their needs.

“We’d rather you hit the numbers while occasionally saying the slightly offensive thing than never hiring disabled people and never offending anyone,” he said.

Richards said his conversations with execs had encoursaged him to be “bullish” about his needs and suggested job applicants should spell out their access needs in their cover letters.

“A few said, ‘well done, that’s very brave’, but to be honest most said, ‘cool, thanks for telling me’. We need to keep the pressure on and make a bit of noise about it - most people, apart from a couple of comedy executives, are good people,” he joked.

Williams said the reports were an important step to building “critical mass” about access issues and said it was incumbent on people “across the supply chain to take ownership of the bits they can make a change. This is something that’s important – say so, as publicly and as often as possible.”

Panellists all acknowledged that last-minute commissioning decisions can impact on productions’ ability to hire disabled crew. However, all agreed that there was no excuse for indies not to build up their roster of disabled talent throughout the year.

Ansell said open communication is vital to addressing these needs. “If your production deadlines don’t allow you to hire a diverse crew, if you’re struggling, push back, talk to the broadcasters. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”

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