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Disability campaigner Sinead Burke has urged TV industry leaders to “use their privilege and power to invite and value disabled people into your work” in a blistering broadside about inclusion, warning that merely improving visibility “cannot be a measure of success”.

Chairing an RTS Cambridge Convention panel on disability representation in the industry, Burke, who founded accessibility consultany Tilting the Lens, said the industry – and conferences such as this – too often paid lip service to “awareness” and “visibility” by thinking of disability on TV as “niche” and sectioning off specific panel discussions in which disabled people “expose the most vulnerable parts of ourselves to ‘build awareness’” rather than bring them into the wider debates.

She also took issue with the lack of on-stage sign language and captioning during conference sessions.

Burke praised Jack Thorne’s Mactaggart lecture at last month’s Edinburgh TV Festival, saying it “will be etched in the history of this decade” for its power and urgency.

But she questioned why it took Thorne – who has a lived experience of disability, but does not identify as disabled – for the industry to listen.

“I applaud and admire Jack and I’m grateful to him, but what does it say about this industry that you make commitments and find resources not when disabled creatives speak about the challenges but when someone speaks about our challenges for us?” she asked.

“What hope is there that the pathways you are building are truly accessible and equitably? Why would we apply when the invitation was crafted about us and for us, not with us? We need to rebuild.”

'Unfair burden'

On the panel, David Proud, an actor who also writes for Coronation Street and Doctors, said he had had enough of playing the role of advocate for inclusion, having spent 15 years campaigning for an improvement in disability representation on- and off-screen.

He said that the “unfair burden” of asking disabled artists to educate the rest of the industry had taken its toll: “My mental health has suffered more in my 15 years than my physical health.”

Recounting a senior commissioner telling him two years ago “there’s no market for disability”, he said: “Non-disabled actors get awards for playing disabled people, but when we want to take the narrative ourselves and tell our stories it becomes niche. I don’t buy that.”

Proud called for companies to have disabled people in senior board positions and for any commissioner saying no to a disabled-led project to be required to have a second person counter-check the decision – “even just going through it and asking, ‘would I have made the same decision?’,” he said.

When it comes to mental health, Alicia Dalrymple, a junior production manager, said TV companies need to do more than just offer mental health training and external counselling, which she said was often insufficiently accessible. Key to unlocking that, she said, was for knowledge to filter down from the top.

“It’s good that external counselling is offered by there might be an instance where someone has really bad anxiety or sensory overload and might have to take a breather,” she said.

“Knowing there’s a room available for someone to do that – it’s an empathy thing. Anybody can have a mental health disability. Think what you would want in place [if it was you]. We need to be seen and be safe.”

Burke shared four ‘baseline propositions’ for the industry to address. We share them here in full:

  • Disability is not a dirty word.

“Say the word ‘disabled’. We are not superheroes. We are not differently abled. Our needs are not special.

“Disability is central to human existence. Disability can be visible or invisible. It can be inherited acquired permanent or temporary. Disability threads across the intersections of identity and if we think and talk about disability, it must be intersectional in its definition.

“We will each experience disability at some point in our lives, but until we culturally reposition disability – which is what you all have the power to do - we need it to be an existence that is not tied to sympathy and charity but pride, creativity and dignity.

“Until we do that, the notion that we will all be disabled is heard as a warning rather than a call to action for community and alliance.”

  • Accessibility must be a specific invitation, not an accommodation that must be ‘reasonable’.

“Who decides what’s reasonable? Accessibility must be embedded in our digital tools, our hiring practices, in our corporate office refurbishment, in our production budgets and in our marketing strategies. Visibility is important but cannot be measure of success.

“We should not have an awards ceremony celebrating the best of film and television in a building that is inaccessible. Where photographs are taken at the top of a flight of stairs.

“We should have deaf interpreters on stage with actors and directors and a ramp to the podium that can be used by everyone – and an accessible podium too.

“It is too late to think and plot accessibility when disabled talent has already reached the upper echelons of the industry – who didn’t make it, due to the systemic barriers that we created?

“What does a young disabled creative watching at home think? They believe that their inclusion would be an exception. These are the symbols that lead us to believe that we would not be welcome.”

  • Many programmes and initiatives don’t acknowledge the wider societal barriers that exist.

“I would find it really difficult to study or lecture here [King’s College, Cambridge]. The buildings are listed and architecturally protected.

“We’re asking you to acknowledge that the merit system by which we measure success is not designed for everyone to thrive.

“We do not just need programmes that create opportunities for disabled talent now, but we need scholarships and bursaries that give access to education and we need educational campaigns that encourage children and teenagers to believe that this is an industry they can be a part of.

“If our inclusion is only embedded in the present, change will be a moment, not a movement.”

  • Be a force for change.

“This is the smallest attendance that I have seen in the two days of the conference. Where are your colleagues? As this session began, the audience became smaller. We need you to engage your colleagues, family and friends.

“Arm yourself with two questions: Is this accessible? And: Who is not in the room?

“Those questions free us from the passivity we feel and force us to do something. Use the privilege and power to invite and value disabled people into your work.”

“For too long we’ve been asked to sit on panels like this – to expose the most vulnerable parts of ourselves - to build awareness. You are aware that we exist – we need action and we need to be in the room.”

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