Su-Mei Thompson on Reframing Disability: Why collaboration is key

Posted 7 November 2019

Media Trust CEO Su-Mei Thompson shares insights from Media Trust’s Reframing Disability Summit and calls on media and creative organisations to get behind improving the representation of disabled people in media and advertising.

As TV writer Jack Thorne said in a recent interview: “A lack of understanding about the capabilities of disabled actors and concerns over their requirements has erased disability from the diversity conversation. People often can’t see past a disability and focus on what level of care would be required and costs incurred, rather than considering what these phenomenal actors can bring.” Thorne is right. And it’s not just the Film and TV industry that’s falling short when it comes to disabled representation or failing to tap the talent pool represented by of the 13.9 million disabled people in the UK.

Disabled people are the most under-represented minority group in broadcasting, making up just 6.5% of onscreen staff and 5.5% of off-screen staff in television. In advertising, the statistics are even worse. And although some organisations, like Channel 4 and creative agency ELVIS are making headway in putting disability on the agenda, progress has been woefully slow.

The Summit 

That is why, Media Trust hosted a Reframing Disability Summit in partnership with Disability Rights UK, Scope and Elvis and sponsored by Channel 4. The event brought together disability charities like Aspire, National Autistic Society and Remap, with some of the UK’s leading media and creative organisations such as the BBC, BBH, CNN International, Mediacom, Omnicom and Twitter to collaborate on how to improve representation across the whole industry.

Ensuring greater diversity and inclusion in the media and creative industry is at the core of Media Trust’s work

Ensuring greater diversity and inclusion in the media and creative industry is at the core of Media Trust’s work and the Summit was designed to provide a launchpad for initial discussions between both groups. It was an extraordinary event and really shows what can be achieved when you bring together the media and creative industry with charities and people with lived experience of disability to collectively and collaboratively brainstorm ideas and possible solutions.

The event saw delegates split into nine working groups which were given a range of issues to look at including barriers to greater representation of disability in news reporting, advertising and on screen as well as how media platforms can be more accessible. And because we know that change needs to start within media and creative organisations, we also had groups discussing the barriers to employment that disabled people face from unconscious bias on the part of commissioners and HR departments to accessibility and safeguarding issues.

Insights

At the end of discussions, each group shared their key discussion points and recommendations. A number of general overarching themes emerged:

Firstly, given how much the landscape has shifted over time with new forms of disability like hidden and intermittent disabilities, we need to take a fresh look at traditional definitions of disability and whether one size still fits all in terms of things like, for example, the universal disability logo of someone in a wheelchair.

Secondly, getting an accurate picture and setting aspirational targets are essential so we need media and creative organisations to sign up to measure and publish their disability stats and to set and enforce time-based targets for representation on screen, off screen, in advertising and in their workplaces. Because what gets measured, gets done.

Thirdly, that change needs to be both top down and bottom up so leaders need to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk and everyone in the organisation needs to feel empowered to bring about change.

Fourthly that change needs to start from within – so media and creative organisations need to ensure recruitment processes are inclusive and take disabled candidates into account from start to end.

Lastly, media and creative organisations need to be meaningfully engaging with disability charities and disabled people to ensure they are taking into account insights and views of people with lived experiences and not just their own assumptions of what works for them.

Media and creative organisations need to be meaningfully engaging with disability charities and disabled people to ensure they are taking into account insights and views of people with lived experiences and not just their own assumptions of what works for them

Next steps

At Media Trust, we will collect, analyse and synthesise the feedback and ideas from all of the groups and come up with a first pass of a white paper which we will share first with a steering group comprising our supporting partner organisations for the event and others to decide on next steps. I would say it’s very likely that next steps will see Media Trust convene separate thematic working groups comprising of media and creative  industry participants and disability charities to take forward the work we’ve started, leading up to an overarching charter for media and creative organisations to tackle the under-representation of disability in the media.

We are so encouraged by the energy and enthusiasm on the part of everyone who came to the Summit but we aren’t under-estimating how challenging it will be to achieve the kind of progress we’d like to see – it’s clear we need systemic change not just one or two examples of great ads or disabled presenters or dramas featuring disabled actors. We’re hoping the Summit will be the start of concerted and collaborative action on the part of the media and and creative industry to tackle the representation of disability in the media.

Of course our Summit is not the only space where this kind of discussion needs to happen – more than anything else, we need the media and creative industry to be champions for change and make this a strategic priority for their organisations and beyond this the brands and other businesses in their networks.  It was abundantly clear from all participants that “disability is an important part of diversity” and the industry needs to show real change in this area.

At Media Trust, as passionate as we are about the issue, we can’t do this alone.  If any of you here can help us continue the work we’ve started with our Reframing Disability Summit – we’d love to hear from you.

 

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