It's time to make disability visible in cinema

Posted on November 14, 2019 by Andrew Miller

Categories: General, Pop-up and Event Cinema

Andrew Miller is an arts consultant, broadcaster and UK Government Disability Champion for Arts & Culture and in this blog talks about the importance of making disability more visible in cinema. 

Disability is now more visible in our national culture than it has ever been. We’ve seen Lost Voice Guy won Britain’s biggest TV talent show, the first disabled-led BBC Prom from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Resound Ensemble and the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was reclaimed as a great disabled artist at a recent exhibition at the V&A.

Meanwhile the UK’s disabled artists such as Turner Prize shortlisted Yinka Shonibare and Jess Thom – whose work is regularly televised by the BBC – lead the world in the quality and invention of their art. Arts Council England CEO Darren Henley recently stated, “the work of disabled and deaf artists is often the boldest, most aesthetically adventurous art out there.”

But some art forms support disability better than others. The theatre sector has led the way with increasingly routine casting of disabled actors in non-disabled roles and technical innovations such as the National Theatre’s Smart Caption Glasses, making theatre accessible for people with hearing loss. At the other extreme, the visual arts sector has struggled with recent furore surrounding inaccessible artworks by Olafur Eliasson exhibited at Tate Modern and Jeremy Deller’s monument to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester.

Jeremy Deller’s Peterloo Memorial in Manchester

Yet when it comes to our cinema screens and the film production and exhibiting workforce, disabled people are near invisible. Cinema has long struggled with issues of ethnicity, gender and class whilst disability has languished at the bottom of the list of priorities. As the UK Government’s Disability Champion for Arts & Culture – a role encompassing the arts, museums and film – I’m setting out to change that. I am passionate about democratising culture, ensuring disabled people can fully participate as artists, employees and audiences. That means having our voices heard throughout the UK’s world leading, creative industries. Increasingly across all areas of society disabled people are calling out bad practise, rubbish service and second rate experiences. And with the legal weight of the 2010 Equality Act behind us, it’s about time too!

There are 13 million disabled people in the UK, 7.6 million of working age – 20% of our national workforce with a combined spending power of £250 billion and that figure is growing 14% annually. Whilst the business case for inclusion is surely overwhelming, I would argue cinema and the film industry have been slow to recognise it.

Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern

The UK Government recognises it needs assistance to help tackle the issues disabled people face as consumers and employees across a range of industries from retail to airports. And so they have recruited 18 experienced industry champions, all working in different sectors and undertaking these roles voluntarily. We don’t work for, nor represent the government. But for me, the role offers a powerful, catalytic platform to drive change across the arts, museum and film sectors. On appointment last year, I identified three strategic areas for change:

  • We have to address the lack of training opportunities for disabled talent
  • We need to correct underrepresentation of disability in employment and governance structures
  • And finally we have to create equality of experience for disabled audiences

These priorities are also shaped by my own personal experience of the arts & broadcasting industries over 30 years, which has offered me as a disabled individual few support mechanisms, frequent discrimination and perhaps crucially, no role models to follow.

So to drive progress, I recently gathered a task force of public funders including all four UK Arts Councils (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), National Lottery Heritage Fund and the British Film Institute. Using the social model of disability, inclusive of neurodivergence, learning and physical disabilities, our starting point was to recognise that disabled people need additional support to enter the talent pipeline. This is required because most successful disabled creatives have emerged from non-traditional routes. For example, across UK drama schools in 2016 there was not a single graduate who declared a disability. Therefore we need bespoke approaches to apprenticeships and specialist arts higher education to attract disabled talent to our industry. And that means we need to think about hours, responsibilities, equal pay, access all areas – which we know in older buildings is often challenging.

The four UK Arts Councils recognise that dismal disability workforce statistics across the arts must be addressed. Despite disabled people making up 20% of the total UK workforce, currently only 5% of the English arts workforce declares a disability, 2% in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. By contrast the equivalent in UK broadcast is 7% and in the much larger education sector its 12%. Part of the problem is lack of self-declaration by employees, suggesting individual organisational culture towards disability needs improving. I have advocated for the greater deployment of the Government’s Disability Confident scheme to assist with this and for the Access to Work Benefit to better meet the specific needs of disabled people working in the creative industries.

My call to action has led to The Arts Council of Wales pledging to double the number of disabled employees in the Welsh arts workforce and triple disabled board membership. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s response is to roll out a disability audit of its entire funded portfolio and the British Film Institute (BFI) has set a 7% disabilities target for funded film makers and their own workforce.

For audiences, I’ve called for the creation of a single free National Disability Arts Access Card, designed to build disabled audiences and create a consistent offer of discounts and customer service across the funded network of arts venues and museums.

There are currently hundreds of individual access schemes operating across the country with differing terms and conditions – including the Cinema Exhibitors Card which is universally accepted at cinemas but has a cost attached to the disabled user. A feasibility study for a UK wide arts model has been commissioned, inspired by The Arts Council of Wales’ Hynt scheme which has signed up 15,000 disabled people to a scheme operating in 40 Welsh arts venues.

I am also encouraging public funders to consider how National Lottery funds can be better used to adapt premises for disabled employees, to address poor access in backstage and administration areas. And at Government level, I’m exploring with DCMS the potential of an Inclusive Cultural Strategy – designed to make our arts infrastructure the most accessible in the world for artists, employees and audiences.

In cinema, the BFI are adopting a leadership position on disability, whilst recognising there is much to do to better support disabled people in all aspects of film. In 2018 the BFI created a Disability Advisory Group of disabled on-and-off-screen talent to guide the funder on a range of screen issues. Key themes have emerged such as creating a framework to mentor disabled talent and taking a tough stance on the out-dated practice of “cripping up” (where non-disabled actors play disabled roles). The BFI’s annual Busting the Bias event brings together disabled talent to shape and discuss the future of cinema whilst the Disabled Britain on Film archive launches in January. Increasingly the BFI is seeking routes to use its position to influence the wider film production and exhibitor sectors to deliver best practice for disabled artists and audiences.

Smart Caption Glasses at National Theatre

But what can you do in your own organisation to ensure your activities are fully inclusive? Here are my top take-aways:

  • Ensure disability is firmly embedded in your lexicon of diversity and inclusion – all too often disability can be overlooked when considering the competing demands of inclusive practise
  • Diversify your Board to ensure you have a disabled person engaged at a senior level of your organisation who can offer guidance on disability issues. I sit on the board of four national cultural organisations and it makes a huge difference to the quality of their engagement
  • Step up the number of of dementia, relaxed, BSL and subtitled screenings you offer but ensure you deliver disability awareness training for all volunteers and customer facing staff that cover dementia, autism, sensory impairment and other invisible disabilities
  • Undertake an access audit of your entire business, to understand where access remains an issue and might prevent you employing disabled staff, engaging disabled artists or attracting disabled audiences
  • Join the Government’s Disability Confident scheme to support your organisation to develop a positive culture towards disability and ensure you understand your responsibilities to support disabled employees with benefits such as Access to Work
  • And finally, prepare to be relevant. In the 2020’s it is clear that public funders such as the arts councils and BFI will be prioritising their funding to support better representation

I want to challenge the cinema sector to lead beyond the requirements of The Equality Act, to go beyond reasonable adjustment. To demonstrate that our national culture can truly embrace and value disabled people as artists, as employees, as audiences. As equals.

Andrew Miller (@AndrewM_Arts) is an arts consultant & broadcaster and has been raising the profile of disability throughout his 30-year career in the UK’s cultural industries. Andrew is a National Council member of both the Arts Councils of England & Wales, a director of Welsh National Opera and digital arts agency The Space; he is Disability Advisor to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, chairs the BFI Disability Advisory Forum and is the UK Government’s first Disability Champion for Arts & Culture.

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