In this article we explore options for being visible and the potential issues that are associated with them.
Jobs in mainstream news
As people with disabilities we are under-represented in mainstream media. I would like to first focus on mainstream news, not the coverage itself but diversity in reporters.
I am generally against forcing diversity on to companies; it is preferable to me that they do it voluntarily. If you want a non intrusive way to have people with disabilities in mainstream media; a good place to start would be having reporters or news casters with disabilities. Of course they don't have to be sent to places such as Iraq to report and I am not suggesting that, but there is no reason why some of us can't read the news.
I would encourage media companies to consider this. I would also encourage people that have disabilities to apply for such jobs if they want them. Field reporting may be required traditionally but a solution to this could be to shuffle the personnel around so it remains practical. Companies should know that this is an option.
If the person has a carer it will cost them double to send the reporter to places. Corporations are not going to do this. However what I am proposing is very realistic. This will do quite a bit to increase the visibility of people that have disabilities which increases the perception that they are regular folks.
It is ultimately up to the corporations to do this but they need to be encouraged in this direction. Getting the qualifications and applying for the jobs could be the first steps. The only people who can make us visible, is us.
Governments should promote disability with TV
Governments should promote people with disabilities in the media if they have a state run media organization like the BBC in the UK or TVNZ in New Zealand they can do this by giving acting and journalism jobs to people with disabilities. If they are hiring people in these roles anyway, they may as well have some diversity as a cost effective way of helping the disability community.
This accomplishes two things. First it would help inspire people that have disabilities to go for such roles. It will more also make them feel represented on screen.
Secondly it will educate the public to help them realized that people with disabilities can have normal lives. Some people don't really encounter people that have disabilities and from their own conclusions. If they see a character with a disability on a soap or a journalist in a wheelchair on the nightly news it could make a difference.
Authenticity is also important; nothing will drive home equality like a character that experiences a disability playing a someone on screen. If your audience is hundreds of thousands or millions of people this could be a very effective way of doing awareness. Governments should consider helping out with subsidises. This can be a good solution since people like governments to spend their tax payer in an efficient way. What better way to blast the idea of equality to the masses.
The media covering us people with disabilities can be extremely problematic. Firstly it is worth asking if it is acceptable to cover someone just because they have a disability doing something. I am inclined to say no, with the exception of the person wanting to be covered. Such coverage can be useful in building careers. However if the person is just doing what able body people do, perhaps that isn't worth a story.
The counter point to my stance is that it may be important for the public to see people that have disabilities living normal lives. However this could probably be better achieved by having journalists on TV with disabilities. Another possible advantage of covering people that have impairments in situations that you normally wouldn't cover someone is that you show case technology that enables people to live their lives and this would encourage other people to get the technology which may not know that the technology exists.
I won't go into language guidelines in this specific post, perhaps I'll do another. I will say about the tragic or amazing/inspirational coverage rule. Articles usually have one of two tones, and this is wrong. Journalists are not helping public perceptions by covering stories in such ways. (Although I don't have any evidence to back this opinion up) I personally believe that journalist should just paint us as normal instead of painting us as inspirational or doing something in spite of our disability.
An article that I was featured in while I was at school was titled "Learning against the odds". This is a horrible title and had no reflection of my state of mind to do so. Journalists shouldn't paint things as an uphill battle unless specifically instructed to do so.
Since many in the disability community disagree on language journalists should just ask the person that you are interviewing about these things. General guidelines should be available but the final say should go to the person being interviewed. If this was the still standard then perhaps there would be fewer problems.
Problems in the TV/film industry
It is critical that people with disabilities are visible. If we're not people will form their own conclusions that we should be pittied etc. I will expand on this in a later post.
During an arts access weekend in Wellington, New Zealand it suddenly occurred to me that the film industry is not set up for actors that have disabilities. I remember a YouTube host ranting about actors playing people with disabilities getting all of the Oscars. It never occurred to me that this is counter productive. What incentive do producers have to cast people that have disabilities in this environment? The answer is practically none.
People that are in wheelchairs cannot play able body people. Just like a man in drag cannot play a woman in a mainstream role. Now imagine if they were rewarded with Oscars for doing so. Women wouldn't tolerate this treatment; we shouldn't either.
I'm not advocating that we should match disabilities exactly, that would be quite ridiculous. If people that experience disabilities have the skills they should play people with similar disabilities in the mainstream. Disability organizations and arts access advocacy groups need to take the initiative and ensure that places like Hollywood have the talent to choose from.
Breaking Bad is a shining example of a character with a disability being played by a genuinely affected person but there are not many examples. There are also a lack of characters that have disabilities and this also contributes to the problem. Perhaps the only solution to this is being visible in society so more producers want to cover us.
If you are not particularly good at acting you might want to consider being an extra. I expect that this will aid the visibility issue a bit but of course the pay would be minimal. From my own experience producers can be hesitant to employ people with disabilities in this fashion but you I think that it is worthwhile to keep trying to get hired if this is what you want.
It is possible that a job as an extra will help you become a regular actor.
People with disabilities on reality TV
Personally I really don't like reality TV but I was also thinking that this is not a place where people with disabilities are seen. You don't see them on Big Brother, Survivor, dating shows or even cooking shows. Are people that experience disabilities not applying or are they being refused? I am sure people can think of one or two cases but it is not proportionate.
I am not completely unreasonable. I am sure that most people agree that shows like Survivor and building shows would have physical demands beyond what people that use a wheelchair could do, although people with some invisible disabilities could take part. I expect that with dating shows they don't to put "The Bachelor" in a position so have to reject a person with a disability. For most other shows they should at least consider people who are differently-abled.
A person once said to me that there is not enough actors with disabilities and that why they are not on screen as much, I think that this is not a valid argument and even if this was true the solution would be to encourage more actors that have disabilities. Reality TV is supposed to be made up of regular folk. So this claim won't fly. Reality TV could be an easy way to get people who live with disabilities on screen. One idea that I have was those partying shows like Jersey Shore, from experience watching drunken people around people with disabilities can be very entertaining.
I am aware that the UK has a show called The Undateables which firstly is an awful name, they should change it. Secondly I am not talking about segregated reality TV shows or documentary series. People that live with disabilities need to be in the mainstream otherwise people being on screen would have limited effect. Also I may be writing this as an out of touch nerd but I really don't think that the target demographic is watching a disability orientated dating show. Reach is essential!
I would advise people who have physical or invisible disabilities to apply and keep applying for reality TV shows, of course providing that you want the fame.
Increasing visibility through a writing career
If you have a disability, and you are frustrated that we are not seen on screen or in literature; why not empower yourself by becoming a writer? If you already have a job you could write a book in your spare time or encourage others to take up writing. There is no better way to get information and stories about people with disabilities out there than to write them yourself.
Writing is a skill but it can be learned. If learning online is for you, I am sure that you can find articles or videos describing your particular interest. I learned how to format a screenplay by reading an online glossary. Of course universities are an option but there are also workshops lasting a few days.
It is a good idea not to just focus on disability stories but integrating disability within a more mainstream story. The advantage of this is it bypasses people specifically looking for disability stories and will probably reach a wider range of people. If your goal is to bring the message of disability and normality to an audience that wouldn't otherwise get it; this is the best way. Of course if you just want to tell stories about characters with disabilities you can do that too.
Getting a TV writing job will beneficial in terms of reaching the most amount of people possible. However you would need to work up to this. You could practice writing short films and explore funding avenues. Even if they don't get made it would be worthwhile to practicing writing screenplays so any future job is easier to manage.
If writers mainly write about what they know than we must become writers to ensure our stories are told.