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People with disabilities have been “utterly and totally” failed by the TV industry when it comes to portraying their stories and lived experiences according to the award-winning screenwriter Jack Thorne.
Delivering his keynote MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, widely recognized as an important forum in setting the agenda for the TV industry, Thorne also decried the myriad ways in which the cards remain “stacked against” disabled talent wishing to carve out a career in the sector in 2021.
Earlier this month, U.S.disability inclusion advocacy organization Disability:IN strongly condemned Nasdaq’s decision to exclude disability from its latest boardroom diversity initiative.
Thorne firmly believes that a similar type of shunning has been present in broadcasting for many years, with disability representation not receiving anywhere near the same level of attention as that afforded to other minority groups.
Comparing disability representation in TV to that of racial and ethnic diversity, the multi-BAFTA award-winning writer, whose credits include BBC’s His Dark Materials, The Secret Garden movie and the stage production of Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, said: “Disability is the forgotten diversity.”
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“I know the Black Lives Matter movement has a long way to go, and that no one is satisfied with our current state of affairs, but I can’t tell you the difference it has made to casting conversations,” said Thorne.
“The fact that the same white names and faces aren’t presented in every conversation. Actors, writers and directors of color are finally being elevated, and it means that there is starting to be a complexity to the stories being told on TV,” he added.
Addressing, by means of comparison, the evolution of disability representation in TV and film, Thorne said, “Gender, race, sexuality, all rightly get discussed at length. Disability gets relegated out. In conversations about representation, in action plans, and new era planning, disability is confined to the corner, it remains an afterthought.”
Thorne does not currently identify as disabled but suffered from a condition known as cholinergic urticaria in his early twenties which causes those affected to become allergic to their own body heat, an experience he describes as “chronic and very painful”.
He expressed his frustration at the fact that disabled talent both in front of and behind the camera continue to be overlooked for roles and projects, even when disability is a key aspect of the storyline.
Much has been written over the past few months about Sia’s casting of a neurotypical actress to play a young woman with autism in Music and Thorne reserved specific comment for the 2020 film Come As You Are which tells the story of three friends with disabilities embarking on a road trip to lose their virginity.
“None of these three characters were played by disabled actors,” he said.
“Something as sensitive as disability and sex – really sensitive – and they couldn’t find disabled actors to play the roles?”
Quotas are a remedy Thorne put forward to initiate the slow process of rebalancing disability representation in the industry, which currently stands at 8.2% on-screen and a meager 5.4% behind the camera, versus 20% of the general population.
Quotas are sometimes frowned upon in inclusivity circles because they can be seen as not meritocratic and smack of tokenism.
Nonetheless, they may be considered a measure of last resort when a situation appears dire and meaningful change is occurring at a snail’s pace. Right now, the figures above would suggest that such a scenario is firmly entrenched.
Thorne would also like to see a push in the industry to make all studio facilities fully accessible, with a cross-industry fund established to pay for this.
He illuminated his point with a harrowing account of how a wheelchair user friend of his had to crawl around on-set due to a lack of proper disabled access and reduce her food and drink intake to once a day because there was no disabled toilet facilities.
Finally, a solemn special mention was reserved for the devastating and disproportionate toll the Covid-19 pandemic has exacted on the global disability community, with Thorne expressing particular concern over the hastily-evolved language around “underlying health conditions” and the extent to which a subconscious sense of natural expendability was conferred upon it.
“This year was a year of ableism like I’ve never seen before. This was a year when a lot of disabled people died,” he said.
In addition to the BBC’s factual drama Independence Day? How Disabled Rights Were Won (working title), Thorne’s upcoming projects also include Help, a story set in a nursing home in those most tragic early days of the pandemic, which saw the novel coronavirus tear its way through the country’s care facilities.