Opinion: Georgie Morrell On Disability Representation On Our Screens

We've all got that friend you give advice to and they never put that advice into practice. You know the one I mean? They continually come to you with the same problem, you give (if you're me) exceptionally good advice which they ignore and then keep making the same mistake. If you don't think you have that friend then it's probably you. For me, it's my friend Ellie who falls in love roughly every 6-8 months with another egotistical and emotionally unstable actor (like there's any other kind). When she quickly realises he is these things and worse, she asks for my advice and then takes no notice of it and I’m left watching said friend skip off into a sociopath’s arms.  

Now, instead of giving the advice to a friend in an attempt at avoiding disaster, imagine that friend is a whole industry, and the emotionally unstable actor is misguided. That's how it feels being disabled in my industry at the moment. I am a disabled comedian, actor and writer trying to improve disability representation. Currently, the industry is dangerously under-representing disabled people. I'll reveal all the statistics but quite simply answer me this; when was the last time you saw a disabled person on your TV? Then ask yourself how many non-disabled people you saw. My point exactly.

Now for the statistics. 14 million people or 20% of the UK population identify as being disabled yet on-screen representation is estimated to be 7.8%. I agree, it is hard to believe because when all is said and done, the reality is any one of us can become disabled. Here is the truth: it isn’t tragic being disabled. That’s outdated logic so we need to move on. But as the above statistics show, it appears we haven’t. Therefore, wouldn’t it be a good idea to remove the stigma around disability through positive representation by normalising it on our screens and stages to avoid blatant discrimination, especially when it’s something that potentially affects us all? No-one is immune to disability so get used to us because we're here and we aren’t going anywhere.  

I am the embodiment of disabled talent who is ready to work. I have recently taken part in the Reframing Disability In The News project run by the Media Trust and the BBC which provides media training for disabled experts. I have also supported the BFI’s Press Reset campaign which aims to “reset practices involving people with disabilities and establish a new, more inclusive normal” in the film and broadcast industries. 

So the will is strong and steps are slowly being made. But one step forward suddenly feels like one step back when you realise that there are often no disabled comedians booked for television and radio series. Consider the disabled face thoroughly slapped.

So why, when we have such well run and thoughtful campaigns, do we still have such disproportionately low levels of disabled talent? 

I believe there are two main reasons as to why the industry has gotten itself into this representation pickle. First up, don't get defensive because it won't help anyone. Defensiveness is often the reaction when broadcasters or producers are called out. I don't want to argue so let's be doers, not moaners, and just fix it. As my Mum says, “pride comes before a fall” so swallow that pride and don't be like my mate Ellie whose last boyfriend stole her debit cards and blocked her toilet but she still ‘loved’ him. Take the advice. One of the  biggest problems in modern society is the lack of admitting fault and asking for help to prevent from doing it all over again. Admit the mistake and ask those in the know how to improve on it. Take some responsibility for positive change because I don’t want you to feel how I've been made to.  

No judgment will or should be made because this is how we progress and move forward, by helping each other. I don't want a Twitter backlash for organisations I admire or for them to lose funding and be seen as prejudiced when it is avoidable. All I want is peace, better disability representation and a date with Chris Hemsworth…I'll accept the first two for now. “It's about prevention rather than the cure” which is another one of my Mum’s sayings.

Secondly, and it often goes hand in hand with defensiveness, is being risk averse. I don't like it although I understand it to a degree. The industry is constantly having to weigh up the risk versus the reward in a market that is highly competitive, faced with enormous financial cuts and constant criticism, but being risk averse will only make things worse. When asked, the risk seems to be a fear of offending disabled people in some way or using poor terminology and running the risk of getting ‘cancelled’. The risk is in your mind: trust me, disabled people don’t tend to be easily offended. We’ll let you know when you’ve said something out of line. 

Not embracing disability representation will only make matters worse.  What will happen is that programmes will continue to be made, followed by the occasional spat on social media about minority groups being underrepresented, broadcasters and producers saying that they will do better, nothing will change and round and round we go. I don't want that, no one does, so let's do better! 

These risk-averse attitudes are not only affecting positive representation but creativity. Finding the ‘next big thing’ will only happen if you look outside of your safety zone. Please trust me, it will be of little risk and only reward if disabled people are embraced. I know of an army of disabled people who are waiting to be unleashed and have got more anecdotes than a guest on Parkinson…and you won't have heard anything quite like these.

Not only is the talent out there but there are plenty of people ready to help and advise on how to make the industry more accessible. But here’s a little secret: talk to disabled people like anybody else! Put yourself in their shoes and you’ll get the idea. 

Let’s not continue with what feels like blatant prejudice. Don't stay in the dark and regress, and don't be like my pal Ellie who, last time I heard, moved back in with a spoken word artist who collects his own toenail clippings because she didn't listen to those that cared and wanted the best for her. I care about this industry I am part of: it's got an extraordinary ability to change perspective and broaden the minds of even the most ignorant. Be part of an exciting, progressive next step that working with disabled talent can open up. Produce the ground-breaking, boundary-blasting, smash hit that goes down in history and gives a young disabled child a role model and a narrative so they don't feel so alone. 

Georgie Morrell is an actor, comedian, writer and disability rights advocate. She is an ambassador for the Royal Society of Blind Children, RNIB and The Wilberforce Trust.

Her show, Eyecon, has recently been released by NextUp Comedy. Watch it here.

She is headlining You’re Avin’ A Laugh! for The Wilberforce Trust on 19th September. Details here.

 

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