On Friday August 22nd I took part in the monthly BBC Ouch Podcast, with presenters Simon Minty and Shannon Murray. It was great to be back at the BBC, to be in a studio covering stories about disability and to be working with such great people. However the whole experience did leave me a little saddened.
I was filled with the memories of a time when disabled people were featured on radio and TV so much more often. It might sound crazy to any body who is young reading this, but when I started in the media over 25 years ago disabled people appeared regularly on both TV and radio. All of the TV channels had a regular show dedicated to disability, fronted and made by disabled people and in radio we not only had a dedicated show but disabled people worked in the mainstream all over the air waves. I myself started out in mainstream TV, working on prime time on ITV, before going over to Channel 4’s “yoof” output. I was also picked up the the BBC’s disability show One In Four which was reaching the end of a highly successful run, featuring a team of disabled presenters that were minor household names. When the show ended, the BBC created the Disability Programs Unit, which ensured that all disability based TV was made by entirely disabled production staff as well as being fronted by disabled onscreen talent. They made the series From The Edge, which ran for 10 years, and Over The Edge as well as other award winning shows such as Disabled Century. All made by a team of talented disabled people. The other channels also had specialist disability programs too, but the BBC was most committed to ensuring a visible disabled presence within their output.
What is most important about having shows about disabled people being made by disabled people was the representation was fair and truthful. We made sure no one was exploited and that we always covered a story in such a way to empower those involved. Sadly the landscape of the industry changed as the century came to a close and by the year 2000 all disability TV had been canceled. At the BBC all of the onscreen talent were told we would be “integrated” into the mainstream, but what actually happened was we pretty much all ended up on the dole. After that disabled people disappeared from our screens, and so we ended where we are today. With the exception of The Last Leg and ParaSport I would say disabled people are either invisible or the object of “freak TV”. We now hear that the industry wants to increase the numbers of disabled talent on our screens, but will these moves get anywhere near to the level we once had? I doubt it. Even if they slowly do, will this talent have the ability to control what they are expected to do and be involved in shaping the output as not to create exploitative or unrepresentative programs? I hope so, but I would say that if the programming that has been produced in the last ten years is anything to go by my hope may be misplaced.
While it is great that disabled people still have somewhere to go to find out about news that impacts on them, thanks to the podcasts of the BBC, Disability Now and Disability Horizons, it is a real shame that these are the only resources. Especially in a media that has now proliferated and grown in a way we could never have imagined way back when. If there had been a real integration of both the disabled talent and the stories that are of interest to the disabled community then I doubt we would be needing yet another big push to increase disabled people in the media. Instead of creating a representative media back in the late 1990s, we were written out of the industry, with only few people like those at BBC Ouch and the ubiquitous BBC Radio 4 presenter Peter White remaining. So we end up where we are today, with the industry acting like they are doing great things by trying to increase the numbers of disabled people in the media, while not admitting that they are only trying to correct mistakes made decades ago. Disabled people can be great on our screens and working behind the action, and anyone of my age will know this to be true. I mean, without blowing my own trumpet, I won an Emmy in 1992 and was voted Children’s TV Presenter of the Year in the same year. Not disabled presenter, just presenter! To think that back then there were so many disabled faces on our screens your needed both hands to count them! We must get back to those days and keep it that way.
Right, rant over. One last thing…. of you are a media exec looking for disabled talent…. gizza a job! (Shameful I know…. but if you don’t ask, you don’t get!)
The Podcast is available from the BBC Ouch website now!