Raising awareness of disability

Rob Brydon in Best of Men The Best of Men will feature in a poster campaign

The Paralympics in London drew attention to disability in a way nothing has before.

But a UN day to raise awareness of disabled people - on December 3 - has not had the same impact.

Toby Mildon, who chairs BBC Ability, tells Ariel that 'there's not a huge amount of talk around [the UN day], which is quite unfortunate'.

According to the UN, over one billion people, or approximately 15 per cent of the world's population, live with some form of disability. It makes this group the most underrepresented minority in the world.

Unlike the Paralympics, the UN International Day of Disabled People has not had a high-profile campaign behind it, but Mildon still believes it's important because it keeps the conversation going, however small.

He argues that it's better to have small camp fires of conversation dotted around the world than one huge bonfire that goes out after a few hours.

'We have to rely on change-makers all around the world who try to make a difference,' he says.

A view from Damon Rose, editor of Ouch!

December 3 is the annual International Day of Disabled People, but I always have mixed feelings about it. It wasn't started by disabled people as such and you just wonder how much heart and soul is in it from the community it purports to be there for and is celebrating. It'd be nice to see a Disability Pride-style event, but it never feels like that, as there is no single focus for the day. It has the ability to grow, and maybe the wider community will grab hold of it and wring out some potential post-Paralympics.

I think media has to look at two things. The call to have disabled people in everything is now at fever pitch. Television and radio as a whole are so much more confident with disability matters. Some of that old fear factor appears to have dropped. Although autism charities will be pleased with documentaries about autism, deaf charities will be pleased with the profile they receive from a show that reflects the lives of deaf people accurately, it's the inclusive togetherness of life that's still largely missing.

It seems like a cliché but the calls of 'we want disabled people on tv just there for who they are, not what they've got wrong with them' are important.

These change-makers are behind this year's theme set by the UN, to remove barriers and create a more inclusive society.

It's a theme echoed by BBC Ability. Created eight years ago, the group was formed to remove barriers for disabled staff so that they can do their jobs and advance their careers.

Together with the Diversity Centre, BBC Ability is working on a publicity campaign that coincides with the UN event, including using eye-catching posters in BBC buildings.

Mildon, who works as a project manager in Future Media, says things are 'steadily improving' in terms awareness, but there's still a long way to go in reflecting disabled people on screen.

He explains that drama, as a whole, is doing better than other genres at reflecting people with disabilities. In particular, he commends EastEnders for a plot line with Ian Beale (played by Adam Woodyatt), who develops mental health problems. The soap opera also introduced Adam Best (played by David Proud), a character who has spina bifida, in 2009.

Liz Carr Liz Carr will appear in Silent Witness as a forensic lab scientist next year

The project manager adds that Silent Witness will next year introduce Liz Carr, a disabled actor who will be playing a lab technician in a wheelchair.

Mildon believes incidental portrayals of disability, such as on Silent Witness, are better than writing whole plot lines around characters who are disabled.

Despite these improvements, Mildon says it's not enough. 'There's still a long way to go - there aren't enough disabled characters on our output.' He says it's mostly just 'flashes' on screen and then the character or their problem disappears.

To combat this, the Writersroom and BBC Drama have launched The Company, a BBC initiative that is looking to increase the level of visibly disabled people on tv and to help develop their careers. Six actors have been invited to join The Company and will be guaranteed a minimum of two contracts each across drama and comedy programming over the next 12 months.

This year also saw the launch of BBC PresentAble, a scheme run by the Diversity Centre to train six to 10 disabled individuals who would like to be presenters.

Meanwhile, BBC programming this year has also included a range of documentaries or films that have focused on disability.

Among examples are Letting Go, about a mother who has a daughter with Down's Syndrome; a Panorama programme called Disabled or Faking It?; a documentary about Louis Hamilton's brother, who has cerebral palsy; and The Best of Men, a film that tells the story about the founding of the Paralympics.

Damon Rose, the editor of BBC Ouch!, a disability blog and internet talk show, argues that disability stories are more interesting now than they've ever appeared in the past.

'I am pretty sure we're not that far off from levelling the playing field a bit further. I sense the interest and willingness. And I believe it's up to the broadcasters to work at nurturing the talent out there, which in some areas is only half formed due to lack of education and opportunity and those usual disability pull-backs'.


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