Last week marked the latest edition of the prestigious Edinburgh TV Festival, one of the leading UK media events for discussing the major issues facing the industry. This year’s keynote address, the MacTaggart lecture, was conducted by acclaimed screenwriter, Jack Thorne, who spoke to what he described as the ‘forgotten diversity’ within TV – disability.

At MTM we’ve seen our clients place a much greater emphasis on their portrayals of disability in content in 2021. Recently, movements around the representation of other marginalised groups have begun to instigate a step-change in casting conversations; however, disabled representation still lags significantly behind progress elsewhere.

Against this backdrop, we’ve summarised Thorne’s lecture through five key points that reflect the state of play for the disabled community in the TV industry today.

1). ‘The TV world is [still] stacked against the telling of disabled stories with disabled talent.’

The industry has neglected its focus on the community, at a time where there is a reckoning about wider representation in the TV sector. Gender, race and sexuality are rightly the subjects of sustained attention and reflection across the TV landscape currently, but disability is relegated from the discussion. In fact, many disabled writers claim that covid has begun to reverse any progress that had been made by the community, as theatres and channels have reverted towards perceived ‘safer’ stories for success, and breakthrough disabled talent have struggled to get their stories heard.

Furthermore, damaging stigmas persist that prevent the full diversity of the disabled community from being represented. Silent Witness star Liz Carr reports casting directors categorising talent as ‘disabled heavy’ and ‘disabled light’, and opting for the latter in their shows’ tokenistic disabled slot.

2). ‘Disability desperately needs quotas.’

Thorne spoke about the disparity within the TV sphere between industry leaders’ supposed intention to change and the continued lack of tangible change being enacted. The data supports this – 1 in 5 people in the UK consider themselves to have a disability, but only 8.2% of on-screen talent is disabled, 5.4% off-screen, and 3.6% at executive level. The Creative Diversity Network, an organisation that has campaigned to double disabled representation in front of and behind the camera by 2021, has outlined how the industry has fallen woefully short, and that with the current trajectory, it will be 2041 before disability representation off-screen is at levels that reflect the UK population.

3). ‘There is a difference between disabled stories and stories about disabled people and we need both.’

Not only are far more disabled characters needed on TV, but the stories that they are involved in must stretch far beyond the tired old stereotypes that have plagued content for so long. Thorne spoke about the challenges he has faced throughout his career in being able to present disabled dramas to commissioners, having had drama departments try and write out the disabled elements of his stories, and not being able to make any disabled stories on a full drama budget until this year. Too often disabled people are being shoehorned into non-disabled narratives for tokenistic reasons, and particular types of stories like love and romance rarely if ever feature prominent disabled characters. Part of the lack of disabled stories stems from underrepresentation in the writer’s room, but when disabled characters are written in to content, for example in 2019 film Come As You Are, able-bodied actors are all too-often cast to play the roles.

4). ‘Things are slowly changing.’

There are glimmers of optimism that the TV industry is facing up to its lack of diversity, and disabled talent is shining through despite the adversity. Thorne points to a number of projects that highlight the breadth of talent in the community: CripTales, a BBC drama short that captures a life-changing moment in six impactful monologues, written, directed and performed by some mighty disabled talent; Ralph and Katie, created by Peter Bowker with a team of disabled writers, and creatives like Marlee Matlin, Ali Stroker and Ryan O’Connell providing some cause for hope in the US TV world. There is also unprecedented drive coming from within the community to initiate change. The Disabled Artists Networking Community (DANC) recently launched a talent database to bring together disabled, deaf and neurodivergent people together, and have set out to create a set of guidelines for the treatment of disabled people in writers’ rooms.

5). ‘I can’t tell you the difference the Black Lives Matter movement has made to casting conversations. However, the conversation on disability representation is nowhere near as advanced.’

There are learnings from the progress of other marginalised groups in TV in recent times that can help to propel the disabled community forward in content. Thorne pointed to a number of suggested initiatives that prominent personalities have put forward in recent years to try and advance the cause of minority groups together. Lenny Henry’s Representation Tax Relief idea would offer tax breaks to films and TV projects that increase representation of women, disabled people and people from culturally diverse backgrounds. David Olusoga, chosen speaker for the 2020 MacTaggart Lecture, has also proposed a new TV diversity regulator that has a commitment to increasing the presence of underrepresented groups across the industry – and enforcing sanctions if change doesn’t come. If the fair and proportionate representation of disabled talent in the TV world is a serious ambition, then action is needed fast.

You can read Jack Thorne’s stunning MacTaggart Lecture in full here. We would wholly recommend it. We have also pulled out some of the responses on social media below.