NEW ORLEANS – Inclusive representation in front of and behind the camera is achievable, but it takes active thought and a will to do the work with intention.
That was the common theme Tuesday (Jan. 29), during “Inclusion in Unscripted: Vive La Difference,” a panel on the inclusion of people with disabilities in the unscripted television industry, held at the 2019 Realscreen Summit in New Orleans.
The panel was moderated by Jenn Kuzmyk (pictured, left), executive director of the Banff World Media Festival, associate publisher of Playback and creator and co-executive producer of the Emmy-nominated Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan.
Panelists were Lauren Appelbaum (second from left), director of communications at RespectAbility, a non-profit organization that fights stigma and advances opportunities for and with people with disabilities; Sara Geater (right), Chief COO of All3Media, which produces Employable Me; and Jonathan Murray (second from right), founder and executive consultant at Bunim/Murray Productions, which produces Born This Way.
“What we see on screen influences how we act in real life,” said Appelbaum. “And so when it comes to including either storylines with disabilities or cast members with disabilities, crew members with disabilities, the line that I hear all the time is ‘of course we don’t exclude people with disabilities,’ but even though the intention might be there to be inclusive of everyone, if you’re not intentional about including people with disabilities, it’s not going to happen by accident.”
This is the philosophy that helped shape both Employable Me and Born This Way, series about British individuals with intellectual disabilities looking for employment that values their contributions, and about the lives of young adults with Down syndrome in California, respectively.
Born This Way took seven years to go into production for A&E, which initially passed on the project for fear of coming off as exploitative, explained Murray.
“When you go into a world that you don’t know that much about, you need to educate yourself,” he said. “You need to bring on some people who know that world better than you do.”
Bunim/Murray did just that, and also had their staff undergo sensitivity training. This meant they were prepared for things like individuals who couldn’t legally sign contracts for themselves, and instead had parents or legal guardians who had to sign off on their participation. The prodco also made sure to set aside a budget to provide legal representation for their participants, to ensure they participated comfortably and fairly.
Geater similarly saw a need to be aware of the needs of those she worked with on Employable Me, a show that took a year to sell to the BBC. While pubcasters like the BBC and Channel 4 have mandates to represent the communities they serve, the argument can be made, as Geater did, that they fall well below representing members of the community who have disabilities.
Geater pointed out that 20% of adults in the UK have a disability, while Appelbaum noted that in America, the figure is 25%. Those figures are rarely represented on screen. And it can be hard to sell a project centered on people with disabilities, even though advertizers, as Murray said, do see value in tying their brands to such content.
Asked if it’s getting easier to sell a show like Employable Me, Geater answered, “I don’t think it is, actually.”
There needs to be a will for this kind of content. And from a prodco’s perspective, that means actively making an effort, the panelists agreed.
“In this new age of #MeToo and inclusion, there are a lot of stats out there. They’re talking about crew members who are women, who are transgender, who are people of color,” said Appelbaum. “No stats like that exist for individuals with disabilities.”
That’s largely because of stigma, which popular entertainment can reinforce, especially with invisible disabilities. While crew members might be invited to self-identify as having disabilities, they often don’t, even when offered anonymity, for fear of negative reactions.
So companies like Bunim/Murray and All3Media have to take the lead. That means identifying the problem, and addressing it. With 20-25% of potential viewers having disabilities, that means providing content that represents the community, and it also means reaching a largely untapped demographic.
From the perspective of yesterday’s panelists, that’s a win-win.