Award winning writer Jack Thorne used his James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival to highlight the TV industry’s failure to properly represent disabled people both on and off screen.

Thorne, whose credits include His Dark Materials, This Is England,Wonder and Enola Holmes said in his speech that TV has failed disabled people. Utterly and totally.”

Thorne, who has himself suffered from cholinergic urticaria, said that “as a result of that I have considered it a vital part of my working life to try and further the disabled cause.” But, he said “in the most part I’ve failed” as  “the TV world is stacked against the telling of disabled stories with disabled talent.”

He went on to say that “disability is the forgotten diversity, the one everyone leaves out of speeches. Gender, race, sexuality, all rightly get discussed at length. Disability gets relegated out. In conversations about representation, in action plans, and new era planning, disability is confined to the corner, it remains an afterthought. Actors – actors I admire – have taken roles they shouldn’t have; I’ve been complicit in some of those decisions. Producers have ignored disabled writers. Commissioners haven’t taken the opportunity to tell disabled stories. There are very few disabled people in front of the camera, and even fewer behind it.”

He pointed to both the experiences of disabled actors and also those of writers and directors. “The stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues are devastating,” he said. “Where directors have been told characters and casting may be “too disabled”. Where people have pointed out ableism and been openly threatened as to their future careers. Where disabled writers invited into writers’ rooms have been unpaid, have been asked to pay for their own support, where commissioners and producers become fixated on their disability and not their range and talent, where they’re castigated and patronised, where they’re made to feel like they’re the one that’s made the situation uncomfortable.”

Thorne said that change would come if disabled stories “are told with disabled people” and not “relegated into two camps, heroes or victims.”

He also said that  “disability needs quotas. Desperately needs quotas. There is an intention to change, but that intention is not backed up by impositions on the makers to change their ways. The stats need repeating again and again and again. 20% of our population are disabled, a mere 8.2% of on-screen talent represents them, and a terrifying awful 5.4% of people work off-screen, of which, and this is most damning of all, the executives at the top are only 3.6% disabled.”

Thorne pointed out that according to a recent Creative Diversity Network report, it will take until 2041 at the current rate of growth for disability in off-screen roles to truly reflect the make-up of the UK.

“Firm quotas behind and in front of the camera would fundamentally alter the stories being told. And these quotas need enforcement. I am firmly behind Lenny Henry’s Representation Tax Relief idea, and feel disability would really benefit from it. I also think the plan David Olusoga outlined on this stage last year for DCMS to use its powers to set up a body to enforce these standards is an incredibly good one. Why not have both?”

Jon Creamer

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