While progress is being made, there’s more work to be done in representing people with disability, in front of and behind the camera.
Morwenna Collett

17 Aug 2021 - 9:52 AM  UPDATED 25 Nov 2021 - 8:34 AM

One in five Australians identifies as a person with disability – so why aren’t we seeing this reflected on our screens? People with disability are underrepresented across the screen industry, both in front of and behind the camera.

Despite many people with disability being highly skilled with incredible stories to tell, a lack of accessible career pathways, employment opportunities and commitment to authentic representation are creating significant blockages for those wanting to forge careers on or behind our screens – although there are signs things are changing. 


Research tells us that not all opportunities are created equally

There is an abundance of research demonstrating the huge disparities between creatives with and without disability. The Australia Council’s 2017 ‘Making Art Work’ report showed that artists with disability:

  • are significantly underrepresented, with only 9% of professional artists identifying as disabled
  • earn 42% less than their non-disabled counterparts
  • experience unemployment at higher rates and
  • are more likely to identify a lack of access to funding as a barrier to their professional development.

The ‘Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on diversity in Australian TV drama’ report from Screen Australia in 2016 shows that only 4% of the 1,961 main characters in Australian TV dramas broadcast between 2011 and 2015 were identifiably characters with a disability. It’s clear there is still work to be done for disability (the subject of the first episode of new three-part SBS series What Does Australia Really Think About…) to become part of our ‘mainstream’ viewing. 

SBS asks: 'What Does Australia Really Think About' ….Disability? Old People? Obesity?
This new documentary series hosted by Kurt Fearnley, Noni Hazlehurst and Casey Donovan premieres 18 August, 8.30pm on SBS.


Representation is improving, but has a way to go

While disabled actor Bridie McKim has noticed an increase in roles, representation is still most often seen in roles where disability has a strong focus. “A lot of us have only really been exposed to disabled actors playing disabled characters where their (story) arc is about disability. I find the most interesting casting is when disabled people aren’t necessarily playing the disabled arc. It doesn’t mean that their character isn’t disabled, it’s just not the centre of their narrative.”

However, many creatives with a disability say it is disappointing that disabled characters being played by non-disabled actors is still a relatively common occurrence, for example the autistic character in Sia’s recent film, Music. McKim says this is problematic “because we think that that’s the norm and that denies disabled people the opportunity to really be a part of telling stories that actually speak to the disabled experience.”

The importance of authentic storytelling and story ownership is widely acknowledged. “We’re now seeing more powerful and impactful authentic casting,” says CEO of Bus Stop Films Tracey Corbin-Matchett, when reflecting on the 1990s movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (where a disabled character is played by Leonardo Di Caprio). Screen NSW executive, filmmaker and writer Sofya Gollan (who identifies as Deaf) found that earlier in her career “people just wanted me to make stuff about Deaf people” which wasn’t the area of work that interested her at the time. However, she’s now finding that she wants to make this type of work “because I cannot bear hearing people telling these stories anymore. I realised that I am best placed to use my skills to tell that story.”

McKim praised the experience of collaborating with the writers on ABC TV series The Heights to sensitively craft her character Sabine, who has cerebral palsy (McKim’s own condition). “If you’re going to create stories and characters with backgrounds that you don’t necessarily come from, you need to value the opinions of people who’ve had those experiences.”


There are barriers to gaining early career opportunities

Career pathways for people with disability across the screen industry rarely follow a traditional mould, with more and more progressing by creating their own opportunities and content – sometimes coming through YouTube and influencer backgrounds rather than via acting or film school. However, as an industry primarily based on relationships, where people often form connections at university, networking events or screenings (many with below average levels of accessibility provided), people with disability can start off with a distinct disadvantage in accessing formative, professional breaks.

When it comes to training institutions, Bridie McKim observes that “our education systems aren’t really held to public accountability like the industry is because it’s so visual and people are so exposed to it. But I think it’s important that our institutions reflect our industry.”

Bus Stop Films is a film school and production company that uses filmmaking and the film industry to raise the profile of people with disability, and other marginalised groups, on both sides of the camera. They work with film students in mainstream institutions to ensure they are exposed to ideas of access and inclusion throughout their training. Tracey Corbin-Matchett says they are fostering a “greater learning for ‘baby’ filmmakers in inclusive practice, so when they graduate they have a greater understanding… it’s exposure theory, whilst the brains are learning their craft, and it’s future proofing their practice”.

Relationships play an important role in aspiring screen professionals gaining skills and opportunities. Corbin-Matchett explains that “filmmaking is a team sport. There are barriers and gaps, in that, it’s not a traditional industry where you see a job advertised in the newspaper and you apply for it, it’s word of mouth opportunities.” Partnerships and collaborations often grow from project to project, with people often choosing to work with the same people. Disabled film producer Meret Hassanen has witnessed this – getting the break to work on her first feature film Rhapsody of Love led her straight into making another film with the same team the following year.

Sofya Gollan references the importance of expanding networks. “You always have to work with professional people who know more than you do, because that’s the only way you will grow your own knowledge base. You have no chance of elevating yourself if you are always working at the same level.” However, for people with a disability which may preclude them from being on set, they’re “simply not going to have access to that opportunity.”

As a new graduate and the only disabled student in her course in her year, Hassanen has seen the value of internships and mentoring. She says her internship through Macquarie University and the ABC enabled her to develop key industry relationships, as well as valuable work experience and mentoring opportunities. Keeping in touch with these contacts led her to her current role as researcher for Catalyst and Compass, a rewarding day job while she continues making her own work and undertaking filmmaking workshops and camps, explaining that “I’m trying not to close myself off to anything.”

For those not able to gain those first ‘foot in the door’ opportunities, generating their own content is critical. Gollan acknowledges that “it can be a really strange career pathway for disabled creatives, it’s very bespoke to their experience. So the successful ones tend to be [those who] have the stamina to just keep creating. It really does take a canny operator to navigate that.”


People with disability have more to ‘prove’ and manage

Many creatives with disability report a need to ‘prove’ themselves when they have disability, particularly in a competitive environment such as film. Bridie McKim’s experience working in ‘fast’ television on The Heights has been useful in proving, “I can do it, I can do the job. They don’t need to be worried and think ‘she’s disabled, I don’t know if she can do it’.” Producing film is expensive and it can feel like too big a risk to take a punt on anyone who is unknown (or may ‘cost’ more due to access requirements). McKim explains that “you can’t be what you can’t see. Casting directors often can’t see you in a role if they haven’t seen you in another role.” Having a showreel of previous work is useful evidence of previous success, which is invaluable when screen producers are making big business decisions and thinking of the bottom line. 

Access requirements differ for everyone and these can be more complicated to manage in a tumultuous industry such as screen. McKim notes that “jobs take you to the other side of the country and you’re away from your support system, and all the things that make a situation accessible, like specialists and all the therapies. There’s a lot to manage, there’s a lot of extra work you need to do as a disabled person.”


The future is accessible

It’s not all grim, though. Industry professionals are seeing positive and accessible changes infiltrate the screen sector at a rapid rate. “In the last six or seven months, I’ve seen a change for the better,” says Tracey Corbin-Matchett. “It’s a period of time when we’re all having to do things differently and it’s great that people are using it as a time to think more broadly and get out of their comfort zones.”

Sofya Gollan is seeing things shift across both publicly funded and privately funded work. Key screen funding agencies, such as Screen Australia and Screen NSW, have priority areas, quotas and criteria relating to diversity and inclusion for productions to receive funding. “We have key priority areas (including disability) that we need to ensure are being funded, and we will prioritise projects that have those priority areas embedded within a proposal. It really does help shift producers’ thinking.” However, she notes that “for the private sector, it’s very much going to be an economic argument. When you have stories that are authored by the people who know best, that’s when they’re going to get the economic payback.”

These shifts have been encouraged along by various programs to support people with disability to access the industry, including the Screenability Filmmakers Fund and Createabilty Internship Program and the DisRupted funding program, all targeted investments to help create positive change across the industry. Broadcaster requirements, such as the ABC’s new Diversity and Inclusion commissioning guidelines have had a positive impact, as have initiatives such as the Screen Diversity and Inclusion Network (a network of broadcasters – SBS is a member – screen funding agencies, business associations, guilds and industry-aligned education and training organisations who work together towards a more inclusive and diverse screen industry) and ‘The Everyone Project’ (a new screen industry method of measuring and reporting on diversity). All of these are helping to encourage more dialogue and robust consideration of diversity and inclusion issues, including where disability sits among this.

For us to continue to see more people with disability forging successful careers in the film industry, a few things need to happen. “One of the most powerful things that we can do is to support young talent coming up,” says Bridie McKim. “Fostering a pool of people to be in those roles will give people no excuse but to put disabled people in those roles.” There also needs to be better awareness of disability and access issues, particularly for those in positions of power. McKim believes that “casting directors [need to be] informed and then producers and executives and directors [need to be] open to those concepts.”

Audiences are increasingly demanding to see diversity, and their real world, reflected on their screens. Creating more access to opportunities for disabled talent will help create a future where one in five of the characters we see on our screens just happens to have disability.  

Morwenna Collett is an arts consultant, specialising in diversity, access and inclusion, who has held leadership roles at Accessible Arts and the Australia Council.  She also identifies as a person with disability. 

New three-part SBS commissioned series, What Does Australia Really Think About… , which looks at our attitudes to disability, age and weight, is streaming now at SBS On Demand. Start with the first episode, which examines what Australia thinks about disability:

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