The BBC’s plans to show more disabled people on TV are good – but they should be better

The UK is ready to see far more people on TV who do not conform to the able-bodied ideal of what people on TV should look like.

Lisa Hammond, who has just been cast in Eastenders. Photo: BBC
Lisa Hammond, who has just been cast in Eastenders. Photo: BBC

There aren’t enough disabled people on TV. To address this, the BBC has announced plans to quadruple the number of people with disabilities it puts on television by 2017. To me, as a disabled person, this is the most welcome initiative in broadcasting history. I punched the air when I heard the announcement, and the BBC should be celebrated for making it.

But it is vital to note that the BBC’s plans sound more impressive than they are. Just 1.2 per cent of the people on BBC television are disabled. Quadrupling that figure will only take it to 5 per cent.

But disabled people are 18 per cent of the population, so even 5 per cent is 13 per cent too few. (According to government figures, 11.6 million people in a population of 64.1 million are disabled.) For BBC television to fairly represent the disabled community, and accurately reflect British society, the percentage of disabled people it shows doesn’t need to be multiplied by four: it needs to be multiplied by 15.

I know that the disabled community makes up 18 per cent of Britain’s population because I’ve researched the relevant figures. But I would never have known it from watching British TV. Nor would any young person growing up with a disability or any able-bodied person who has never considered the substantial role disabled people play in British life.

On television, disabled people are a tiny and insignificant minority. In reality we are a large and important section of society. We are a cross-section of society, too. There are disabled people of every age, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and political inclination. It should sadden and anger us that there are people to whom these simple and obvious facts are unknown, and that those people don’t have their perceptions challenged whenever they turn on their TVs.

People with disabilities are frequently robbed of our right to self-representation. In film, disabled characters are too often portrayed by able-bodied actors.

And in politics and journalism, many supposed voices for the disabled – including the Minister for Disabled People – are able-bodied. This is an absurdity that TV should lead the way in exposing, by demonstrating how capably people with disabilities can speak for ourselves.

That’s why it is so heartening that the BBC have created the position of disability correspondent and chosen to appoint Nikki Fox, a disabled person, to it. But for disabled people to be properly integrated into television, we also need to constantly appear in programming that is not expressly about disability.

A fine way for the BBC to meet its targets for increasing the number of people with disabilities in scripted entertainment would be to ensure that more disabled characters are created and more disabled actors are employed to play them. But an equally excellent, and equally important, strategy would be to ensure that more disabled actors are cast in roles in which it is immaterial whether the character is disabled or not, following the thrilling example set by the recent casting of Lisa Hammond in EastEnders.

A similar principle should apply in factual programming. Currently, when you see a disabled person being interviewed on TV, they are almost always being interviewed about being disabled, as if that is the only subject on which one of us could possibly be an expert. But earlier this year I was overjoyed to see Dame Sarah Storey appear as a pundit on BBC coverage of able-bodied cycling.

She was not talking about being disabled, or about being a disabled athlete, but simply giving her expert opinion on how to achieve success in elite-level cycling, a subject about which she knows as much as anyone in the world. One day, I hope not to be surprised when I see a disabled person on television and hear them talk about something other than their disability.

The UK is ready to see far more people on TV who do not conform to the able-bodied ideal of what people on TV should look like. In the results of a recent public poll to determine Britain’s greatest heroes, the top three were Simon Weston, Stephen Hawking and Ellie Simmonds.

Simmonds even stars in an aspirational advertising campaign for Land Rover. And sometimes TV now even allows disabled people to look cool. This is largely thanks to Channel 4’s comprehensive coverage of the Summer and Winter Paralympics, its disability-centric chat show The Last Leg, and the BBC’s recent coverage of the first Commonwealth Games at which disabled and able-bodied athletes appeared together.

The BBC’s new initiative is an admirable first step on a long journey. At present, just over one in every 100 people on BBC television is disabled. For our national broadcaster to reflect our nation, that number needs to be just over one in six.

No one could expect the percentage of disabled people on BBC TV to leap from 1.2 per cent to 18 per cent immediately or even soon but, if the BBC is serious about a long-term commitment to equality for people with disabilities, it should publicly set the figure as its long-term target.