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

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.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.