BBC pledges to improve portrayal of disabled people


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Jerk tells the story of Tim (second right), who uses his cerebral palsy to get away with things

The BBC has promised a more “authentic and distinctive” representation of disabled people on screen.

The corporation has announced a string of new shows and said there will be an “enhanced portrayal in existing programmes”.

New commissions include a “deeply personal film” from BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner.

The Last Leg’s Alex Brooker will tackle “the true nature of his disability for the first time” in Disability And Me.

Meanwhile, actor and writer Mat Fraser will curate “challenging” monologues, all performed by someone with a disability.

Comedy Jerk, which follows a man who knows having cerebral palsy means he can get away with almost anything, will return for a new series.

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Announcing the “concerted drive to go further on representation” in 2020, the BBC also said there would include better “incidental and integrated” representation in existing shows.

Blind broadcaster and entrepreneur Amar Latif will join the line-up of Pilgrimage, and actress and comedian Liz Carr will delve into her family tree in Who Do You Think You Are? Disabled panellists will also appear on Celebrity Mastermind and Would I Lie To You?

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Frank Gardner will front Being Frank, 16 years after he was shot by al-Qaeda gunmen in Saudi Arabia

The broadcaster has also put forward new measures to give disabled people more opportunities behind the scenes.

A scheme called BBC Elevate is designed to allow production staff to get experience on hit shows like Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice and EastEnders.

It is intended to “make a tangible difference to the careers of many talented disabled people in TV, who face some particular challenges with progression”, the corporation said.

Alison Kirkham, controller of factual commissioning, said the industry “hasn’t always done enough to offer opportunities for disabled people and so has missed out on their talent”.

“We want to set the bar forever higher, for the entire industry, both with off-screen talent and on-screen representation,” she said.

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The BBC has committed to increasing the number of disabled people in its workforce to 12% by 2022. The latest official figure, from March 2018, stood at 10.4%.

The broadcaster will also introduce a “BBC Passport” to ensure staff with disabilities get the right support when they change jobs.

Disability equality charity Scope welcomed the BBC’s commitment, which was made on International Day Of People With Disabilities on Tuesday.

“Disability remains hugely underrepresented on our screens and behind the scenes, particularly as one in five people are disabled,” Scope’s head of communications Warren Kirwan said.

“When disabled people don’t see themselves represented, talent and potential go unrecognised and negative attitudes and stigma goes unchallenged.”

Analysis – Alex Taylor, BBC Current Affairs

Awareness of how the media portrays disability has grown in recent years. This ranges from the increasingly vocal outcry over non-disabled actors playing characters with disabilities to the embracing of Paddy Smyth, recent winner of reality show The Circle, who openly addressed his cerebral palsy throughout.

This means the BBC’s commitment is timely, spurred on as it is by last year’s damning industry representation findings. It also marks a natural progression at a time when The Travel Show host and ex-Paralympian Ade Adepitan recently visited Africa to front an eponymous prime-time series for BBC Two, alongside his Children in Need presenting duties.

While it is one thing to use recognised disabled talent for disability-related stories, the true test will be how deep-rooted and wide-reaching the integration becomes.

How much narrative control will be afforded to journalists who live the stories we want to tell? How far will disability representation seep into mainstream storylines, and how many disabled staff will become permanent fixtures off screen?

As a journalist who entered the BBC through its Extend scheme two years ago, I am aware of the efforts being made.

This latest commitment marks a promising start for broader change, but there’s more work to do. And disabled talent needs to be trusted to lead this change across the industry as a whole, not simply be a part of it.

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