If I was to succeed, it would be entirely down to my sheer determination and persistence"
By Bryony Arnold - Script Executive,Drama
Whilst BAME talent is an urgent and much needed criteria to fulfil, disabled talent, however, is much lower down on the agenda. You see, we’re perceived as the black sheep of the family: the progeny everyone knows they should address yet are uncertain how to tackle.
I’m a disabled wheelchair user and have been fortunate to work in television drama for over 10 years, yet I’ve had to break down more metaphorical and physical doors that I care to recollect in order to get where I am today. It hasn’t been the easiest of ‘X Factor style journeys’ and trying to achieve my first break in the media was a figurative minefield. Straight off the blocks, there were a plethora of companies I had to cross off the list simply because I couldn’t gain access to their buildings. FACT 1 – Working in London most production companies are based in period townhouses to which you can’t even get through the front door.
Nepotism wasn’t my friend and I didn’t have contacts on my side; I knew absolutely no one in the industry. And the usual rules of getting a runner job didn’t really cut it when I struggle just to carry a single cup of builder’s, sugary tea. FACT 2 – To succeed in your first job you need to make an excellent cup of tea.
What I did have (eventually) was the privilege of being selected for the BBC Extend disability scheme. It was a six month placement with the BBC Drama team as a Development Researcher, and it began my love affair with script editing. But when the six months was over… well I never heard from anyone at the scheme again. If I was to succeed, it would be entirely down to my sheer determination and persistence - the professional door had been marginally opened and there was now a slither of light.
Sadly, there’s a minuscule pool of disabled people working in the drama industry - we’re a rare, exotic breed. So whilst initiatives are fantastic in theory and enable a company to tick the ‘diversity’ box, do they facilitate in helping you take the next step? From meeting individuals from other schemes such as Indie Diversity Training Scheme and Channel 4’s Production Training Scheme, there appears to be a stronger imperative to ensure their participants are looked after, which is an encouraging start.
I’m fortunate that my current employers, Tiger Aspect, are incredibly supportive of my needs, but even now as a Script Executive, I’m restricted as to where my future jobs can be housed. Not for want of experience but purely because of access to offices. I was once offered a job on a juggernaut drama series with a prerequisite that the script team would be based on the second floor, but “I’d be ok by myself on the ground floor with another department wouldn’t I?” To be honest for 9 months, erm no, not really. NB. I didn’t accept the job.
I appreciate it’s a Catch 22 situation: why would companies spend thousands of pounds on adaptations to their buildings if they don’t have any staff who require the said facilities? But surely they’ll never attract the ‘diverse talent’ (there’s that lofty word again) if they can’t physically get through the front door? I’m not suggesting that every boutique Indie should summon the builders round, but I do believe that companies working under a ‘Super Indie’ umbrella have a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments as stated under the Equality Act of 2010.
So while I can only speak from my experiences as a wheelchair user, irrespective of what form the ‘diverse talent’ may take, I believe the key to success boils down to GOOD COMMUNICATION. As the employer: asking from the outset what your colleague requires to make their job easier. As the employee: not being afraid to state what you need, be it flexible working hours, specialist equipment, access to assistants or interpreters, etc. I’ve been guilty in the past of not speaking up as I didn’t want to be perceived as a burden. But I’ve come to realise, that in order to do a good job, I have to state my extra requirements so I’m placed on an equal playing field to my contemporaries.
Entry level schemes are a brilliant first step, but it is also ensuring the proceeding steps are carefully managed with practical aftercare and mentoring in place. Larger companies should be proactive in making changes for prospective employees, and there needs to be open and frank discussions about the requirements of disabled talent. For we can offer a unique skillset unlike any other - we just need to be given the opportunity (and access) to rise to the challenge.