As a Disabled Person, I Rarely See People Like Me on TV

19/01/2016 20:41 | Updated 19 January 2016

It's not often that I get to talk publicly about hunky actors like Idris Elba as part of my day job. So today I am jumping on the opportunity.

In an event in Parliament organised by Channel 4 this week, the Luther star called for greater diversity in the media, both in front of and behind the camera.

In an interview with the Guardian ahead of the event, Elba said that as a black British male he got into acting: "Because I never saw myself on TV, I stopped watching TV. Instead I decided to just go out and become TV."

I feel the same way as Elba. Because as a disabled person, I rarely see "people like me" on television or in the media either.

There are too few disabled people on television

The numbers speak for themselves. There are 11million disabled people living in Britain today. Yet just 2.5% of people on screen are disabled.

It's not only an issue of quantity. Quality is also a big concern. The sad truth is that where dramas do involve a disabled character, storylines tend to focus disproportionately on a character's impairment, or portray disability as a negative issue.

It is very rare to see roles like that of Walt Jnr in Breaking Bad (played by another hunky actor and Scope supporter RJ Mitte), whose cerebral palsy was incidental to the series' storyline.

With not enough actors being given the opportunity to develop their skills, disabled roles are also often given to non-disabled but more experienced actors. Think Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawkins or Charlize Theron in Mad Max.

Actress Julie Fernandez has observed that too little has changed for disabled actors since she first joined the El Dorado cast back in 1992. Blogging on the Huffington Post, she says that while it would not be seen as acceptable today for white actors to play black characters, no one in the industry blinks an eyelid about people pretending to be disabled.

I would tend to agree with theologian Adrian Hilton that "the essential art of acting consists in being that which one is not: the shy man pretends to be debonair; the arrogant man feigns humility."

But if it's all about pretending, then everyone needs to be given an equal shot at pretense. A disabled Romeo, anyone?

Either way, the obvious solution is for us to better understand and address the barriers to disabled actors entering the profession.

Broadcasters are addressing the diversity issue

Channel 4's announcement this week that it will commit to doubling the number of disabled people appearing in its 20 most high-profile, shows such as Googlebox and Hollyoaks, is therefore a real step forward.

Channel 4 has led the way in getting more disabled people on screen and behind the scenes. Shows like The Last Leg have seen their stars Alex Brooker and Adam Hills become household names.

I can only imagine the positive impact that seeing a disabled presenter on a popular Friday night comedy show can have on the self-esteem and confidence of a young disabled viewer.

And this is why it is so important.

We can shift attitudes to disability

Nine in 10 disabled people believe that more disabled people in the media would improve attitudes to disability.

And attitudes do need to change. Scope's research for our End the Awkward campaign shows that two-thirds of people admit to feeling awkward about disability - and as a result they panic or avoid contact altogether.

Imagine the changes that would take place in British society if disabled characters and stars appeared in the top chat shows, soaps and dramas. And as experts, presenters and commentators on Channel 4 News and Newsnight.

It would make disability so much more familiar. And would make disabled people feel what they should - that we are just a normal part of modern Britain.