Life through a different lens: Championing disabled talent in the creative industry

There is a long way to go til the world of advertising becomes representative. Director Owen Tooth explores how the industry can adopt fresh perspectives and implement real change in the name of diversity, equality and inclusion.

3 February 2022

The media and advertising industry is notorious for its lack of inclusivity. It is ironic that an industry that depends on fresh perspectives, diverse creative directions and open-mindedness has struggled to include a wider spectrum of people in its workforce.

While the industry has embraced diversity and inclusion in its creative work with more disabled and Black, indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) appearing on our screens and in poster campaigns, there is still a huge way to go behind the scenes, in particular in advertising production.

There are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK, but only 4.4 million are actually in employment, with a disabled person almost twice as likely to be unemployed as a non-disabled person.

A recent study by the Advertising Association found disabled people account for just nine per cent of talent employed in the ad sector. With disabled people accounting for 20 per cent of the working population, there is undoubtedly a long way to go until the world of advertising even comes close to being representative.

Let’s embrace the wave of awareness

Inclusion has become one of the hottest issues in the media over the last couple of years and it is clear that higher awareness and sustained efforts to keep inclusion and diversity in the public eye is having an impact on society, government and business decision making.

Even though the majority of companies within the media and advertising space are still run by middle-class white men and women, continued effort to build awareness is starting to have an effect. Recruitment policies are beginning to change along with more inclusive working practices.

An alternative perspective

Being a disabled person myself and a wheelchair user, I know that not everything is about telling disabled stories. It’s about having a variety of people with different experiences, backgrounds and from all walks of life represented in the media.

Speaking from experience, disabled people are often incredibly driven. They live in a world where overcoming hurdles and solving problems is an everyday occurrence. This means we see things a little differently and might arrive at solutions or ideas that are surprising and original.

The film and media industries are about problem-solving around the clock, working within pressured environments and together as a team, so on many levels we are a natural fit.

Breaking the glass ceiling of disability

Creating a working environment where a production crew embraces difference is hugely important.

What we don’t want is disabled people to be categorised and included only in work where they seem relevant. If someone’s deaf, that doesn’t mean they should only work on productions that are deaf-led.

It is easier to accommodate disabled people in a TV series or a film with a line production schedule. However, when jobs in the advertising industry last only a few days, accommodating the needs of a disabled crew – particularly for members that aren’t head of departments or with senior expertise - is not often given much thought.

For disabled people at the base of the pyramid, it is virtually impossible to get a start in the creative industry and earn a living. We are seeing changes from higher awareness and policy changes, but it’s mostly from the broadcasters, bigger production sets and anything that has government money attached to it. So promoting the normalisation of disabled inclusion in productions of all sizes is important and will take a fresh approach to production planning.

”[Disabled people] live in a world where overcoming hurdles and solving problems is an everyday occurrence. This means we see things a little differently and might arrive at solutions or ideas that are surprising and original.”

Owen Tooth

Promoting change by example

However, the tide may be turning. I recently had the opportunity to work on an advertising campaign set that considered accessibility and disability from top to bottom. It was an amazing and so far a once in a lifetime experience. I directed a behind-the-scenes statement film for a national advertising campaign with a production team made up of almost 60 per cent disabled people in the most senior roles.

The campaign The Human Touch for law firm Irwin Mitchell features real clients sharing personal stories about the life-changing outcomes of their cases and was created by creative agency Merkle B2B.

The brief from Irwin Mitchell was to focus on inclusivity, but Jason Fletcher, executive creative director of Merkle B2B, and the team took it one step further. They wanted to put disability front and centre – on camera and off.

Usually, if you have a disability on a shoot, people aren’t very open. Speaking personally, you’re often very aware that you’re causing someone a problem. So being on this particular shoot alongside individuals with a range of different disabilities where people were just enjoying doing their jobs with the support of the company behind them, was something I hadn’t experienced before. It made an indescribable difference to the team.

Inclusive recruitment is key

For Merkle B2B, it was an eye-opening experience working with a crew full of disabled talent for the first time. The critical starting point for them was how they recruited the team. They deliberately set out to reach people with disabilities.

Having worked closely with Jason and Merkle B2B, I know that now they have worked with disabled talent, they would never go back to the old way of recruitment.

There are quite a few agents for disabled talent including a Facebook group called Deaf and Disabled People In TV, DANC (Disabled Artists Networking Community) and Bectu. These are helping agencies and companies also make the first step towards working with disabled talent. Unfortunately, there are still not many agents that help with work behind the camera in the creative industry.

It’s a tough industry and those with a disability are more than up for the challenge. In terms of accessibility and how to manage disabled employees, it’s about talking to that individual person, finding out what they need and working with them to overcome any problems. Disabled people are more than capable and it’s about time the creative industry sat up, listened and gave them the shot they deserve.

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About the Author

Owen Tooth

Owen Tooth's films have won awards at festivals around the globe with his debut feature receiving a worldwide release. Alongside a boundless curiosity and enthusiasm for documentary work, Owen has recently been signed to Annex as a commercials director. Total Film declared one of Owen’s shorts ‘one of the five scariest shorts online’. Most recently, he won Best Microshort Comedy at the Berlin Flash Film Festival and directed a BBC New Talent short. As a wheelchair user, he is championing change in the industry.

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