Breaking into broadcasting as a disabled person

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I met Christina Lee when we were both on a workshop while volunteering for Leonard Cheshire. She was immediately a fantastic addition to the LitFest’s volunteers and here, she shares her insights on breaking into the broadcasting industry as a disabled person.

Photo: Christina with Joanna from Wall to Wall.

Recently the government announced that national broadcasters, including the BBC, ITV, and Sky, plan to double the number of disabled people working in television by 2020 in an attempt to diversify the industry. The Creative Diversity Network (CDN), who proposed the Doubling Disability plan, had found that disabled people only make 6.8% of those appearing on screen, and 4.5% of those off screen, despite the fact that 18% of the UK population is disabled.

Why are there so few disabled people working in television?

In the media sector, work experience is vital. But getting work experience can be extremely difficult for young people with disabilities for reasons such as access problems, financial costs, health limitations and cultural attitudes towards disability. Misconceptions about what working in television is actually like, also put off many people with disabilities from the industry.

Back in February this year, I had the fantastic opportunity to undertake a work placement at Wall to Wall television production company for two weeks. (I wrote about my experience for Muscular Dystrophy UK, which you can read about here.) Later I caught up with Joanna Gatcum, Talent Assistant, and had a great post-placement chat about the experience. We talked about how to get more young disabled people into the media industry, and she gave some fantastic advice on how young disabled people interested in television can embark on their careers.

The television industry is without doubt a very competitive sector for anyone. Depending on the type of job you apply for, it can be physically and mentally demanding, involving working long hours or out-of-hours, or travelling frequently between sets. This may appear daunting, especially for young people whose disability may limit the type or duration of work they do. The good news, as I found out at my work placement, is that the television industry is incredibly diverse and accommodating. Given the nature of television production, you never really just do one thing at a job. So if there are certain tasks (e.g., heavy lifting, being on outdoor sets), it is often possible to swap with colleagues and do the tasks you can do (e.g. logging or transcribing).

There are increasingly more and more companies operating flexible hours and job-share schemes, not just for people with disabilities, but also for parents and caregivers. Joanna herself job-shares with another colleague and works different hours to normal office hours to accommodate childcare. On the days during my placement when the UK was hit by a freakish snowstorm, I worked from home and communicated with the team via email. Employers are often happy to negotiate and make appropriate compromises to enable people with disabilities to do their jobs well (in fact, they are legally obliged to do so, as we learned from the Disability Law workshop). Joanna was optimistic that young people with disabilities stand as much chance in television as anyone and encouraged anyone interested in the sector to give it their best shot.

I asked Joanna what, from her experience working in Talent, are the most skills and attributes young people need to succeed in television. She explained that since most jobs in television are contract-based and project-based, flexibility and ability to adapt are crucial survival skills, especially for freelancers. The skill requirements vary depending on the type of job you are applying for, but as there are tight deadlines and things can (and often do) go wrong, problem-solving and organisational skills are also very important. Most graduates starting a career in television won’t have much experience in the media and they are bound to come across sector-specific practices that they are not familiar with.

Even if your degree has nothing to do with media or if you didn’t go to university, it is still possible to have a successful career in television. More than qualifications, it’s experience that matters. That’s why willingness to learn is key to getting to grips with the tricks of the trade. Entry level jobs such as secretarial roles and PA positions may not sound very impressive, but they provide opportunities to learn how television works behind the scenes and meet important people like directors and producers, who could be useful contacts for the future. The words that we went back to again and again were passion and enthusiasm. All the staff I met loved their work; even though it’s hard, their passion shines through and that’s what make their work so brilliant.

Evidently, the television sector is far from perfect and disability representation remains low. But things are changing, onscreen and off-screen. And hopefully getting more young disabled people into the television industry will drive change to the right direction.

Special thanks to Muscular Dystrophy UK and Wall to Wall for the fantastic opportunity and experience. If you are a young person with disabilities and would like to learn more about similar work opportunities, please visit their Moving Up page for details.

Final Tips:

  • Be boldDon’t be afraid to try something new, even if you don’t think you are good at it. For me, pushing myself out of my comfort zone by taking up placements at MDUK and Wall to Wall taught me not only about the industries and the workplace but I also learned about myself and what I can do. It made me realise that a lot of my existing skills are transferable and made me more optimistic about my career options.
  • Be proactive! Television is a creative industry, it’s competitive, so you need to create your own opportunities. Joanna gets a lot of emails from applicants every day, so it’s not always possible to reply to emails quickly. However, this does not mean that your application is rejected; your CV gets stored on the company database for future uses. If the company does not reply within a few weeks, send a follow-up email. Sometimes companies will require someone urgently for a specific job, and if your email arrives at the right time then the job could be yours. There are job-posting websites and talent databases like TalentBases and MediaParent where companies recruit freelancers that are free for applicants.
  • Be-friend! Networking is important for any career, but especially for television. Freelancers work with different teams on every project, so it’s a good idea to keep a list of contacts from each project who can potentially point you to other projects and introduce you to other people. Taking up work experience placements, internships, and media events are also very good ways of meeting people. For writers, finding a good agency with the right contacts can make a huge difference.

Good Luck!

With huge thanks to Christina for sharing this with us 🙂

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