Improving representation of people with learning disabilities in the media

This month the BBC announced plans to improve the representation of disabled people both on and off the screen.

For people with learning disabilities and those who support  them,  this announcement is very welcome but long overdue. People with learning disabilities have long been overlooked in programming, often appearing on a short term basis which focuses on their disability. How many programmes can you name that have a long standing, positive character who has a learning disability? One, maybe two if you count the American television show Glee.

The appointment of a Disability Executive at the BBC will hopefully ensure that people with learning disabilities are included in this change. It is positive that the BBC recognises that there is a disparity between the number of people with disabilities and the number of people working in television (both on and off the screen) with disabilities. Although a target of increasing on-air representation to 5% by 2017 seems like a small figure, it is a large improvement from the current 1.2%. As part of our work with people with learning disabilities I often hear people saying that they do not see themselves represented on the programmes that they watch.

Part of a project I have been working on at the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities around hate crime and bullying led to us developing a campaign around this very subject. The reference group of people with learning disabilities (who were involved in this project to offer advice and guidance) expressed many of their own stories or those of friends who had experienced hate crime and bullying. The group felt that the public perception of them was influencing the negative attitudes towards them and so we started a petition to Ofcom and developed a guide for broadcasters asking them to change the way they represent people with learning disabilities.

It concerns me what messages people are receiving from programmes depicting the lives of people with learning disabilities. That they are shown as victims? That their whole lives are centred on their disabilities and that they do not have dreams, jobs, and friends like everyone else? That to have a learning disability means you are ‘different’?  These portrayals do not show all the many great qualities that people with learning disabilities have and the positive ways they contribute to society.

It is important that large media organisations like the BBC lead by example and show what equal opportunity employment looks like, making recruitment processes accessible and ensuring the appropriate support is in place to keep people in their jobs. I look forward to seeing these positive changes take place and hope that it is the first of many similar changes made by broadcasters.