Many weeks ago, I heard that the Broadcasting and Creative Industries Disability Network was to merge with the Cultural Diversity Network. As a disabled programme-maker, I’d love to say I had some kind of strong and incisive reaction to this news, but I was in the middle of making a film at the time, I was at that point in production where my body was refusing to co-operate with my life, and I had to get up at dawn the next day. I decided this was not the kind of news that was going to change my life, deleted the email and went to sleep.
I didn’t think about it again until I was invited to the merger event earlier this month. It struck me as unlikely that anything particularly interesting was going to happen at that event. Various colleagues and contacts ‘encouraged’ me to go, citing the fact that disabled production staff were likely to be under-represented there, and it would be good and useful if I could show my face and, presumably, look obviously disabled at the same time. At this point, I should probably mention that I am a freelancer and if I received as many job offers as I do invitations to TV diversity shindigs, I would never, ever need to seek work. The other day I switched my blackberry off for an hour and had three such invitations when I turned it on again.
Despite this, I am not averse to showing my face for the sake of it, and I might’ve attended the BCIDN / CDN marriage celebrations had the occurred on a different day. When it came to it, I was on one side of London, they were on the other, public transport is not spectacularly easy to navigate when you have a mobility impairment, I was knackered, and did not think it worth my while to pay for a taxi. I did have some spies there. I gather nothing very interesting did happen, tho there was wine.
Despite the cynicism you may’ve detected so far, I’m an optimist and I do think it is a good and useful thing for production staff from ‘diverse backgrounds’ – whatever they are – to share experience, thoughts and ideas. I’ve not had enough direct contact with the BCIDN to have a particularly strong opinion of it, which is probably quite telling in itself. I am on the CDN mentoring scheme, and that’s nice.. A few years ago, when I was one of a number of people struggling with the government’s grant system for disabled people because it was not particularly sympathetic to the unpredictable lives of TV freelancers, BCIDN network manager Clare Morrow was brilliant at helping us negotiate improvements with the powers that be. I should point out that Channel 4 and the BBC were very helpful in those negotiations too.
The fact that most people reading this article will have no idea what an Access to Work grant is depresses me quite a lot. (I can’t be bothered to explain. Google it.) It’s one of the reasons I’m sceptical about the merger. We’re told that, with the merger, broadcasters want to put disability at the heart of their diversity agendas, but I’m always being told this, and that statement never seems to have any real impact on my working life. Indeed, over my 10 year career, I’ve sat opposite many senior diversity execs representing almost every major broadcaster, and been told, straight-faced, that disability is a new ‘issue’ for them and they need my help to understand it. I wouldn’t mind, but it gets quite boring, and I bet they all get paid lots more than me. Actually, I’m curious about how they get employed with such major gaps in knowledge. Anyone would think disability knowledge has not always been a priority during diversity recruitment processes. Ironic, no?
The thing is, it’s very possible to have a career in mainstream TV production and be disabled at the same time, but it is quite hard work and it can get quite lonely. As someone who has crap balance and limited stamina, I’ve faced some interesting ‘challenges’ when on location. When I met a new exec or series producer for the first time, it’s usually also the first time they’ve come across a physically disabled person as a potential member of production staff and, once they’ve got over the shock, they tend to have a number of practical questions. This isn’t discrimination: they are things they need to know and I need to discuss, and by now I’m quite adept at fielding such queries.
The point is, for me at least, being a disabled person has a number of practical implications in terms of the way I do my job, and because of this I don’t feel my own particular brand of ‘diverse’ experience is necessarily comparable to those from other minority backgrounds. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other’s experience, but it does mean that I’m worried that the particular ‘stuff’ which arises for me and my disabled compatriots gets a bit lost when diversity groups merge together to play happy families – especially when not all of us are in a position to scoot around the different events easily and claim our free wine.
Having said all that, I’m still not sure the merger of the two groups into the all-new CDN is going to impact on my life. In reality, what I’d like is for the CDN to be less of a talking shop for broadcasters to show they want to do the right thing and more of a pressure group which actually solves some problems and convinces commissioners, executives and frontline production staff that employing production staff from atypical backgrounds is neither a problem nor a charitable exercise, but extremely good for business.
Kate Ansell is an AP of 10 years experience, working on factual programmes for whoever pays her, mainly Channel 4 and the BBC.