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rainahaig.com: Working in Film as a Disabled Director

Working in Film as a Disabled Director



Raina Haig For The Film Council

 

Introduction

This account is an attempt to demonstrate and analyse some of the issues facing disabled people working in the film industry in the UK. Film lies at the heart of contemporary cultural expression. It gives cultures, subcultures and communities a collective voice. It allows us to tell each other stories from a myriad of human cultural perspectives. Film enables us to learn about one another's lives. If the authentic life experience and perspectives of disabled people are - literally - to get into the picture, disabled people must be supported in making significant contributions within the film industry.

As a disabled creative within the British film and broadcasting industry, developing and sustaining my film career has not been easy. I have experienced many problems due to the lack of training and employment infrastructure available to disabled practitioners.

In the first part of this account, I consider the broad legislative, support and industry contexts within which I work. In the second part, I give information on how I work as a disabled film director and indicate the disability-related costs that need to be met. In this way I hope to give insights into my working processes, while highlighting some of the barriers that I face. While my experiences and requirements are, to some extent, unique, they act in this document as a real-life case study of the kinds of problems and requirements likely to be faced by a disabled film professional and their employers.

 

Legal Context

Disability Discrimination Act

The most significant piece of legislation relating to disability in the UK is the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which came into effect in October 1999. The Act is based upon the social model of disability which considers that it is not a disabled person's impairments that create a barrier to inclusion in mainstream society, but instead barriers that exclude disable people are created by a society that take's little account of these impairments. These barriers include attitudes, the physical environment, institutional structures, transport, information and communication.

Part I of the DDA defines a disabled person as anyone with 'a physical or mental impairment which has substantial or long-term adverse effect upon his or her ability to carry out his or her ability to carry our normal day-to-day activities'. ('long-term' is defined as 'has lasted or is expected to last for 12 months'). The definition includes people with conditions that impair mobility, people with hearing and visual impairments, people with mental health problems, as well as people with conditions such as diabetes, cancer and HIV.

The DDA's definition of discrimination relates to the concept of less favourable treatment on the basis of an individual's disability. The DDA protects DDA in the areas of:

- employment

- access to goods, facilities and services

- the management, buying and renting of land or property

Part II of the DDA makes it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in employment. Part III pf the DDA relates to access to the provision of services and goods. An amendment to the DDA, the Special Education Needs and Disability Act 2001 (which begins to come into force in September 2002) makes it unlawful for schools, Further Education and Higher Education institutions (which were previously excluded from the DDA) to discriminate against disabled students.

Under the DDA, an organisation is required to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of a disabled person. In terms of employment, an employer should consider whether any employment arrangements or physical features of the working environment put disabled people at a disadvantage. Examples of adjustments include: adjustments to working premises, flexible working hours, modification of equipment, making instructions and manuals more accessible, using a reader or interpreter. The DDA covers permanent employees of a

company and those employed under contract.

An independent body, the Disability Rights Commission has been established to advise disabled people on their rights under the DDA. It also supports legal cases which will help to clarify the law.

Issues

An individual's status as a disabled person under the DDA is only decided on a case-by-case basis when a case of alleged discrimination is tested in the civil court or through an employment tribunal.

The DDA only recommends 'reasonable adjustments' but does not make specific recommendations. Discrimination is only established on a case-by-case basis through cases in the civil courts and employment tribunals. Employers must therefore work on general assumptions when considering the changes they must make based on the DDA and on previous cases. This also places the onus on the individual disabled person to establish that discrimination has taken place after the event.

 

Support Context

Government initiatives to enable disabled people to be supported in their access to mainstream work include New Deal for Disabled People and Workstep. The Access to Work scheme is a government initiative that provides advice and support in removing barriers to the employment of disabled people, to both disabled people and their employers. As well as providing information and advice, the Access to Work scheme also pays a grant towards any extra employment costs involved. The scheme also applies to disabled people who are self-employed.

In addition, certain charities, charitable foundations and business sponsors may be approached to make financial contributions to a disabled person's work-related expenses.

Issues

Under Access to Work the employer initially pays out for the agreed support then reclaims the cost from the scheme.

Access to Work's criteria are not flexible enough to accommodate the realities of freelance work in the film industry. Support through the scheme is available only if a disabled person has an existing contract of employment. Once contracted, the bureaucratic processes necessary to access support through the scheme may mean that hired equipment arrives after a short-term project has ended. The equipment must then by returned immediately as it cannot be held without a current contract of work.

A freelance writer/director working in the film industry is required to undertake a great deal of speculative work - for example, developing concepts, treatments, and scripts for film projects - in order to interest a potential producer. This necessary - but uncontracted - activity does not qualify for support through Access to Work.

 

Contributions from charities, charitable foundations and business sponsorship are most likely to contribute to specific, one-off costs rather than offering ongoing support.

 

Industry Context

In the light of the DDA, the Film Council has created a Disability Action Plan which is available from its website. In constructing the Plan, the Film Council undertook research to determine the current situation regarding the employment and training of disabled people within the film industry. Its findings include:

Access to training for disabled people remains a key issue.

Provision for disabled people 'can be tokenistic, with one-off projects being uncoordinated and piecemeal'.

Film organisations are often ignorant about issues relating to disability and disabled people.

Film production budgets lack provision for making 'reasonable adjustments' to enable the participation of disabled people.

Attitudinal change within the film industry 'was a significant hurdle to overcome'.

The research also indicated that the imposition of quotas or targets for the employment of disabled people in publicly funded film projects may be necessary to create change in employment practices in commercial production.

The Film Council, has previously stated that a film's benefit to the public should include 'maximum access for disabled people'. This was expanded as follows:

'You will need to show your organisation is committed to principles of equal opportunity in all aspects of its work...You should pay particular attention to the needs of disabled people, whether as attendees, participants, artists or employees. You should consider the needs of people with disabilities of all kinds, whether related to mobility, sight, hearing, etc. Appropriate disability equality training should be part of your project plan.'

BECTU, the major industry union, reported an upsurge of producer interest in the recruitment of disabled personnel as a result of this directive.

The Film Council in the future aims to carry out a number of disabilty-related initiatives which include:

Raising awareness of disability within the film industry.

Ensuring funding criteria take account of issues relating to disability.

Other film organisations currently considering the issue of disability, include the British Film Institute (BFI), which has recently produced a Disability Consultation Document that will feed into the its Disablity Strategy Document and Cultural Diversity Plans.

Despite these strategies, a number of significant barriers to disabled people working in the field of film remain, including:

 

Attitudinal barriers exist at all levels of the industry

Few employment structures are currently in place to support the employment of disabled people.

The industry lacks examples of good practice in the employment of disabled people and, in particular, the industry has no record of employing disabled people in positions of creative control.

 

Working Practice and Support Requirements

Introduction

I am a film writer and director who makes narrative, fictional films. I am also registered blind. I have Stargardt's Disease, which is a form of macular degeneration. This means that my central field of vision has degenerated, leaving me with only peripheral vision. In addition my central field of vision is permanently invaded by vibrating white and coloured light. My visual impairment is part of who I am, as are my Scottish roots and present London life. All these contribute to my artistic framework.

Training

My experience at the Northern School of Film and Television bears out the Film Council's findings that 'access is still a key issue to training'. While studying on the Postgraduate Diploma, Fiction Film (Direction) course in 1995/96, I received no support to accommodate by disability-related requirements. In addition, I was informed that the provision of specialist equipment would give me an unfair advantage over other non-disabled students and would not reflect working practices within the film school.

The provisions of the Special Education Needs and Disability Act 2001 should help improve conditions within film training environments. As indicated above, however, the onus lies on the disabled individual to claim a case of discrimination. Without adequate support, the process of challenging discrimination can be intimidating, and disruptive to course work. Who does the film student turn to for support or advocacy? In the first instance, they need to be able to turn to an informed person who can advise, mediate or otherwise intervene on their behalf.

 

Film production

My experiences as the director of Gettin Off, a short film commissioned for the Channel 4 Dogma TV series, broadcast in December 2000, illustrate some of the difficulties faced by disabled film professionals.

The main issue that arose who was responsible for the extra line in the budget that was required to cover my access cost, as the budget had been set in advance with no provision for disability access. While, under the DDA, access costs would fall under the 'reasonable adjustments' that employers are obliged to make, an argument arose over who was responsible for these costs: the production company or the commissioning body. My freelance contract was with the production company, making them responsible under the DDA, as my employer, to undertake the reasonable adjustments necessary. However, the broadcaster also, in part, determined the budgets for the production and participated in the hiring process.

It was suggested by Channel 4's Disability Adviser that I was responsible for covering the costs myself through the Access to Work scheme. Access to Work was not a viable option, as the timescale set for the production meant that there was only a week between the job offer and the first day of filming. This tight schedule would not have allowed me time to access funds through the scheme.

The problem was eventually solved in an unsatisfactory way. The production company made a decision to go over budget, and the commissioning editor agreed to take responsibility for the cost, despite there being no precedent.

Raina Haig