Last Tuesday night, the 23rd October 2013, Disability Media was launched at RMIT in Melbourne. Or relaunched, to be precise. The organisation was rebadged as Grit Media some time back, but people were confused by the name, so they’ve returned to the original moniker.

Disability Media aims to bring together the film and television community with the world of disability in order to portray people with disabilities on our screens, so that they become commonplace and unremarkable. As President Greg Dee explained, the ultimate aim is to live in a society where disability goes unremarked, because every individual has complete access to everything whether they have a disability or not.

Disability Media encourages audiences to see disability as a natural part of life by bringing awareness of disability into people’s homes, through the production of realistic, compelling and engaging content.

Disability Media grew out of the television program No Limits, which has screened for more than a decade on Channel 31. Now in its thirteenth season, Greg Dee and CEO Sarah Barton were instrumental in launching this highly successful series, which will air in December.

Sarah Barton, a well-known filmmaker, pointed out that thriving in the screen industry is tough for everyone, and if you’re not at the top of your game you stand to be overlooked for someone faster, sharper or younger than you. But where does that put someone with a disability who has aspirations to work in the business?

“Unemployment among people with disabilities is nearly 50% in Australia,” said Sarah, and so most people with disabilities are unable to get a foothold within film and television.

“Ten years ago we began making television with people with disabilities and I can tell you that it is absolutely possible,” she told us. “From the beginning we had people with disabilities behind the scenes working as tape operators, editors, camera operators, floor managers and producers.”

She introduced patron Stella Young, who has graduated to ‘grown up ABC land,’ where she has a regular gig. Stella told the audience that she uses the Twittersphere to point out examples where people misrepresent disability, but she acknowledged that since disability is her world view, she can get used to the discrimination and not notice it as much as she should.

The launch took place at RMIT’s building at 150 Victoria Street, Carlton, courtesy of past Chair Paul Ritchard from the School of Media and Communication. Paul was thanked by numerous speakers at the group’s AGM prior to the launch for his support on behalf of RMIT.

After Stella Young played a clip based on material fron No Limits, she introduced film and television producer Ade Djajamihardja and Kate Stephens to the podium.

Ade Djajamihardja is someone who after a long and successful career in film and television, suffered a major stroke. “We call him our most committed Board Member,” Sarah explained, saying that Ade suffered his stroke only three days after joining the board.

Ade said that he had joined the industry at 19 as a floor manager for ABC News. He had a thriving career over 25 years, including work in Singapore and Malaysia. “After a very fortunate career, I was approached to join the board of Disability Media Australia and I felt it was a great cause,” said Ade. “I was looking forward to making a substantial contribution to the mission, to advance the rights, inclusion and increased visibility of people with disabilities in the media.”

Ade went on to tell the story of a young boy who watched TV like most children, but assumed that because he never saw anybody on the screen with a disability like he had, that he would not survive to become an adult. “Wow,” said Ade, “what an impact the media can have! With 20% of the population having some form of disability, they need to be represented.”

Ade now gets around in a wheelchair, and he has found that poses its own problems. His partner and now carer Kate explained that Ade had been keen to get back into the industry while still in the recovery stages, but it proved more challenging than he had expected.

Kate mentioned several examples: a government agency which has steps leading to the office from the street; an organisation which welcomed Ade to a meeting only to change the venue at the last minute to a room in a café up several flights of stairs; a recent Film Festival opening night where they were dispatched to the only toilet available through freezing rain across a muddy path; and an industry conference which accepted the registration fee on the basis that access would be available (confirmed in writing) and then told Kate and Ade that some events would not be accessible due to lack of wheelchair access.

Many in the screen industries pride themselves on an informed sensibility to issues like disability access, but it seems that at the end of the day actions speak louder than words, and the screen industry organisations just don’t get it, even if they think they do.

Kate said in her speech that while these barriers to entry were frustrating and humiliating, what was even more galling was the attitude of such organisations when these problems were pointed out. Far from apologising or even acknowledging such issues, these organisations were prone to deny the problem existed, and when preseed to blame Kate and Ade by implying they had been warned of problems with access when they in fact had not. What is worse, when Kate was able to prove her contention that access had been confirmed via an email exchange, the organisation concerned was unrepentant.

Everyone within the film and television industry is aware that industry events are sometimes organised in a hurry and with inadequate funding and staff, and the people at Disability Media know that their colleagues have their hearts in the right place. But it’s difficult to understand the mindset of such organisations when they seem incapable of providing suitable access (which is actually a legal requirement), and then having failed to do so, would rather blame the victim than admit error. It’s like with friends like these, who needs enemies?

“I do hope that in the future the staff at such organisations consider how they would like to be treated if they ever suffer a stroke or an accident where they require a wheelchair,” said Kate. “These experiences were hurtful, disrespectful and discriminatory.” She added that after being hospitalised for months, people can be depressed and almost suicidal, and this kind of discrimination when they are trying to enter the community again can be enough to send them ‘over the edge.’

Perhaps, if Disability Media succeeds in putting images of people with disabilities out there on our screens, then people may eventually understand the difficulties people in wheelchairs and other special requirements face, every day. Even people in screen sector organisations. And when media organisations allow people with disabilities to enter their workplaces, those people will be able to make a contribution to production too, in front of and behind the cameras. Let’s hope it happens – soon!

Mark Poole

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