In a letter published yesterday by the Guardian, learning disability charity Mencap has led a call to the TV and film industries to ‘embrace diversity’ and stop overlooking disability in the diversity debate. 

To coincide with the Oscars awards ceremony today, the letter, supported by actors with a learning disability, Sarah Gordy and Steven Brandon, actor Jodie Whittaker and disability organisations Leonard Cheshire Disability and BILD, calls for disability to be considered by TV and film production companies to increase the numbers of disabled actors seen on screen.

Mencap research of the general public in 2016 found:

  • 12% of the public say they had seen someone with a learning disability in a film in the past year
  • 34% of the public said they’d seen someone with a learning disability in a TV drama or comedy in the past year
  • 10% of the public said they have seen someone with a learning disability featured in newspapers or magazines in the past six months
  • 14% said they had seen someone with a learning disability being talked about in TV news reports.

Actress Sarah Gordy has Down’s syndrome. She has starred in a number of TV and stage productions, including BBC’s Call the Midwife. She said:

We see a variety of people every day in the real world and it is time to make TV and films show how society really is. People with disabilities exist, and we need this to be seen, otherwise attitudes are not going to change.

When I started acting, directors and producers thought that I wouldn’t be able to play the parts or that I would hold up the schedule because of my learning disability. But once they have worked with me, they know I can do it. Writers, directors and producers need to be more creative with their roles for disabled actors, and there needs to be more opportunities for actors with a learning disability to show their talents.

Rossanna Trudgian, Head of Campaigns at Mencap, said:

The lack of representation of learning disability on screen means that people with a learning disability remain largely unseen, ignored and often excluded from society.

There is a large number of fantastic actors and actresses, who have a learning disability, in the UK, such as Steven Brandon, star of the film My Feral Heart and TV and stage actress Sarah Gordy, among many more. Unfortunately, the chances for them to show off their talents are few and far between.

Research shows that there is still a widespread lack of understanding in society of what a learning disability is. We know that seeing actors, like Steven and Sarah, on screen helps to change attitudes and improve understanding. We need to see more opportunities for actors with a learning disability so we, as a society, can finally build a more inclusive society.

Mencap letter to editor

“Dear Sir

“Diversity has long been an issue at the Oscars. Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign highlighted the lack of racial diversity. But still, disability has been overlooked in this debate, with even less of a voice for people with a learning disability.

“The pool of talent amongst actors with a learning disability grows every year, with some receiving critical acclaim. But, for the few roles that do show disability on screen, actors with disabilities are still overlooked. Statistics show 16% of Oscars are awarded to non-disabled actors playing a disabled character.

“Just 12% of the public say they have seen someone with a learning disability in a film. This is a group of people who remain misunderstood, at the corners of society.

“Hollywood has the power to shape attitudes and challenge our own perceptions. It’s time for the diversity debate to embrace diversity itself, and begin a new era for the currently unearthed and overlooked pool of growing talent amongst actors with a learning disability.”

Signed by:

  1. Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap
  2. Ben Higgins, chief executive of BILD
  3. Neil Heslop, chief executive of Leonard Cheshire Disability
  4. Sarah Gordy, actress with Down’s syndrome
  5. Steven Brandon, actor with Down’s syndrome
  6. Jodie Whittaker, actress
  7. Ty Glaser, actress
  8. Kellie Shirley, actress
  9. James Rumsey, producer of My Feral Heart
  10. Jane Gull, director of My Feral Heart
  11. Duncan Paveling, writer of My Feral Heart
  12. Mark Nutkins, cinematographer
  13. Carl Mackenzie, producer
  14. Pixie Le Knot, The Girl in 'My Feral Heart' and the UK's leading contortionist
  15. Tim Bentinck, actor
  16. Nick Llewellyn, Access All Areas theatre company
  17. Patrick Collier, Executive Producer, Access All Areas theatre company
  18. Clare Williams, chief executive of Hijinx Theatre
  19. Law Ballard, actress and artistic director at Actors temple
  20. Gill Broderick – Actress
  21. Mark Wakeling – Actor, producer & founder of Artistic Temple
  22. Susie Tullett, film publicist

-ENDS-

For further information, please contact the Mencap press office on 020 7696 5414 or media@mencap.org.uk or for out of hours 07770 656 659.

About Mencap

There are 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK. Mencap works to support people with a learning disability, their families and carers by fighting to change laws, improve services and access to education, employment and leisure facilities. Mencap supports thousands of people with a learning disability to live their lives the way they want.

www.mencap.org.uk  

For advice and information about learning disability and Mencap services in your area, contact Mencap Direct on 0808 808 1111 (9am-5pm, Monday-Friday) or email help@mencap.org.uk

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability which can cause problems with everyday tasks – for example shopping and cooking, or travelling to new places – which affects someone for their whole life.

People with a learning disability can take longer to learn new things and may need support to develop new skills, understand difficult information and engage with other people. The level of support someone needs is different with every individual. For example, someone with a severe learning disability might need much more support with daily tasks than someone with a mild learning disability.

Learning disability is not a mental illness or a learning difficulty. Very often the term ‘learning difficulty’ is wrongly used interchangeably with ‘learning disability’.