Pushing the Limits

By Sarah Barton

By Sarah Barton. This article is part of our April and May focus on Art and Human Rights.

In 2001 my good friend and colleague Greg Dee was appointed Station Manager at Channel 31, the community television station in Melbourne. The station has a licence to broadcast programs that are representative of diverse communities across Melbourne including people with a disability. While there was certainly a great deal of Greek language programing going to air each week, it didn’t take long for him to realise that there was nothing at all being broadcast about disability. Greg has a son who has Down Syndrome and he knew that I had a young daughter who also has a disability. I had also made a documentary (Untold Desires) about sexuality and disability a few years earlier that was well received. Greg took a punt that I might be interested in creating something about disability for community television. My first reaction was “no” – I didn’t want to spend more of my time thinking about disability and I certainly didn’t want to start making community television for no money.

However, Greg was persuasive and we hatched a plan to get some money together to make a show. We both clearly remember the day that Rhonda Galbally and Jill Reichstein from the Reichstein Foundation came to the offices of Channel 31 in Lonsdale Street to meet with us and hear about our plans to put people with disabilities on television talking about what matters most to them. We had a few ideas about who might be involved. We really wanted Caroline Bowditch to be in the show. Caroline is an articulate and intelligent advocate and we knew she could really bring some pizzaz to our panel. Unfortunately she was about to jump on a plane to England where a whole new life awaited her, but she recommended a young student friend of hers who she thought might be able to step into her place.

Stella Young was about 19 when she came to our first group meeting and immediately Greg, Rhonda and I knew that we had met our star. It was another 18 months before No Limits went into production, but in 2003 with start up funding from the Reichstein Foundation we shot our first episodes with Stella Young, George Taleporos and John McKenna behind the panel talking about what they knew best. My job as producer was to support the team to look and sound the best that they could. I needed to make the show engaging to a broad audience, many of whom had never heard a person with a disability have an opinion before. There was a lot to learn on both sides.

None of them had ever been spoken to like that before. No one had ever expected them to get it right and they had never been judged by the same standards as everyone else.

Television production is a tough business and on day one I gave what I thought were clear instructions about what needed to happen once the cameras rolled. The filming began and it was as if I’d never spoken. No one had listened to anything I had said and so I told them off for not paying attention. They were all intelligent human beings who had been chosen for being smart and articulate – my instructions weren’t rocket science – they just needed to pay attention. Soon after I became aware of mutterings among the presenters. None of them had ever been spoken to like that before. No one had ever expected them to get it right and they had never been judged by the same standards as everyone else. There was a hushed awe as the group generally agreed that I had been demanding. This was an exciting new experience for all of them.

“How can I make it possible? How can I ensure that everyone’s voice and opinion can be heard?”

I too had a lot to learn. I remember the day I needed one presenter to make a particular point to camera. George had been chosen for the task but as we were recording I became aware that his voice just wasn’t carrying clearly. Without thinking, I suggested that it might work better if one of the others had a go because then we could hear them more clearly, but George was having none of that. Quite rightly he insisted that although his voice was quiet, it was my problem, not his, and I should find a way to make it work because he had just as much right to be heard and to express his opinions as the others did. That moment has always stayed with me and I now constantly work with the idea of “How can I make it possible? How can I ensure that everyone’s voice and opinion can be heard?”

This year we are hoping to celebrate ten years on air for No Limits and a great deal has changed over that time. In the early days we covered anything and everything so long as it had something to do with disability. We did medical stories, equipment stories – John McKenna’s gadget of the week segment was a popular inclusion – we did advocacy, rights, comedy and fun. There were also opportunities for disabled people to get behind-the-scenes training on the show – they were informal and tailored to the person’s skills and strengths. The idea was to be inclusive and to give disabled people a chance to be seen and heard on the telly.

For presenters like Stella Young this worked a treat. She was a natural on screen and No Limits gave her a platform to showcase her talent and intelligence. Stella is now the editor of the ABC’s disability portal Ramp Up and is a regular presence on ABC television and radio as well as other shows. To see Stella as a guest on Channel 10’s The Project and SBS’s Insight as well as ABC’s Q and A feels like real success for what we were trying to achieve with No Limits. Yet there still remains so much more to be done.

Stella is one of what is still a much too small handful of disabled voices on our screens and in our media. We need to develop more stars like her, to nurture and support them so they don’t flounder under the glare of the spotlight. We also need to find ways to support more diverse voices from the disability community to be heard. To quote Stella herself, her disability is in many ways “vanilla”. She uses a wheelchair but she uses a wheelchair but she talks and thinks in ways that the non-disabled population can relate to and understand. What about impairments that affect a person’s ability to speak clearly and be easily understood? What about impairments that alter the way people perceive the world? Disability is a complex world and great diversity exists. There are still too many voices, viewpoints and ideas that are not being heard and do not have access to expression in our media.

Part of the solution to this problem is for disabled people to have access to the means of production. That means training disabled people to make their own media and to make media that audiences want to watch.

In 2005 No Limits set up its own organisation called Disability Mediawith the aim of facilitating the creation of a range of media about the experience of disability. After producing the first 70 episodes I resigned as producer of No Limits and was proud to see that the show rolled on. Soon after I ceased my involvement with Disability Media too and the organisation changed its name to Grit Media. In 2011 I was asked to come back.

There is now a clear sense that people with disabilities can and should have the opportunity for creative and editorial control of the media they produce. Yet to my knowledge none have graduated from our prestigious film and television schools and only a small number are working in journalism. Our screen agencies are yet to implement their disability action plans and until they do, disabled people will be unable to access screen production funds. We need an affirmative action strategy much like we had for women in the 1980s with the Women’s Film Fund and the Indigenous Film Program that has supported the work of filmmakers such as Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen. We need screen production funds that directly target disabled people and facilitate skills development and gives them the opportunity to tell their stories.

Internationally we are beginning to see disabled actors playing disabled characters in drama, and many characters (in Breaking Bad and Silent Witness, for example) have disabilities that are incidental to the storylines. It seems obvious to me that disabled characters should be played by disabled actors and yet that message is still only in its early stages in this country. The pool of skilled and experienced disabled actors needs nurturing in order to grow.

In countries like the UK where disability arts has been part of the arts and media landscape since the 80s, including disabled characters represents another step in the journey, where disabled people are simply a part of the story rather than the focus of the story itself.

In Australian popular culture we’ve not yet had the conversation about what it means to be disabled, and that means telling stories that are shamelessly focused on the experience of disability. This process of telling diverse stories about disability is an important one that we skip at our peril. We need the opportunity to tell these stories so we can comprehend what it means to live with disability in all its diversity, possibility and limitation.

We also need to challenge our limited thinking about how disabled people can take their place creating media and telling their own stories. What role do allies play in supporting the telling of these stories? As allies and facilitators, we should urge our screen agencies and production entities to get to work on their disability action plans. Only then will be able to begin to comprehend the true meaning of disability in Australian society, and when we switch on our television sets, we can watch how obligation can lead to opportunity.

Sarah Barton has been making films about disability for 20 years. She was the founding Series Producer of No Limits and is CEO of Grit Media. In 2010 she was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to work on a documentary about the disability rights movement called Weird and Wonderful, which is due for completion in early 2014.