People with learning disabilities on TV
Beth Richards, Mike Steel, Victoria Mason-Angelow and Hannah Brana-Martin
This project was started by Beth Richards, an actress with learning disabilities who belongs to a local theatre company in Bristol called ‘The Misfits’, the same group who supported the research about personal assistants and produced a film called ‘A Good Match’. Beth and her fellow actors were aware that people with learning disabilities were not often seen on TV, and Beth wanted to find out why that was. TV is important, because people watching TV can sometimes form their attitudes by what they see. TV can reflect culture, but it can also change cultures.
Beth’s aims were:
- To find out why there are so few people with learning disabilities on TV
- To understand how TV works at the moment, so that we can think more about how to change the practices which exclude people with learning disabilities.
Beth ran an online survey (with 180 responses, about a third of which were from disabled people) and carried out 18 interviews with people in theatre, TV and the media, including three TV actors with learning disabilities, a disabled performer and comedian, as well as writers, performers and non-disabled TV personalities. She asked questions about their views on people with learning disabilities and TV, as well as their ideas on barriers and their experience of negotiating those barriers. Depending on people’s experience, she was interested to learn more about existing TV practices, but also to reflect on what people with learning disabilities could offer on the screen.
This project was an extremely important example of what is known as ‘inclusive research’. It is rare for someone with learning disabilities to be so close to academia that they are able to suggest, promote and design their own research; that is partly because most research has to be planned in advance at the proposal stage, in order to be funded. While that was also true here, our research goals in ‘Getting Things Changed’ were broad enough to include what disabled people themselves felt was important, and thus Beth was able to start up her own project, with funding as a part-time research associate at the University. She had a research partner throughout the process, but the starting point for the research plan and its activism came very much from her, and her own personality.