Breaking Barriers: The DSO Hosts its First Panel

The people we see onscreen matters.

Representation is everything when it comes to film and television; we look for faces and bodies to mirror ourselves. However, it also matters when it comes to the people working behind the scenes, the directors, writers, and crew.

For disabled creatives, the barriers to breaking into, and remaining, in the film and TV industry are monumental. The challenges the community face is what fueled the creation of the Disability Screen Office.

The Disability Screen Office (DSO), newly formed in 2022, is a national, not-for-profit organization that works with the Canadian screen industry to eliminate accessibility barriers and foster authentic and meaningful disability representation throughout the sector.

The DSO, led by inaugural executive director Winnie Luk, took to the stage during TIFF 2023 to host the industry panel Breaking Barriers, Shattering Ceilings: Advancing Accessibility and Inclusion for People with Disabilities in the Screen Industry.

Winnie Luk
Winnie Luk, Executive Director of the Disability Screen Office (DSO)

“Stereotypes continue to characterize the ways in which the disabled are represented on screen as people in need of support or assistance, those who are struggling,” says panelist Prasanna Ranganathan, a human rights lawyer, documentary producer and consultant.

“In the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study,” he continues, “they talk about representation figures in the top 100 grossing films, which the latest report says that's now 1.9% of speaking characters. So that's a 2% drop since their last study pre-pandemic.”

“Film and television impact the way we feel about society and culture, and impact how we understand identity,” states Meagan McAteer, director, and producer of TV series such as PUSH and Breaking Character. “And the way that we have misrepresented and erased disability in our film and television already has contributed to ableism. And so, while we want to progress, if we can't see ourselves represented, why would we think we can work in this industry as well?”

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The cast of CBC series PUSH

The question then becomes how can the industry evolve to better support disabled creatives?

“I think that the exciting thing is that because there's so much wrong, there's so much that we can then do to make things more accessible to more people,” says award-winning disabled writer, actor, and consultant Ophira Calof.

“From how we shape our budgets to our schedules and the ways in which we put out hiring calls, there's so many things. But broad strokes, the thing that I'm going to shout out is disabled leadership. Across our funding bodies, production companies, broadcasters, writers, producers, directors, actors, we hire disabled people in key decision-making roles and key creative roles.” 

“We need full-scale, systemic change,” adds Ranganathan. “That comes from having people that are solely dedicated to on-production roles related to accessibility, and then industry-wide roles on how accessibility can be threaded into all that we do.”

What is most aggravating to many advocates is that federal laws designed to aid in the inclusion of disabled creators in the Canadian television industry, specifically, are ineffectual.

“All broadcasters have accessibility plans as required under the federal Accessible Canada Act,” says Sasha Boersma, co-founder of Sticky Brain Studios and who also serves as a media arts college instructor. “Yet not even one has an accessibility plan for production, not even one. The industry has done the bare minimum as required under the ACA from an administrative standpoint and nothing from a production standpoint. So, the DSO is now educating the industry on the Accessible Canada Act.”

“There are best practices already enacted in our government and our protections for employment,” adds McAteer, “and for whatever reason, our very innovative industry just does not yet apply them to themselves.”

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The cast of 'Breaking character' series

The idea that the film and TV industry needs time to make changes is something Boersma calls into question.

“We all talk about how fast the industry shifted to dealing with COVID costs. That's a lot of money, and accessibility costs are probably nowhere near that. We switched on a dime, we got that done, so why can't we just do that with disability? It seems straightforward.”

Yet, writer and actor Calof cautions that any changes made must ensure a wide spectrum of the community is included.

“Within the disability community, sometimes we need to move slowly to make sure that we are truly moving together. We're not a monolith, and if we're only looking to the voices of people who have been somewhat able to navigate the industry as it currently exists, we are never going to have the answers of how to truly shift it to make it accessible for everyone.”

For college instructor Boersma, change can start with a simple mindset.

“Often when I'm teaching, I suggest simple things. Like if you're doing a scene in a community center, why are there not a couple of people who are sitting in wheelchairs having coffee? Why is there not someone with a cane? Why is there not someone who's deaf at the barista stand? And I think that's where the TV show Shelved does a nice job. It’s set at public library in Toronto. Of course, there's a bunch of people with various disabilities, they're just there because it's a Toronto library downtown.”

One of the DSO’s key initiatives is the creation of a best practices guide for the industry.

“We are only in the research phase of the best practices guide at the moment,” says McAteer who is working on the initiative. “The guide will serve as a foundational document when it’s finished. For those of us who are disabled working in the industry, as well as those who are engaging with disabilities throughout the media industry as well, it's a resource, a reference, which provides information, up-to-date language, legal and protective responsibilities for both parties included in the conversation.”

As for the moment, the key takeaway from the panel to the Canadian media industry is simple.

“Hire disabled creators to tell stories about people with disabilities where we're not the best friend that wears fabulous clothes and comes in with the witty one-liners,” says Ranganathan. “We're the people who drive stories. We're the people who are at the heart and soul of the films you're watching. We're people going on adventures. We're people in action films. We're people.”

Ingrid Randoja
Freelance writer Ingrid Randoja is the former film editor of Toronto’s NOW Magazine, the former deputy editor of Cineplex Magazine, and a founding member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.
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