TV hunts for disabled talent

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The Independent Online
MORE than 5,000 disabled presenters, actors and experts are being recruited for Britain's first media database of people with special needs. The move follows criticism that television executives are "too scared" to put disabled people on screen, for fear of frightening viewers.

The database, compiled by Channel 4, aims to create a "fast track" for disabled people into programmes and programme-making. It will contain details of people keen to make a career in television and others looking for occasional exposure.

"There is a rich pool of disabled talent and it hasn't been tapped yet," said Alison Walsh, C4's disability adviser, who is co-ordinating the database.

The inspiration for it arose from producers showing enthusiasm for recruiting disabled presenters at a seminar at last year's Edinburgh film festival, whose ironic title, "Do You Think I'm Sexy?", was chosen to reflect the prevailing attitude in television to disabled people.

"At the meeting it was remarked that the first time people see a disabled person they notice it, but the second time the disability becomes invisible," said Ms Walsh. "Disability doesn't matter visually. You quickly latch on to what the presenter is saying."

The number on the database was less important than encouraging people to sign up, she said. "Quite a few feel they have had bad experiences with production companies and it will require diplomacy to get them to join up."

But producers remain wary of employing disabled people. "In this climate of political correctness they worry about accusations of tokenism," she said. "Disabled people are wheeled on to talk about being disabled and that compartmentalises them.

"Soap operas should have disabled characters who stay in the storyline and not just bring them in only to discuss disabled issues. They should show these people having relationships and rows with their families like everyone else. They need to be portrayed in factual and drama programmes experiencing the same sort of crises.

"There are so many quiz and cookery shows now, and they all have a good mix of women and people from different cultural backgrounds but there's not a single disabled person. "Nowadays it seems you can be old, unattractive or camp, but you can't be disabled."

Matt Fraser has short arms due to the effects of thalidomide. He presents Freak Out, an entertainment show forming part of Channel 4's Access All Areas season next month and he believes producers do not have enough courage to employ disabled actors and actresses.

"They are scared of losing their jobs," he said.