BBC cast us aside, disabled trainees say

THE WORLD'S first disability programmes unit, launched by BBC-TV a month ago, has run into trouble, with some of its own disabled trainees expressing anger about the Corporation's attitude towards them.

The sensitive subject is complicated by the 'politics' of the disabled movement and by the trainees' desire to remain anonymous. Kerena Marchant, the unit's editor, who is deaf, seems to have angered four disabled people brought into the BBC in the past two years to work on ideas for unit programmes and to train as producers, assistant producers and production assistants.

The four, who regard themselves as pioneers of last month's programme launch, cope with disabilities ranging from near-blindness to cerebral palsy. They complain that, having worked on the 'blueprint' for the unit, they have been more or less cast aside by the BBC. They say they are reluctant to be quoted individually because their contracts forbid them to talk to the press.

Their main grievance is that when it came to recruiting disabled people for the launch of the new unit's programmes, made with an all-disabled production team, the BBC chose to exclude the original pioneers.

It is not clear why this occurred, but in the case of one of the four, the editor's written assessment of her performance said she was 'resilient (sic) to management and supervision and seems to regard it as persecution', while her 'emotional private life takes precedence over her work'.

The trainee in question criticises the disability programmes unit for being 'apolitical' and for not providing viewers with role models. She claims the unit suffers from low morale, lack of solidarity and incoherent purpose.

In a recent issue of Ariel, the BBC staff magazine, Ms Marchant explained new policy on 'disability programming'. In the past, it had been 'about the disabled' but made by 'able-bodied programme-makers, steering a cautious course, trying not to offend the disability movement'; whereas the new unit's programmes 'challenge all traditional ideas of disability'.

The team chosen to launch the project is putting out a bi-monthly topical magazine programme called From The Edge as well as planning short films about people's experiences of their disability, an entertainment programme, and an arts series.

The unit will also run a training scheme, funded by the European Social Fund. Every three months, three unemployed disabled people will start an 18-month scheme to train them for television jobs.

Some idea of the friction that has been generated between the four pioneers and Ms Marchant emerges from her detailed assessment of one of them, a woman. Referring to the disabled assistant producer's preparatory work on From The Edge, the editor said that the woman had 'hijacked' a production meeting by insisting on discussing 'access needs' rather than the series format.

On another occasion, when a programme for the deaf was being produced, the assistant producer said 'in a loud voice - upsetting the crew - that she had to go to a lesbian conference and that was more important'.

Another of the original four, who has cerebral palsy, found attitudes in the new unit 'so aggressive' that he decided to resign.

In a pub near BBC Television Centre, they voiced their resentment in strong terms. 'There was an air of suspicion and paranoia,' one said. 'I'm being held in a room in isolation, with nothing to do until my contract runs out in September.'

A colleague interjected: 'And I was terminated at the end of May. Of course the BBC operates on short-term contracts, but we haven't even been given an opportunity to work on mainstream programmes. We were being trained for the dole.'

A BBC spokesman said yesterday: 'We believe valuable work has been done in increasing the training and employment opportunities for disabled people in production areas of the BBC. Because of this advance there is competition for posts, and naturally some people have been disappointed.'