The film industry needs to open its arms to learning disabled and autistic talent

It’s well-known that film is difficult to break into at the best of times, but I have seen the barriers that people with learning disabilities face first-hand

Matthew Hellett
Tuesday 15 June 2021 09:43
<p>Sia has backtracked over the depiction of autism in her film Music</p>

Sia has backtracked over the depiction of autism in her film Music

This year’s Learning Disability Week is celebrating art and creativity. Both are long-standing ways for learning disabled people to express themselves and connect with friends and family.

Making films and being creative has always been a big part of my life, and this past year, in particular, it has been an important outlet for myself, and for the 1.5 million people like me, who are living with a learning disability in the UK.

Sadly, however, a career in the arts or the film industry is not something many people with learning disabilities have the chance to pursue. Less than 5 per cent of disabled people work in the UK film industry, and this has likely been reduced by the effects of the pandemic.

This too-small percentage of learning disabled people in the film industry has a significant impact. Last year’s release of Sia’s film, Music, featuring a neuro-typical actor playing the part of an autistic girl and reinforcing many harmful stereotypes about the autistic community, shows that our constant calls for representation are still being ignored.

More needs to be done to secure better representation for people with learning disabilities both on the big screen and behind the scenes.

These steps are not particularly difficult to take – the industry needs to learn to open its arms to a diverse range of talent, putting people with learning disabilities in front of and behind the camera.

With statistics showing that only 6 per cent of people with a learning disability are in paid work, there’s no better time to increase representation and create job opportunities for autistic and learning disabled people, as the industry tries to come back from the damage caused by the pandemic.

It isn’t just the film industry that has been impacted by Covid-19. Learning disabled people haven’t had the same resources as others in lockdown. Some have lost support hours and haven’t been able to access the groups and networks they rely on. I’ve had no choice but to be alone, and it’s been challenging to say the least.

Throughout lockdown, I’ve been making a film about my experiences, and I think a lot of people will see themselves in my story. I want to show what an impact the last year has had. I’ve been doing some visual art and I take photos of things that inspire me. Film helps take my mind off what’s going on out there. Making films helps me be creative, gives me a focus and lets me tell my story.

It is well-known that the film industry is difficult to break into at the best of times, but I have seen the barriers that people with learning disabilities attempting to enter a career in film face first-hand. While the industry continues to keep its door closed and locked, the Oska Bright Film Festival ensures that its doors are wide open.

The Oska Bright Film Festival, of which I am the festival programmer, is a world-leading festival for films made by or featuring people with learning disabilities and autism. Managed and presented by people with learning disabilities, Oska Bright offers a unique platform for aspiring filmmakers to gain experience, access routes into the film industry, connect with fellow artists and build up their networks.

Over the years, we have supported many incredible filmmakers, allowing them to make their mark and get their foot in the door of the film industry, and we will continue to do so. Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the festival continued to support the community through online events and workshops, creating an accessible opportunity for us to come together to celebrate each other’s work.

As a queer, learning disabled person, I always look for ways to enable people to take control and tell their own stories. This is why I developed a brand new LGBTQIA+ strand of the festival called Queer Freedom, which celebrates the queer community, love and self-expression.

The initiative has given a voice and platform to our “minority within a minority”, who are often treated as invisible within society. Everyone should be proud of who they are and have a chance to express themselves freely and without judgement.

As we celebrate arts and creativity this Learning Disability Week, I’d encourage every learning disabled and autistic person who has ever felt they have a story to tell, to consider making and submitting a film to our festival. Learning disabled artists make great art – it’s time for the world to see it.

Matthew Hellett is lead programmer at the Oska Bright Film Festival

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