Award-winning producer, director and visual artist Justin Edgar offers thoughts on making film more accessible, the longer term effects of our current society-wide lockdown and how it offers the potential for insights. This is the first piece in our DDA season, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act.
In August 2020, disability consultancy Indigo delivered a report examining the effect of Covid-19 on disabled people’s engagement with the arts. It was drafted by DCMS culture and disability lead Andrew Miller. The headline finding is that 77% of disabled audiences consider themselves to be “vulnerable to Coronavirus” whilst only 28% of non-disabled audiences do. It is clear Covid-19 is having a profound and greater impact on disabled people’s lives than the able-bodied.
We can learn from past major world events and examine how these influenced the lives of disabled people. For instance, in the wake of World War II there was a sense of community and liberal paternalism towards the returning disabled troops. Support for servicemen led to civilian support. This in turn led to convalescent homes and special schools removing disabled people from society, the “issue” of disability became hidden from the wider public. This suppression led to the disability rights movement, which was instrumental in improving the lives of disabled people through the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. Part of this was the mandate to make cinemas accessible for all. What will be the result of this global crisis and how can we help steer the film in the right direction?
In theory this is a boom time for disabled people, with the cinema experience and new releases offered to us at home. A big issue though has been the need to make films accessible and this remains a blindspot for streamers and online exhibitors. Subtitles and audio description are widely available but not BSL interpreting or deafblind transcripts. Palantypists and British Sign Language interpreters are in demand from the medical and legal establishment and quite rightly priority is given over the arts. It is almost impossible to book a BSL interpreter at present.
We also need to consider less obvious access issues than sensory impairments, for example autism and mental health issues. The digital world is not for everyone and requires a certain level of base understanding and an ability to filter the real and the unreal and understand certain systems and etiquettes. People with learning disabilities, autism and other mental health issues are not always the most able to understand a film that may be accessible and relatable to others, but lacks any context for them.
Andrew Miller speaks of the danger of “Digital Disenfranchisement”. This is a scenario where we as a society become used to digital provision for disabled people, who are expected to sit at home and not experience film physically. Andrew is concerned there is a danger that this will continue after the pandemic abates. 12% of cinema audiences are disabled, and its an economic necessity to get disabled people watching and working in film.
Will the fact that everyone has been disabled by a society-wide lockdown give the common community more sense of insight into disabled people’s lives? Coming out of this, can we make things better than they were? The digital institutionalisation of disabled people is a real danger we have to face.
Justin Edgar is a film director and visual artist working in the sphere of disability. His last two films WE ARE THE FREAKS and THE MARKER starring John Hannah were bought by Netflix. He began his career at BBC Birmingham’s DOCTORS and directed his first feature film LARGE for Film Four aged just 26.
His second feature film SPECIAL PEOPLE premiered at the 2007 TriBeCa Film Festival and went on to win a Royal Television Society diversity award.
His company 104 Films worked on the BAFTA nominated SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL and co-produced feature documentary NOTES ON BLINDNESS which was nominated for three BAFTAs including Best British Film.
He sits on the disability round table for the BFI and advocates for better representation of disabled people behind the camera. His film prints, including SPECIAL PEOPLE, have been archived at the BFI as works of cultural significance and he is currently writing about disability in British Film for Bloomsbury.
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