Shining a spotlight on disability in the arts

Melissa Johns is a Winterson’s actor with a passion for the equal representation of actors with disabilities across stage and screen. She recently attended an ITV event centred around that very topic and here shares with us her insights into what the portrayal and use of disabled professionals in our industry currently looks like, and what more can be done to level the playing field. 

1. You recently attended a disability confident conference at ITV/Coronation Street – can you please tell us what specifically the event was in aid of?
The disability confident conference at ITV/Coronation Street was set up as way to get lots of different people that have the control to change the current status of disability on screen all in one room. It was set up between Cherylee Houston (disabled actress, currently plays Izzy in Coronation Street) and Head of Production at Coronation Street, Robbie Sandison. The aim of the day was to really look at what producers, casting directors, writers and others were doing to employ disabled actors through the barriers and then us bridging that gap with them and educating them on how it really was. At the end of the day the MD went around the room and each person/organisation made a pledge. This pledge was something that they personally or within the company were going to do to help change the way disability is represented.

I first met Cherylee Houston and Kieran Roberts (Executive Producer) when I was selected for one of the 10 places at the ‘Breaking Through Talent’ event that Corrie held in 2014. The idea of was to get the ball rolling with what we can do as disabled actors and what the industry can do to help. I also had filmed a scene on the Coronation Street set that was edited and used for my showreel. I kept in touch with Cherylee and we’ve become friends in our fight for the same cause. It was in March this year that I was asked to speak at the disability confident conference. Apart from Cherylee, I was the only disabled actress there which meant that I really wanted my voice heard.

2. To what extent do we still have an issue with lack of representation of disabilities in both television and theatre today?
We have a HUGE lack of representation for actors with disabilities on screens and stage. Only the other night I watched a drama on ITV and the fire in my stomach burned stronger than it has for a while. Every time I watch a show without a single disabled actor in sight, every time I watch a film at the cinema where CGI has been used to fake a disability on an actor without one (Mad Max, Charlize Theron definitely has 2 arms), every time I watch a film where there is no reason whatsoever that an actor with a disability couldn’t have been used (Me Before You, just to name one) and every time I hear the words “writers just aren’t writing disabled parts” I think, why don’t I just give up? It’s 2016… How is this happening?

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 14.42.49But every time I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach it’s rapidly filled back up with passion and strength. I know that I have a job to do and maybe I’m still young and naive and haven’t been brought down by the negativity and ignorance of others yet but I really believe that right now, we are on the edge of change. It’s just taking a while for everyone to make the jump. It’s not about ticking boxes and qiving us parts to fill a quota. It’s about producers, directors, writers and casting directors opening up the minds at every part of the process.

3. Does that mean there needs to be more disabled parts in productions?
No, it’s not about waiting for a ‘disabled part’ to arise because what is a disabled part? It doesn’t actually exist. Trying to make it exist is why we have such a huge problem with representation at the moment. The whole point is that disability is part of life. In my normal life I am a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a friend and I could do any job I want! Maybe not hairdressing actually… I’m not sure even I’d trust my lack of hands to cut hair. But you get the point. It doesn’t have to be part of the storyline and it’s this way of thinking that is holding us back.

I’ll hold my hand up and admit when I’ve done an awful audition and I’m certainly not suggesting that an actor just gets a role because they have a disability. We are just asking to be considered. Not as a one off. But as a new way of thinking. Because some of us are pretty blooming good. Actually, my English teacher always told me off for using the word good. We’re wonderful, we’re raw, we’re real and we’re different. We have a natural vulnerability that is also our strength. And we need the chance to have the same crack at this industry as our fellow actors without disabilities.

What is currently being done – and what more can be done – to raise awareness of the discrepancy between the number of people with disabilities in the UK and the proportion of actors and actresses that we see on-screen?
Coronation Street is really setting the bar at the moment. It is one of the most popular soaps on our TV screens and currently has 2
regular actors with disabilities, neither of which got the part because it could tie in with a storyline about their disability. In between their very busy schedule, ITV are putting on events like DC and Break Through Talent where they are trying to help educate other channels and industry professionals. Can you imagine the impact that would be made if more shows did this? The Interceptor on BBC 1 was another great example. It was my first regular role and was broadcast last summer. It was an 8-episode crime drama that had at least 3 actors with disabilities in it. Again, none of the disabilities came into the storylines. We were just there. Almost like normal people (haha).

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 14.44.44As people with disabilities we represent 20% of the population! 20%! So there is no reason what so ever that this shouldn’t be portrayed on screens and stages. When I tell people that I am an actor and what I am fighting for I often get a reply like “but there’s that girl on Coronation Street in the wheel chair, and the lady from Silent Witness”. My answer is that the fact that we can currently count how many disabled actors we see on TV screams the volume of the problem we have at the moment.

4. And finally, zooming out more generally slightly, what are you working on yourself right now and is there any further events coming up later in the year?

I am in the very early stages of working on some of my own projects with a couple of friends from drama school. One is a fantastic film maker and we have some great ideas that we are writing up at the moment. I am also working a lot on my fitness. I’ve recently won a trip to LA through the progress that I have made with being disabled and getting fit.

It’s about keeping busy whilst fighting for this change. There is never any point in sitting back and waiting for things to come to you. If you can’t go out and grab it with one and a half hands then this isn’t the right industry. I guess the point is that with every role that comes up… I’m asking, from the bottom of my heart, to all casting directors, producers, writers that rather than thinking “Why a disabled actor?” Think “Why not?”