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Persons with Disabilities in Television Programming

A plan to move forward on greater inclusion

By Sarah Crawford
Chaired of the CAB Steering Committee and
Vice-President, Public Affairs, CHUM Limited,

All media, and particularly television can play a strong role in changing public attitudes on social issues. Canada’s private broadcasters are committed to improving the presence, portrayal and participation of persons with disabilities in television programming.

Over the past 18 months, I had the privilege to chair a Steering Committee comprised of ten of my private broadcasters colleagues representing all major broadcasting entities in Canada specifically created oversee the development and implementation of a detailed Action Plan. An Outreach Committee comprised of persons with disabilities, many of whom have experience with the broadcasting industry, was also created to serve as an invaluable advisory group on the implementation of the CAB’s research plan and provided invaluable input on the recommendations and tools.

In light of the limited information available, we recognized the need to undertake qualitative research study, unprecedented in Canada, on the presence, portrayal and participation of persons with disabilities in television programming.

This research was extensive and included Extensive consultations through one-on-one interviews with representatives from service and consumer disability non-government organizations (disability NGOs), persons with disabilities within the broadcasting sector, government officials, senior managers in the broadcasting industry and representatives from the Canadian production sector. A total of 56 people representing 43 organizations from across Canada were interviewed between May 31 and July 31, 2005.

It also included a Stakeholder Forum held July 15, 2005 in Toronto, which brought together 20 disability NGOs, broadcasters, performers and producers in a facilitated discussion of issues, barriers and tools/initiatives. An additional 16 observers from government and the broadcasting industry attended the event; these included members of the CAB Steering Committee overseeing the research; members of the CAB Outreach Committee, an advisory group to the Study comprised of persons with disabilities; and two officials from the CRTC.

Best Practices research and analysis, focused on broadcasting industry initiatives and industry-related initiatives in the U.K., the U.S. and Canada.

A clear agreement emerged among those consulted for the study that the presence of persons with disabilities both on-screen and behind the scenes is low, and that negative portrayals still take place but that broadcasters and representatives from the disability community sense a strong basis for positive change at the present time. Also emerged the fact that related sector of the broadcasting industry have an important role to play in this regard.

Research findings indicated that Canada’s independent production sector, including producers, writers, casting directors, directors and other content creators, can play a powerful role in creating more on-screen presence and more accurate portrayals of persons with disabilities.

The community channel also plays a very important role in the broadcasting system as a point of access to the airwaves for Canadians. Cable distribution undertakings can make a valued contribution to inclusion by making community channels available and accessible to programming initiatives by persons with disabilities while also providing training facilities for persons with disabilities.

For its part, Canada’s education sector plays a fundamentally important role in the development of human resources for the industry. With the support of broadcasters and industry partners, educators at all levels can play a very important part in guiding students with disabilities to career paths in broadcasting and/or television production.

Highlights of Initiatives and Tools

The CAB will create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) directed at influencing a positive shift in public attitudes about persons with disabilities that may be broadcast on our members’ stations. The launch of the PSA is expected for the Fall of 2006.

The CAB will review its Industry Content Codes by Spring of 2006 to address issues identified in the research relating to the portrayal of persons with disabilities in television programming.

The CAB will develop a training seminar for HR and other managers in television broadcasting. Such a training seminar will be developed for implementation in 2006 with input from the disability community and will serve to sensitize the industry to the specific – and often cost-effective – ways in which persons with disabilities can be accommodated in the broadcasting workplace

The CAB will develop an information package about employment in the broadcasting and production sectors, for wide distribution to broadcasters, educators, and the disability community. The information package will include a brochure explaining the types of employment available in broadcasting and production and will be posted on the Diversity in Broadcasting section of the CAB website.

The CAB, seeking the input of the disability community and the cooperation of the RTNDA, will develop educational material on inappropriate use of language. This material is envisioned as an information brochure that would be circulated to CAB and RTNDA members and posted on the CAB’s Diversity in Broadcasting section of its website and its members’ websites. The CAB will undertake this initiative with RTNDA immediately, for completion in 2006.

  • Review industry content codes by the spring of 2006 to develop standards and guidelines relating to the portrayal of people with disabilities.
  • Develop an information package about employment in broadcasting and production.
  • Develop educational material on the use of language.
  • Develop a training seminar on "the specific — and often cost-effective — ways" in which people with disabilities can be accommodated in the workplace.
  • Make sure production partners understand and share in broadcasters' commitment to positive and accurate depictions of people with disabilities.
  • Encourage local stations to develop databases of experts with disabilities to be included in on-air analyses of issues.
  • Develop a directory to help broadcasters and producers identify creative talent from the disability community.

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