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Disabled workers face systemic barriers at work: report

22 March 2023 at 9:57 am
Danielle Kutchel
From unstable work to lower pay and even physical violence, disabled workers in the Australian screen industry face barriers to participation and inclusion.

Danielle Kutchel | 22 March 2023 at 9:57 am


Disabled workers face systemic barriers at work: report
22 March 2023 at 9:57 am

From unstable work to lower pay and even physical violence, disabled workers in the Australian screen industry face barriers to participation and inclusion.

An Australian-first research project has found that disabled people working in the Australian screen industry regularly face prejudice and discrimination.

Alarmingly, 77 per cent of disabled respondents reported negative impacts on their work in the screen industry, and 58 per cent of disabled workers in the screen industry earn less than $800 per week.

The Disability and Screen Work in Australia report is based on the responses of 518 participants, half of whom are disabled, and was led by disabled researchers.

Along with a nationwide survey, the researchers also conducted 10 in-depth interviews with people working in the Australian screen industry, to get more detailed insights about their experiences and attitudes which may not have been captured in the survey.

What barriers do workers face?

Among the key findings was that many disabled workers in the screen industry feel that their contributions are invisible and their value overlooked.

“Disabled screen workers would like to see their contributions to the industry recognised, supported and celebrated,” the report notes.

Workers surveyed also said they want to see more disabled people self-identify in the workplace and on screen.

Respondents also remarked on the power of disabled role models in helping guide them in their careers and changing attitudes towards disability among non-disabled people.

However, “creating a stronger culture within the screen industry, where more people feel comfortable to publicly identify as disabled” was acknowledged as a challenge to those who wish to self-identify with the report noting that “many disabled people feel that the stigma against disability is currently too great and identifying as disabled would cause them to lose work”.

Disabled workers in the screen industry also told the researchers they experience “a more precarious, lower paid, and less powerful position in the screen industry than their non-disabled counterparts”. This includes experiencing higher levels of unemployment, more casual work, and more unpaid work.

And disabled workers reported “routinely” experienced bullying, exclusion, harassment and stigma. In some cases, this escalated to physical violence, with the report noting: “it is significant and disturbing that four survey respondents report having been physically attacked at work in the last year, because of their disability”.

Almost half of disabled respondents — 49 per cent — said adjustments or accommodations were not supplied when needed, and 29 per cent had been insulted, called names, or threatened.

Similarly, respondents said talking about their disability at work was a challenge.

Overall, respondents said the screen industry needs to become more flexible and accessible.

Were there any positives?

Participants did point to the benefits that disability can bring to Australia’s screen industry.

Despite facing inaccessibility in the industry, respondents said the industry benefits from the strengths inherent in disability.

“Many disabled survey respondents explain that their experience of navigating inaccessible environments has made them more creative and better problem solvers. Neurodivergent respondents suggest that because they look at the world differently, they can offer screen projects a different creative perspective and more effective ways of doing things,” the report states, adding that disabled workers make storytelling more diverse and representative.

What can we learn from this?

Researcher Dr Radha O’Meara, who co-authored the report, said the inequity highlighted in the report stood out to her.

“It was the sum of all the disparities in working conditions that really tells the biggest picture,” she told Pro Bono News.

“I do think that the difference in pay is really marked. But that coupled with higher unemployment, higher rates of unpaid work… and also higher rates of being in casual positions all those things together tell a very concerning picture of what working in the screen industry is like for disabled people.”

O’Meara believes there are a few factors contributing to this, including a lack of awareness about disability discrimination laws and the makeup of the screen industry, which comprises many small and not for profit players.

“The kind of systems that exist in some other industries aren’t as common in the screen industry. For example… it’s quite common in small screen organisations to not have HR staff. It’s actually really common for people, when they experience something that they know is discrimination, to not know who they can talk to about it,” she explained.

The research made a number of recommendations to remedy the situation, including employers initiating conversations about disability and accessibility with all employees, and the use of disability action plans.

O’Meara said there also needs to be a “process of cultural change”, but that can take years to take effect.

“What’s going on currently is that there’s a lot of stigma against disabled people, and there’s a lot of people who don’t want to talk about disability at all. That’s really one of the biggest problems,” she said.

The report also revealed that many non-disabled don’t recognise or see the problems that their disabled colleagues face.

“The non-disabled people I talked to generally said that they thought that there had already been a lot of change around disability and accessibility in the screen industry and that they thought there would be more change,” O’Meara said.

“The disabled people we interviewed more commonly said there’s been hardly any change at all, and where they do see change coming, they see it driven by screen audiences. They see it driven by the people watching film, TV, streaming, video who really want to see stories about disabled people.

“But also audiences are much more interested these days in the conditions of production. Audiences are much more savvy about, well, was this really produced in a way that was respectful to the people involved or the people it’s about? So where disabled people see change coming, they actually see it largely from audiences as a kind of demand that the industry needs to meet and that the industry is kind of lagging audiences on this,” she added.

See more: Pushing Australia to change its attitude to people with disability

Change on the agenda

But there is “potential for positive change”, and O’Meara said the disabled people she interviewed spoke “really passionately” about disabled characters and peers who they had encountered on the screen or in the industry.

“That made a really big difference to their lives in just feeling validated and feeling like they really do have a place in the world, just by seeing someone like them on screen,” she said.

“About 18 per cent of Australians are disabled but very rarely see themselves on screen. That is actually harmful for people and their self-identity and for how they negotiate their community around them.”

The report made a number of recommendations to improve accessibility and equity in the screen industry, including:

  • encouraging participation in disability equity, accessibility and inclusion training to foster awareness and understanding at all levels of the industry;
  • normalising discussing and implementing access requirements;
  • encouraging the use of disability action plans;
  • making festivals, conferences and networking events accessible; and
  • targeting government funding for disabled creatives to prioritise storytelling made by and about disabled people.

“I feel like the screen industry has a more important responsibility than other industries to include disabled people so that they can tell those stories and create that imagery that’s so important for us to understand our own culture,” O’Meara said.

Access the report online.

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.

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