“Disability Is the Forgotten Diversity,” Says Jack Thorne at the Edinburgh TV Festival

Earlier this week, writer Jack Thorne gave the keynote address, known as the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Known to Potter fans as the scriptwriter of the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Thorne delivered a rousing call to action to the British television industry regarding the lack of representation of disabled people both in front of and behind the camera.

Thorne began his 40-minute speech with anecdotes from his childhood to express his admiration of TV, calling it an “empathy box in the corner of the room” because of its profound ability to “provoke discussion,” citing all the various moments in his life where he’d learned something from television. He eventually ended his introduction with a remarkably powerful sentiment: “In a time of great cruelty, TV is vital at reminding people of what humanity is.”

The cruelty to which he was referring is the treatment of disabled people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thorne provided some heartbreaking stories and staggering statistics regarding COVID-related deaths among disabled people:

A new study, partly carried out by ONS [Office for National Statistics], estimated that in England between [January 24, 2020,] and [February 28, 2020], 105,213 people died [of] causes involving COVID. 61,000 of those were disabled.

With these comments, Thorne laid the foundation for his call to action to the TV industry in the United Kingdom. During a time of such great tragedy with so many lives lost, disabled people were being ignored. He feels that now, more than ever, it’s TV’s responsibility to remind us of humanity again. However, in order to do so, things need to change first.

Thorne passionately proclaimed that amid justified discussions of diversity, disabled people are excluded in those conversations, believing that “disability is the forgotten diversity.” In an indictment of the UK’s TV industry, Thorne expressed his frustration at the lack of disabled actors and disabled members of the production, pointing to some eye-opening statistics:

20% of our population [is] disabled. A mere 8.2% of on-screen talent represents them. And a terrifyingly awful 5.4% of people work off-screen, of which, and this is the most damning of all, the executives at the top are only 3.6% disabled.

Overall, Thorne feels that “TV has failed disabled people, utterly and totally.” To remedy this problem, Thorne firmly believes in the establishment and enforcement of quotas for disabled people on- and off-screen. With the current push for diversity in media, storytellers of color are finally being provided more opportunities, which Thorn believes is adding “complexity to the stories being told on TV.” By establishing and enforcing these quotas, Thorne believes that it will also “fundamentally alter the stories being told.” In the end, what’s needed is disabled stories told by disabled people, which would hopefully be accomplished with quotas.

You can watch the entire speech with captions and British Sign Language interpreters below:

 

 

While Thorne does not currently identify as a disabled person, he does suffer from cholinergic urticaria, a condition in which sufferers become allergic to any form of heat, even their own body heat, causing chronic pain. At a point in his life, Thorne was bedridden and unable to move. Fortunately for him, treatment has allowed him to manage his condition, but he still feels a strong kinship with the disabled community and has become an outspoken advocate for disabled people.

In a column penned by Thorne for the Guardian, he expressed his feelings regarding his keynote and further elaborated on his points. Thorne conceded that TV won’t save lives, but he feels that the “empathy box” can help enact the change that will eventually save lives:

I am not claiming that TV can save lives, but it can change temperatures, and those temperature changes, in turn, might save lives. Empathy is a powerful tool in any argument, and disabled people need that empathy rather than sympathy.

Do you think that quotas will be accepted within the industry? Do you believe that a firm quota will enact the change that Thorne is hoping for? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

 

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Adam Poncharoensub

"Hogwarts is my home!" is a phrase that I've uttered more times than any sane person should (and my long-suffering friends can attest to it.) For as long as I can remember, I've always found myself escaping reality into the wizarding world to feel at peace. Instead, I'm more likely wandering the suburbs of South Florida shouting choice "Harry Potter" and Batman quotes at unsuspecting victims.

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