Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Report uncovers 'systemic discrimination' faced by people with disabilities in Australian screen industry

from ABC News in Australia. Photo of Ade Djajamihardja and his wife Kate. 

As an Asian-born Australian, Ade Djajamihardja is no stranger to discrimination. But when he had his first stroke, he was not ready for the disability that followed.

Mr Djajamihardja had a successful media career, including as an assistant director for  ABC TV, and a happy family life with his wife Kate.

When he woke from his stroke in a hospital bed, he had mobility and vision impairment.

Fear of being a burden

"When I was in rehab hospital, I was being taught how to use my wheelchair for the first time, and quickly became overwhelmed by how that would make me a massive burden to Kate's life," he said.

"And that caused me to realise that I couldn't do that to her."

He felt suicidal until a nurse helped him reframe his perspective.

Now Mr Djajamihardja has his own production company, A2K Media, supporting people with disabilities working in the media and entertainment industry across Australia and Asia.

His company recently collaborated with researchers at the University of Melbourne on a reportlooking at the treatment of people with disabilities in the media industry, which uncovered a range of unique challenges, from poor physical access to discrimination and unequal pay.

Stigma behind pay gap

Melbourne University creative writing lecturer and lead report author Radha O'Meara said the pay gap for people with disabilities was the result of stigma.

"The screen industry has a lot more people employed in precarious contracts than other industries [and] a lot of people talked about how ... they don't even know who to go to, to ask about their pay," she said.

"Most screen companies don't have HR departments."

The report reviewed more than 500 people with disabilities who have worked in the screen industry and found they routinely experienced low payment and precarious job roles — all within a culture of “systemic discrimination” and prejudice.

“These experiences suggest structural problems across the screen industry and its culture,” the report found.

“They reflect a lack of understanding of disability and a reliance on negative stereotypes of disabled workers."

Forced to direct through a monitor

One Melbourne-based film and television director who uses a wheelchair said the biggest problem he had encountered in the industry was physically accessing sets.

"I'm required to kind of direct through a radio looking at a monitor because I can't actually get to the second floor or the third floor… and that's something that nobody seems to know how to fix," he said.

The director, who wished to remain anonymous, said the lack of wheelchair accessible buildings used by Melbourne production companies often prevented him from winning contracts.

"It's less that it's difficult to get a job as a director but it's more difficult to get a job in production," he said.

"Almost none of the post-production facilities are accessible, almost none of the production facilities are accessible … for a TV show, you might need a two or three story production office, and that'll be upstairs and then you're just kind of stuck down downstairs."

'Hesitancy' to hire people with disabilities

Sam Riesel is a young production assistant with an intellectual disability and has worked on both accessible and mainstream sets.

Mr Riesel said his experience in mainstream productions had generally been good, but there was a reluctance in the film industry to hire people with disabilities.

"I do think there is a tiny bit of hesitancy to hire someone with a disability in the industry, but I do also think that the industry has opened up a lot more to all that within the past few years," he said.

Sometimes there is a concern in the industry that a disabled employee will need extra supervision on set.

"And it's like, well, maybe at first a tiny bit, but eventually, once they've been in the industry for long enough, they know how all that stuff works, or at least they should," Mr Riesel said.

'Soft bigotry of low expectation'

Mr Djajamihardja said people with disabilities were often not consulted about what they needed to enable them to work successfully.

He said the industry had a problem with "soft bigotry of low expectation" for people with disabilities, which affected how inclusive it was towards employees.

"I faced [that] while trying to re-emerge back into the industry I love, and the only one I have known my entire adult life," he said.

Dr O'Meara said people often conflated disability with weakness, which created a work culture of discrimination.

And with no-one to ask about making adjustments, no-one is taking responsibility for the issue, according to Dr O'Meara.

"Legally, someone's got to take responsibility," she said.

"But actually, in practice, when you're asking around the place you work, who do I talk to, then everybody goes 'ah, not my problem'."

Hopes report will lead to change

Mr Djajamihardja said he hoped the report would lead to change in the industry, in the same way that he had to change his perspective on disability after his stroke.

"What resonates most about living my life since acquiring my disability and their associated barriers is that while it was the most unwanted and unexpected of life's adversity barriers, it has also proven to be the most undeniable and unstoppable of personal growth opportunities," he said.

Dr O'Meara said non-disabled people had contacted her after reading the report expressing surprise that they had worked with disabled people and not realised it.

"It's just opened their eyes up to the kind of variety of disabled people's experiences," Dr O'Meara said.