The BBC has just announced plans to make a significant increase in the representation of disabled people on TV. They are proposing that the number of disabled people seen on BBC TV should be quadrupled by 2017.
Currently around 1.2% of the people either acting or presenting on the BBC are disabled. Within the next three years, the BBC aims to bring this figure up to 5%. The figures relate to programmes broadcast during peak hours on BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4.
Showing more disabled people on TV is just one dimension of the BBC's proposed changes, as they also plan to increase the numbers of disabled people working for the corporation, with an increase in managerial level positions too. At present approximately 3.7% of the BBC's employees are disabled, with 3.1% in senior management roles. The BBC plans to increase these figures to 5.3% and 5% respectively by 2017.
The inclusion of disabled people on television can have a significant impact on perceptions of disability. Coverage of the London 2012 Paralympic Games was broadcast on Channel 4 and was more extensive than ever before. Research conducted by Channel 4 after the 2012 Games showed that the public's attitudes towards disabled people had shifted significantly, with two thirds of viewers stating that the Games had had a positive impact on their views of both disability and disabled sport. 80% of viewers were supportive of having people with disabilities on the team of presenters for the Games.
Although current statistics may seem low, there have been some instances where the BBC has given high profile positions on TV to people with disabilities, despite criticism on occasion.
The appointment of disabled presenter, Cerrie Burnell in 2009 on the BBC's CBeebies channel sparked quite a controversy among viewers. Surprisingly some parents were concerned that her disability would frighten their children, writing fierce blog posts on the subject.
Other parents and disability groups and charities came to her defence, pointing out just how positive a role model Miss Burnell is and the opportunity she presents for parents to talk openly and naturally with young children about disability.
The scale of the controversy was probably largely due to the fact that overall there is such low representation of disabled people on TV. When disabled people are seen more frequently in acting or presenting roles, it will become the norm and will no longer be questioned.
The BBC's proposed changes will doubtless help to make a difference to attitudes about disability, and perhaps it will encourage other programme makers and broadcasters to follow its lead.