Despite the current media ‘ideal’ on what we should aspire to be like, one woman has worked tirelessly to change these perceptions. Louise Dyson MBE is the founder and director of VisABLE People, an organisation working to bring disabled people to the forefront of media attention – not because they have a disability, but rather because they fit the spec in their own right
How did VisABLE come about?
I used to own a modelling agency, and companies used to use non-disabled models to model mobility products. It never occurred to anybody that there was anything wrong with that until some of their customers said: “Why don’t you use genuinely disabled people?”
We organised a competition – 23 years ago the finals took place – and we had a phenomenal response, over 600 entries. Some of the people, including the person who won, still work through VisABLE all these years later.
Has the media’s perception of disabled people changed?
Phenomenal change, but it took a very long time. Most people’s preconceptions of modelling are of physical perfection and disability equalling physical imperfection. Really it just required a totally different way of thinking. Although the advertising industry was desperately slow in embracing the idea by giving us work, the arts did.
When it came to television, drama and comedy and theatre I found we were welcomed with open arms and [the arts] actively embraced diversity, which was brilliant. It was great to have people who not only said yes, they put their money where their mouth is – not very much money in that kind of area – but they did it and they meant it.
They actually bent over backwards to ensure they were inclusive in their casting in a way the advertising industry hadn’t. The difference between the two, the dichotomy in terms of clients from VisABLE is that the advertising side its entirely about the bottom line and on the drama side its all about art.
How do you think the media can further adapt?
With VisABLE I have a very clear objective, and I will always have the same objective, which is to change the public mind set towards disability by changing the media mind set towards disability. Once you’ve got people in everyday, unremarkable situations seen with the help of the media it means that people will regard disability with the everyday, ordinary thing that it is.
That I believe has changed. We’ve had people booked on Eastenders almost every week for about eight years. It just normalises it, one of the regular stallholders is a guy who’s a wheelchair user – there’s no storyline about him having a disability he’s just a part of the street furniture. He’s a great character and a character in a strong position.
Although he’s rarely part of the storyline ordinarily he’s a stallholder in the market so it’s just an unremarkable thing. It’s just accepted that he is a wheelchair user and it’s irrelevant to anything else. It’s only when we have that situation that’s more generally seen that we’ll really achieve [disability as the norm] especially if you have young children.
You have a great network of clients but what role are you the most proud of?
The job that I’m proudest of having, more delighted than anything, is placing Cerrie Burnell as a CBeebies presenter. She’s a girl who was born with one hand missing, and years ago the BBC asked us to send people up for a role as a present of CBeebies.
The BBC saw something like 1,800 people and narrowed it down. They were very keen to be inclusive, they had no preconceived ideas of what someone with a disability may or many not have, and Cerrie got the job, which was great.
The thing which excites me the most about that is that role has the potential to influence younger generations growing up seeing a lovely lady on the screen as a presenter who they think is, kind of like, a princess who happens to have one arm – which is not relevant to anything. She’s seen in a powerful strong position and in that way children can influence parents, which is exciting.
What has been the most memorable moment?
Truly, placing Cerrie Burnell [former CBeebies presenter] has got to be one of the big things, because of the impact her role has had on the attitudes of children and families of the new generation. It depends on what you class as memorable really – a number of my lovely artists got together completely unbeknown to me, about three years ago, sent letters and I was whisked off to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE for my work. That was astonishing – a massive shock and really lovely.
For those at home interested in getting involved in the media, what advice do you have for them?
A lot of people are under the illusion you have to be young and beautiful and very skinny to get anywhere in the media and it’s simply not true. We have a shortage of older people, we really do, and a shortage of children too. Don’t make assumptions, first of all, about your own suitability because there is work for people across a whole range of demographics.
We give everybody lots of free advice on our website on how to go about getting into this sort of area – the main thing is you don’t need to spend any money. Don’t sign up with anyone who charges money. Everyone is welcome to look at our website and apply if they wish. I encourage everyone to, even if they don’t think they can, to try.
I think it’s important to be realistic, and this is not in relation to disability. You do get people sometimes who have already decided what area of work they want to do, if they have a very narrow idea of what they can do they need to think more expansively as there is a massive range of work with all different requirements – some people are good for some things and some are not.
It is also very helpful for everyone if people take a little time to take good pictures of themselves. All you need is a good clear picture with an empty background. Don’t spend any money because a professional photographer won’t take the kind of pictures we’re looking for. If you take an image correctly you can do a lot with an iPhone and headshots are only ever used for the website so low-resolution images are ok.
For more information on Louise Dyson and VisABLE or how to submit your headshots visit the website here.