Luke Seraphin, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Sky Original Programming tells IBC365 that meaningful change is happening but full inclusivity is work in progress.

“We’re in an important moment for disability and inclusivity,” says Luke Seraphin, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Sky Original Programming. “I think there’s a growing recognition that without disabled people in the room, producers won’t achieve authentic storytelling.”

Luke Seraphin, Sky, Diversity

Luke Seraphin, Sky

At first glance, there appears to be greater visibility for the physically and learning disabled onscreen. In 2022, deaf performer Troy Kotsur won an Oscar for Coda and disabled actor Matthew Duckett played Sir Clifford Chatterley in Sony Pictures’ adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. UK indie Making Space Media landed a production deal with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine for content centred on “the largest and most overlooked and misrepresented community on the planet.” New BBC Three sitcom Dinosaur is written by and starring Scottish comic Ashley Storrie who is autistic.

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Around 16% of the world’s population “experience a significant disability,” according to the WHO yet only 2.8% of TV “series regular characters” were disabled in 2021-2022, according to the Where We Are on TV report. A further report by diversity body Diamond found just 5.8% disability representation off-screen in UK TV and 8% on-screen in 2020/21 which would need to see a rise of 13,519 people to be truly reflective of the UK workforce and population.

There’s clearly a way to go if UK broadcasters are to achieve their stated goal of full inclusion by 2030.

“In one sense that seems a long time to wait for something that shouldn’t even be a question - but it is indicative of the scale of the challenge,” Seraphin says. “That’s not to ignore the huge challenges when it comes to ethnicity, gender and age but disability has been the area of representation that has lagged behind the most. Part of that is because when disabled people come to work in our industry they don’t find a welcoming place – or even a place it is possible for them to work.”

Seraphin is right to be cautious. They call the lack of representation a “systemic issue” and that change “such as it is” was only galvanised when Jack Thorne shamed broadcasters during his MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh. “It was a real rallying cry for the industry,” that led to the creation of the TV Access Project (TAP). Supported by the UK’s main broadcasters and streamers including Netflix and Amazon, TAP pledged to deliver “a substantive and permanent structural shift” in ensuring access provision for disabled talent.

“TAP was a recognition that people were trying to do things in isolated pockets but that a lot of pressure was falling on disabled-led organisations to make that change.”

Education, not quotas

Seraphin, who describes themself as “awesomely autistic” and issues a personal “user guide” in their communications, has come up through the PR ranks for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, BBC, Channel 4 and ITV.


Otto Baxter: Not A F***ing Horror Story

At Sky, their role is “to continue the journey of making our content as representative of the UK’s population as possible and the people who make and star in our content are representative of the UK population. Part of doing that is ensuring that workplaces are accessible.”

Jack Thorne had argued that in order to achieve diversity, disability quotas are needed. “There is an intention to change, but that intention is not backed up by impositions on the makers to change their ways,” he said.

Seraphin isn’t so sure, and in any case, hopes that targets or quotas are an interim measure.

“One of the downsides is that quotas can be a tick-box exercise,” they say. “‘We’ve done our autistic story for this year, so we’re good’. Another way of handling it is to carve out discrete areas of budget for diverse content. I don’t know if there’s a right and wrong answer. We all need to be trying to get to a place of embedding inclusivity across the board so that the learning disabled are a natural part of the production.”

Seraphin doesn’t believe that anyone is consciously pushing back against the idea but says education remains vital to knocking down entrenched perceptions such as that inclusivity costs.

“By factoring in access at inception the costs drop significantly,” they argue. “Thinking about access early means you have it baked into a budget and you plan with access in mind, not a last resort.

“There are inevitably sometimes financial or time costs involved with working with people with disability but the cost of doing so is not what you think. A lot of adjustments don’t have big costs attached to them.”

These might include consideration of a quiet space on set or issuing easy-read production schedules. “Working with access coordinators is really important since they have the lived experience and knowledge to advise productions on what they need to do to make their production accessible,” they advise.

TAP offers helpful guidance and training for producers. Seraphin explains, “Anticipate that you will be working with disability on your production. Since about 20% of the UK workforce are disabled then if we are all doing jobs well enough, 1 in 5 on any production will be disabled. Ask what their needs are. Work with an access coordinator to assess how it is going. If necessary, adjust the provisions you are making and then make sure you advocate for even greater inclusion.”

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A key message is that the disabled is a massive community with huge diversity in and of itself. It’s obvious perhaps but the screen representation of learning disabled, autistic or neurodivergent (ND) talent is even smaller and until recently was lost under the radar.

TAP for instance takes a broad view of disability which includes those with chronic health conditions. “The challenge for people with so-called invisible disabilities is in many ways similar to those with more obvious disabilities in that a difference needs to be made to the environment in which they work,” Seraphin insists. “In any case, inclusion begins in the writer’s room at the start of the creative process.”

Access All Areas

Sky Studios is in the final year of a seven-year partnership with consultancy and TV company Access All Areas to develop an accessible ‘Writer’s Lab’ to give learning disabled and autistic talent a voice in TV scripting.

07_ThePuppetAsylum (1)

The Puppet Asylum

Projects include the short autobiographical horror film The Puppet Asylum and the accompanying feature doc Otto Baxter: Not A F***ing Horror Story both executive produced by Otto Baxter, who has Down Syndrome. “It was really important that this was very much driven by Otto,” says Seraphin.

They call out the idea of autism as being “a monolith of experience” noting that onscreen portrayals tend to feature white males. “What you don’t see are women or people of colour with autism and that’s a problem because in wider society the rates of diagnosis among women and black people with autism is far lower than average. We could change that with better media representation.”

To date there has been very little formal exploration of embracing the talents of autistic people and those with dyslexia, ADHD and other forms of neurocognitive variation within the creative sector.

There is however an increasing recognition that businesses have an edge when recruiting people who think differently. By 2027, a quarter of Fortune 500 companies will actively recruit ND talent to improve business performance, according to analysts at Gartner.

“Neurodiversity isn’t just a moral imperative; it’s a modern strategic advantage,” declared Joseph Soares, Managing Partner of consultancy IBPROM Corp. “It’s crucial to recognize that the neurodiversity revolution is underway, reshaping the future of work in profound ways.”

The Center for Scholars & Storytellers calculated that Hollywood is leaving approximately $125bn a year on the table by not having authentic and accurate disability representation.

Room for improvement

Seraphin is optimistic about change but realistic too and keen to feed to the fire. “The opportunities for the disabled [of all descriptions) to engage with the world outside are still quite limited and hate crime is still on the rise but greater inclusivity will open up new stories for a community that has not been served well politically or socially.”


David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived

Last year, Sky and HBO co-produced David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived a documentary feature about a stunt double for Daniel Radcliffe who was paralysed after an on-set accident during the filming of one of the Harry Potter films.

“Two things stood out for me. The first is that David Holmes was one of the execs and very much shaping the narrative around the way his story was told. The second is that this was not inspiration porn or a stereotyped tale of triumph over diversity. It was a very tough watch in which we see the reality of his life. What I took away from it was a really positive portrayal of male friendship. More broadly, what is important is that when telling a disability story the disability does not need to be the focus.”

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