The 18-month hangover: Hen Night’s disabled trailblazers on making TV history

Jessica is tough and successful. She’s a young disabled woman who loves her work as a teacher and has just had a “rush job” of a hen night, one last hurrah before the country enters lockdown. But as Covid shuts down the world, we see how precarious Jessica’s fulfilled life is. Due to funding cuts, she loses her specially adapted Motability car, and thus her ability to get to work. Then the council withdraws her social care, leaving her to struggle on alone.

This is Hen Night, a short film written and directed by Vici Wreford-Sinnott, a leader of the disability arts movement. If the story sounds familiar to many disabled people, that’s because it was inspired by some of the accounts in Crippled, Guardian writer Frances Ryan’s book about the demonisation of disabled people and the dismantling of the social safety net. Astonishingly, when Hen Night reaches our TV screens this week, it will be the first ever disabled, women-led piece of UK broadcasting.

Wreford-Sinnott did not just want to show what it is really like to have your social care removed, as so many did during the pandemic. “The other story we’re telling," sy sê, “is about disabled women and the expectations and pressures on us to behave in a certain way, to make other people feel OK about our condition, to be the eternal smilers – to make everybody feel that we’re OK, we’re not a threat, we’re not as scary as we look.”

Both Wreford-Sinnott and Ryan stress the importance of showing well-rounded disabled characters, especially those who are younger and living lives to the full. While Hen Night does not shy away from the difficulties that come with being disabled, Ryan says she’d “love viewers to take away from it the fact that none of this is inevitable”.

She adds: “One reason why I loved Vici’s script is that it really skewers the idea of disabled people as tragic figures whose lives are crap. Jessica loves her life but has to fight to protect it. As I say in the book, disabled people aren’t inevitably vulnerable – we’re vulnerable when the state decides to pull back the support we need to live full lives like anyone else.”

The show is one of the first, alongside Netflix’s Special, not to portray disabled people as objects of pity. So often, as Ryan writes in her book, their lives are contorted to fit a Tiny Tim-shaped hole in society, whose purpose is to allow non-disabled Scrooges to feel better about themselves. Not so in Hen Night, where Jessica is shown tipsy and dancing. “Disabled people,” says Wreford-Sinnott, “are three dimensional.”

Tog, despite the obvious benefits of hearing stories from a diverse cross-section of society, disabled people are routinely shut out of the creative industries. Ryan lists a few things that could make a difference, such as paying interns and allowing flexible working, but also highlights the inequality in wider society: “How can I get to a TV studio in London if the tube isn’t wheelchair accessible?”

While such obstacles keep disabled people out of the media, Wreford-Sinnott says there are some signs of progress. Each of the major broadcasters now has a disability leader or team, while the pandemic-induced shift to online working has helped disabled people become more visible. But she urges against complacency: “I have seen initiatives come and go in the last 30 jare, which haven’t amounted to lots of tangible change. At the moment, we need lots of change. We need big change.”

She wants to see disabled people involved at every stage of the creative process. “Writers, directors, producers – but we also need to see disabled people taken seriously at commissioning level. We need to see disabled people in significant roles.” There’s also the question of money. Hen Night was made “on a shoestring” says Wreford-Sinnott. “I can only imagine what I – or any of my colleagues – could do with a bigger budget. So fingers crossed for that.”

Ryan agrees, adding: “Cultural prejudice still has a big impact. Disability is too often perceived as niche or not fun, and disabled workers are still judged as less capable. There’s huge disabled talent out there waiting to be tapped.”

Hen Night, dan, is a first step: necessary and important but nowhere near enough. As Crippled shows, there are disabled people up and down the country with stories to tell. The more we hear them, the better we come to know the society we live in – and the easier it is to change it.

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