Continuing the topic of working with a disability in TV a warm welcome to Nikki Fox who knows a lot about just that. She’s written her own post so I’ll simply hand you over!
Nikki Fox is a reporter/producer who has worked in TV and radio for six years. Starting out as a junior researcher on Channel 4’s Production Trainee Scheme, Nikki worked on several series of Channel 4’s How to Look Good Naked as a researcher/AP, she’s taken part in a twelve part series called The Shooting Party (also for C4) and co-presented the strands on a series of How to Look Good Naked…with a Difference. She’s worked at ITV, BBC and most recently she researched and presented a one hour doc for BBC Radio 5 Live called The Adventures of a Blue Badger. She also has muscular dystrophy, uses a mobility scooter to get around and barely makes 5 foot when she does stand up.
I started working in television when I gained a place on Channel 4’s brilliant Disability Researcher Training Programme. It’s now just called the Production Trainee Scheme which is less of a mouthful. The BBC run an equally great scheme called Extend so my disabled sources tell me. You don’t need a degree in media studies, you just need to prove you’re enthusiastic, a hard worker and passionate about TV which is a good job because before my TV career, I studied music for my degree and worked on the checkouts at Sainsbury’s, until I got my first media type job as a telephone answerer at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.
I’ve been disabled all my life but I used to walk everywhere, very badly, a bit like a Weeble. I’ve always been obviously disabled and that’s not including my once very bucked teeth and massive head. We were all being made redundant at Sainsbury’s around the time I started falling over quite a bit. I found a job as a telephone answerer at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on the Peterborough Breakfast Show, I knew that getting up at 2.30am to get ready and drive to Peterborough wouldn’t be a problem with help from my wonderful Mum, who also got up at that time to help me walk around my house and to my car, but as I could no longer walk unaided at this point, I knew that asking one of the team of four on the breakfast show to walk me to the kitchen was not going to be realistic. I needed to look into other options and it was then that Sainsbury’s bought me my very first mobility scooter – The Rascal 600 turbo! It’s so old it’s illegal now, it goes too fast and doesn’t beep like a HGV when I reverse. Nowadays the beep is a legal requirement.
The scooter didn’t do much for my muscles but it did do wonders for my career. I got the job and stayed on the Peterborough Breakfast Show for over a year answering all calls from the listeners, selecting and sending the best through to my presenter Andy. I also got asked to do bit’s on air like the ‘Foxy’s What’s On Guild’ and a game we used to play which would involve me singing ‘foxy’ over the lyric of a popular song, the listeners had to guess what lyric was disguised by my twenty a day voice.
It was once I left Radio Cambridgeshire and after a brief spell of unemployment that I saw an advert for Channel 4’s Disability Researcher Training Programme. I hadn’t gone for a job with ‘disability’ in the title before, I used to be quite proud of that, but I was unemployed so I went with it.
I got through to the interview round, but how I got a place on the scheme is anyone’s guess. As soon as I was called in for my interview my handbag got caught on my scooter handle bars and I went bursting through the doors, I had lost total control of my machine. If that wasn’t bad enough, during my interview I was asked what I thought ‘in-house’ meant, to which I replied, ‘does it mean you put us up in a flat!?!’
The selected trainees of whom I was miraculously one would work for their respective indies as junior researchers for one year – the idea being that it’s harder if you’re disabled to start out as a runner with all the physical demands that entails. Your company and Channel 4 would pay your wages which were very decent considering we were runners with a sexy title and we had the protection of being on the scheme for that year. I was placed at the wonderful Maverick Television – now I can’t say enough good things about Maverick, they are one of the most generous companies to work for and I couldn’t have been looked after better.
That’s not to say it was easy, keep reading…
We would go to Channel 4 once sometimes twice a month for training sessions on contributor finding, camera skills etc…Maverick gave me a mentor, a wonderful lady called Clare Welch, Clare would be there for me for anything and everything. It was easy talking to Clare about the few things I needed to help me work independently because we were part of a scheme for disabled people, we were protected. I had to explain that I needed someone to help drive my scooter to and from my car at the beginning and the end of the day and that it needed to be put on charge every night. There were a few small steps to get to the main office but the following day Maverick had bought a ramp. I also needed a few grab rails fitted in the bathroom so that I could stand and stretch and another bit of expensive equipment to help me stand.
Once this was all sorted, apart from someone driving my scooter (which I think they enjoyed) I was pretty much independent (unless I fell, which I did a bit, once off my scooter and head first into a bin, on top of my lunch). I’m a very hard worker and was then able to put in the hours and work hard on my first job as a junior researcher on ‘How to Look Good Naked’ series two.
The C4 scheme lasted one year but once it had ended I stayed at Maverick for further two years as a researcher/AP on five series of How to Look Good Naked. During this time I pitched an idea for a short film as part of a Channel 4 programme called ‘The Shooting Party’, a series following twelve aspiring disabled directors as we wrote and directed our own short film. This was my first onscreen job, we were contributors and I’d just had braces fitted. Braces and a red mobility scooter, I could hardly look at the camera.
I then went back to work on Naked and was being employed without the protection of the scheme so my confidence was growing. I was later asked to co-present on How to Look Good Naked…with a Difference’, a mini series featuring disabled contributors, with Gok and Natasha Wood. I was terrified and when I look back I can see how I’ve improved, but going from behind the camera to in front of, is very different. I had to stop swearing and take my chewing gum out for one.
Since then I’ve worked at ITV, this was the first time I had worked for a company that wasn’t Maverick, I was going it alone. A lovely lady called Vikki Barron adapted the job slightly for me as I was supposed to fly to Berlin at short notice, something I couldn’t do at the time because I didn’t have a PA. Saying ‘I’m afraid I can’t’ are words that I very rarely say but in this situation I had to and thankfully, Vikki and the production crew were open to changing things around so that I was able to be based in the UK – I will forever be grateful for that as it was this job that made me feel confident I could be open outside of the scheme and still get the gig.
I had to go through the set up again, I was a little weaker than I was at Maverick which happens. ITV gave me my own parking space next to a socket so that I could get out of my car and straight into my scooter and charge it up at night with the help of security. ITV have the luxury of having a massive car park mind you, Maverick didn’t.
Now I’m a freelancer and did my very first radio documentary for BBC Radio 5 Live, working with another wonderful company called Alfi Media. I jumped at the chance of researching as well as presenting the doc which also meant that I did quite a bit of work from home unless I went into London or wherever to record interviews. Alison, Fiona and super producer Neil (who likes to think he’s disabled himself) made a doc which I’m very proud of. They have all worked with people with disabilities before but I’m assured, with no-one in a scooter, (I like to think I’m the only one). But again, I explained everything I needed and I was open, I didn’t hide anything.
Working as a researcher and subsequent AP is not like hard work in that you’re not building houses or saving peoples lives, it’s fun and I never forget that but you have to work very long hours, it can be physically demanding and there are times when I have been frazzled. I am a naturally positive person and have met some lovely people who have looked after me but it’s not all been easy. I’ve fallen over, had to be carried from my car into my house at midnight because I can’t walk I’m so tired.
I haven’t been open, I’ve pretended I’m Wonder Woman when I’m far from it, I’ve applied for jobs and been very open about my disability and not got them (I might just have been shit)…
The most important piece of advice I give to anyone with a disability (invisible or in my case, very visible) who wants to work in TV is to be as open as you feel comfortable with. I understand that I don’t mind talking about my disability and not everyone is the same, but if you need help in anyway, help which will enable you to do your job to the best of your ability, don’t be afraid to say. Help might not be the best word but what I mean is this…I need my few adaptions to help me get through the day independently – I have to have them so I make this clear at the interview stage. When I go for an interview my first objective is to get the job. So I do my best to sell myself and my abilities. It’s towards the end that I mention I might need a grab rail here and there, a ramp, a charging point but I don’t make a big deal of it, I’m just open.
If your disability is invisible then it’s even more important to make clear what you need (after you’ve dazzled them of course). A flexible approach to hours, whether there’s the potential to work a few days from home etc…
When you start out in TV a ‘can do’ attitude and hard work is important. You are there to make your teams life easier, which might mean making lots of tea and toast. I wanted to do these things so I tried to get everything as set up for me as possible. As it turned out, making a round of drinks took me about three hours which wasn’t the best use of my time so I’d offer to do the afternoon Starbucks round, one thing I had was an illegally fast scooter so that’s what I did.
Find out what you’re good at, this is more important as a disabled person I think. I knew after a one day camera course that erecting a tripod was never going to happen in less than five hours. I worked out that contributor finding, telephone bashing, setting up shoots, getting things for free by saying ‘I’m disabled’, coming up with ideas, funny, serious, quirky and fun disabled stuff. Writing treatments, researching and reporting and studio work all played to my strengths. They were also things that I could do at home if I was completely exhausted after a shoot. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re knackered, if you can work at home one day whilst you recover; it’s not the end of the world and your employer wont mind if you explain why.
I have met some wonderful, loyal people in TV, some truly brilliant, supportive women who have become friends and the lovely Gok – I remember one time, it was the first shoot I’d ever been on, I was nervous but organised. I was in charge of the ‘line up ladies’ section of How to Look Good Naked (Youtube it). I was so involved in what I had to do that I completely forgot to check out the studios access. When I turned up there were a lot of stairs and no lift. I wanted to slope off, my ladies were prepped and ready to go but Gok saw me trying to get away. We’d only met briefly once before but he was insistent that I was not going to miss out on my first ever shoot. He picked me up out of my scooter, carried me up the stairs, put me in a safe spot so he could run down and carry my scooter up. I’ll never forget that day and the kindness of Gok and all the crew.
So, a few Fox tips if you’re disabled and want to work in TV…
Thank you Nikki – an entertaining read but more importantly lots of sound information and advice for anyone else working with a disability in TV. You can find more about Nikki on her website at http://www.nikkifoxtv.co.uk/
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