Yes, you cry, of course! Wheelchair access no problem. But what if that disability were less obvious – something that caused the potential employee to get easily tired, maybe unable to complete a task within the unrealistic deadline that many TV projects have? Well I’ve had not one but two requests in the same week for advice from people with such disability. Both are concerned about admitting their disability in the cut throat world of TV production in case it jeopardises their chance of getting, and keeping, work. One of them is currently working but doing so in great pain and daren’t admit it.
This is the first of what I hope will be a series of articles about different aspects of working in TV with a disability of some sort. First please read Catherine’s story and leave your comments at the end. She is not the only person with this dilemma and any advice, personal experience or comments you have to make will help highlight the issues and maybe help them work out how best to deal with the media workplace.
Catherine Dawn bravely agreed to answer my questions. Bravely because firstly it’s not easy discussing your highly personal medical condition in public, and secondly, because she is highlighting a condition that may discourage some TV employers from giving her a job or work placement. Of course I know there are some fabulous TV employers out there reading this who may just give her an opportunity….
You wrote asking for advice on getting into TV despite your disability. Explain your situation to us:
My background is based in creative disciplines, from fine art to textiles and Illustration; I did A-levels and then Art Foundation before going to Nottingham Trent University, where I studied Fine Art, switching to Theatre Design after 18 months – a move that allowed me to develop more practical design skills.
After graduating with a first in Theatre Design, I moved to York with my partner and began working on lots of different theatre and film projects. Not having any practical experience on a film set as a result of studying theatre I worked with film students from York University to gain experience and build my CV.
During my first year of theatre design I began to find things more difficult and after extensive tests I was diagnosed with Systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE. It is a systemic autoimmune disease, which can affect any part of the body. The immune system attacks the body’s cells and tissue, which results in a “flare” causing a whole variety of symptoms. The main symptoms I suffer from are inflammatory arthritis and myalgias, headaches and disorientation, chronic fatigue, anxiety and photosensitivity (predominantly to fluorescent lights).
What is your biggest concern now that you are entering the workplace?
One of my biggest concerns about entering the TV and Film industry is how I will cope with the hours. I am a very hard worker but during university I was able to work around my illness and plan my own time. If I had a particularly poorly day I would be able to stay home and work or add hours onto subsequent days. I know if I was working on set that this would not be an option. The other concern I have is how to notify employers of my difficulties without it becoming a big issue.
How does your disability affect your work?
I wouldn’t say it affects the product of my work but that it mainly affects the routine. At University I always worked to deadlines and never asked for an extension but I was able to work from home when I needed to.
For instance when I was working on a costume project, the wardrobe dept was filled with florescent strip lighting and I suffered with migraines and dizziness. This made me decide to do the majority of my work at home, to minimize mistakes and so I could for work longer and more efficiently.
My tutors would often schedule meetings with me later in the day rather than first thing in the morning in case I wasn’t very well.
I sometimes find it hard to concentrate and retain information and because of my anxiety I found presentations to various size groups brought on severe panic attacks. I find the physical symptoms I suffer with painful, but the neurological symptoms are harder to overcome. I learned to work with my joint pain but my anxiety and fatigue are bigger challenges in the industry.
What reaction have you had from employers so far regarding jobs?
I have had some very good experiences in the past. When first diagnosed with Lupus I was working part time in a florist whilst studying at University. At the time I had many doctors’ appointments but it was quite easy to keep my employers in the loop and they were very mindful of small changes they could make. It was still a very busy and stressful environment, particularly at certain times of the year, and our regular hours would rocket up to 14 hours, sometimes even 19 hours straight.
We worked so closely together they would know when I was finding things tough and leave me alone to do things or make me take a break.
It has been harder to explain my situation to subsequent employers because Lupus isn’t an obviously visible condition and people don’t tend to realize the severity of it – even with an explanation.
It’s difficult to give a realistic prediction of how I will be affected because the severity of the symptoms can vary daily/ weekly. The majority of projects I have worked on since University have been small scale and not had their own studio, so I have worked from home and my illness hasn’t been an issue. The only project I worked on that had a studio also had strip lighting that gave me migraines and dizziness so they would give me work to take home with me if I wasn’t feeling too good.
I don’t ever want it to become an issue and generally if I know the working conditions I can work around them myself and often haven’t said anything about my Lupus unless completely necessary. I had a difficult situation when I told a company about my Lupus; they were very kind and understanding but they didn’t fully comprehend the situation and gave me a job doing something that I wasn’t able to achieve in my circumstances. I told them about my concerns but because the job was very last minute they didn’t change anything and it was a very uncomfortable situation for me. I felt like I had been completely honest but their needs were paramount and upon meeting me they underestimated the difficulties I would face in that role.
I am not someone who likes to ask for special circumstances, I always work to strict deadlines and I am normally very private about my illness but I know that entering this industry is going to be hard and I need to find a way of coping with my symptoms and employers.
Which part of TV do you hope to get into and what sort of roles do you think you would be good at?
I have a strong art and design background and have worked in various areas of theatre and film. I have some experience in props, costume and set in both making and design. I love the idea of getting into a character’s head and making informed decisions about what they look like, where they live and the aesthetic intricacies that build to an overall atmosphere and world.
The majority of projects I have worked on were low budget and my task has been predominantly set dressing with some design. I would like to work towards a career in production design.
My next step is to get some experience working with professionals. Working in an art department would give me the opportunity to observe and learn how things work, gaining lots of new skills and improving on existing ones, as well as making another step towards my ideal career.
What questions would you ask or what advice would you like from experienced TV professionals who may be reading this article?
Although some of the symptoms of Lupus can be disabling or temporarily disabling, it doesn’t always get classified as a disability. This can make it difficult to define in the workplace. Given my situation, how would you advise me to approach potential employers? And at what stage in the process should I bring this to their attention, should it be as early as a cover letter? How have other people dealt with similar issues in their own careers and have there been any difficulties? Can you suggest any practical solutions that employers might be comfortable with?
If someone was interested in offering you work experience or a job how would they contact you?
The best way to contact me is through email, but I can also be contacted through my Blog.
I would also be happy for people to contact me if they have any questions or concerns regarding my situation.