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Martin Smith has been working as a director in TV, film and advertising for more than 15 years and, for the last decade, has been doing so with an autoimmune/musculoskeletal condition called psoriatic arthritis.

Smith's condition, which results in elephantiasis in his joints, has not stopped him from excelling in his chosen profession, but has made him more aware of the lack of people with disabilities working within the creative industries, most specifically in advertising. 

With the continued discussion around diversity within the business, and the push by brands and companies within advertising to be more inclusive, Smith discusses why he thinks the disabled community has, so far, been left behind. 

There is, rightly, a lot of discussion around diversity in the advertising industry, but very little of it seems to centre on disability, and the space in the industry for people with physical disabilities; why do you think this is?

I think it's a blind spot for production companies, agencies and brands. Despite the modernity and cutting-edge mindset of so many constituents of the advertising industry, in terms of diversity and inclusion, it is trailing woefully behind the film and TV industries in their embracing of initiatives to encourage diverse workforces.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter, a lot of disabled talent have seen a movement, identified with it and felt just what a powerful force for change it can be.

The terrifying consequences of the pandemic offers our industry a chance to reflect, and see where it could be improved. For whatever reason, disability hasn't been included as forcefully as other agendas in recent times, but in the wake of Black Lives Matter, a lot of disabled talent have seen a movement, identified with it and felt just what a powerful force for change it can be. The door of inclusion is ajar and we want to force it open.

Above: Martin Smith, whose condition, if managed properly by him, does not affect his work as a director.

You've been working successfully as a director across film and TV for 15 years, and in advertising for five years; your disability hasn't affected your work, but has it affected the way people treat you?

I started as filmmaker without my condition and then, 10 years ago, my immune system decided it was a really good laugh to start attacking my joints. With just a few adjustments I'm able to function largely as normal. But I'd say the biggest difference has been the social side of things. I can't drink anymore because of the immunosuppressive medication I take, and a huge part of our industry is social – and it still takes some people time to work out why I won't drink.

Some assume it's because I'm a recovering alcoholic, and at times it's just easier to let them think that. I occasionally get a few weird looks when I'm doing my stretches on set halfway through the day, but I've got a big personality, and I tend to bring people along with me, and am happy to answer any questions about my weird physio routine. Ultimately, I love my work so much, and hopefully that enthusiasm spreads through those that I work with, so these slight differences are the last thing on people's minds.

There is a fear of disability in general, and that's been a huge inhibitor in steering a conversation about disability and it's part in our industry.

Do you think brands/agencies/production companies are fearful of having disabled crew members due to the potential cost of - or perceived difficulties in - catering for their specific needs? If so, is that fear at all founded?

I think fear is the key word here. There is a fear of disability in general, and that's been a huge inhibitor in steering a conversation about disability and it's part in our industry. It starts with a general fear of disability – you couldn't change your race tomorrow, but you could become disabled, and no-one wants that to happen to themselves. Many issues in terms of access and inclusion can be addressed by having a conversation – what does the individual person need? If locations or access needs to be adapted there are funds out there, such as Access to Work, so that cost doesn't need to be borne by the company. I think the advantages of having new voices within our ranks far outweigh any perceived costs. 22% of people in the UK identify as disabled so for brands there is a massive untapped audience, and one-in-five people who don't see themselves represented on screen. There are massive economic arguments, never mind the ethical ones for why recruiting disabled talent, behind the camera and on screen makes sense.

22% of people in the UK identify as disabled so for brands there is a massive untapped audience, and one-in-five people who don't see themselves represented on screen.

Scottish Government – No Knives, Better Lives

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Above: Smith's film for the Scottish government's knife crime campaign.

In recent years the Paralympics has done a lot to promote disabled athletes, asking people to 'see the ability, not the disability'; has that had a positive impact across other industries and outlooks? 

It's clear from the lack of disabled talent who are engaged in our business that the Paralympics effect hasn't spread to film, TV or the advertising industry, so we've got to speak up, and make our voices heard. BLM has shown the way for so many people, if we can take inspiration from that movement, we have a chance. I loved the Paralympics, and the campaigns surrounding it, the colour, the vitality, the heroism, but I want to see the ability and the disability. It's not something to be hidden, and even the most mundane walks of life can throw up inspiring content.

Do you think there are enough disabled people in front of the camera? Is that an important part in helping to normalise disabled people behind the camera? 

In a word, no, there are not enough disabled people in front of, or behind, the camera. So, as a first step, producers and clients can look at a script and say 'could we use a disabled person in this role?' That's the sticking plaster. The next step is researching your material, bringing in disabled creatives to produce rich and authentic content that comes from a place of experience. You can tell a mile-off when a screenwriter or creative doesn't have knowledge of a community, and we're seeing a lot of that at the moment in all manner of content, but even that's more positive than having no representation on screen at all. But, in the long term, to get a rich and full representation of our society, you want a broad selection of creatives behind the scenes creating your stories, your campaigns, your films.

I loved the Paralympics, and the campaigns surrounding it, the colour, the vitality, the heroism, but I want to see the ability and the disability. It's not something to be hidden.

Channel – Channel 4: We're The Superhumans

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Above: Channel 4's award-winning spot for the 2016 Paralympics.

Do you think people are sometimes nervous of interacting with disabled people in case they do or say the wrong thing, and what should they do to mitigate that?

Yes, I think people can be nervous, and I understand that, because I was nervous at first too. But I think one of our greatest strengths as filmmakers is our curiosity. When we are out on the street with a camera we have no fear asking questions, and I think you just have to apply that principle to disability. People are happy to tell their story. No-one wants to be ignored or overlooked because of a characteristic. Don't worry about language, people can correct it if it's wrong, I think it's more important that you open up, and start a new conversation. New conversations, new experiences, isn't that what a full, rich life is all about?

When we are out on the street with a camera we have no fear asking questions, and I think you just have to apply that principle to disability.

Are there any disabled figures in the industry to whom you look up? 

When I saw Adam Pearson's performance in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin [below], I was blown away. First of all, he was an inspired choice of casting, and then the relationship he had with Scarlett Johansson on screen was something really special. It was so tender and complex. I literally shook with excitement. I subsequently discovered that Adam is a leading disabled rights campaigner, and he's someone I really look up to. David Proud is an actor, writer and producer who has written The Art of Disability, a book that every exec, producer, or person behind, or in front of the camera should get hold of if they want an insight into why getting disabled talent in front of, and behind the camera is so vital. I learn a lot from what these two say. 

Above: Adam Pearson with Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.

What more do you think can and should be done to help disabled people be more visible in the advertising industry?

Give us jobs. Sign us up to your rosters. Get us in on your pitches, hear our voices. The advertising industry thrives on new insights, voices and perspectives, and disabled talent are a largely underexploited resource. We've got all the cultural and societal experience of able-bodied people on this planet, but other perspectives too. Give us a go.

The advertising industry thrives on new insights, voices and perspectives, and disabled talent are a largely underexploited resource.

Martin Smith – Jimmy

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Above: In 2011 Smith directed a documentary, JIMMY,  about disabled rights campaigner Jimmy McIntosh, which was shot entirely from McIntosh's is point of view, and which gave Smith an insight into the challenges faced by wheelchair users.
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