Director Owen Tooth’s fascination with film production started during childhood, when he stumbled up on a camcorder at a car boot sale. He bought it, repaired it, and started shooting short stories with his friends.
After studying his passion to degree level, Owen embarked on a dream career in the media. He spent 15 years honing his craft across a variety of production roles, before life-changing injuries sustained in a climbing accident meant that he had to use a wheelchair.
The disabled filmmaker loved getting involved with our inclusive campaign, which brought together a production team thought to be the most inclusive the industry has seen. Under the tutorship of TV ad director Oscar Carris, he’s been directing our behind the scenes video.
“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” enthused Owen, “it’s been a reminder of what I’m fighting for and given me a glimpse of what’s possible. I couldn’t be more excited.”
Changing the course of his career
“There are so many things that I love about my job,” he said. “I love creativity and working with creative people. I love working with a team and working hard on a collective goal. The feeling of achievement is magical.”
“But,” he added, “my disability has had a profound effect on my career.”
Currently, just 9% of senior production roles in the creative industries are filled by disabled people. Across all UK industries, ONS statistics say that only about half of disabled people are employed, compared to eight in ten non-disabled people.
Owen said: “When I first became a wheelchair user, all my clients – except for one – dropped me. That made for a very, very hard few years. It forced me to effectively start from scratch, build up my clients again, and find new ways to work.”
As a director, he’s used to placing himself in other people’s shoes. He has to understand what they’re going through and unleash his imagination so that he can help his actors. But he feels that becoming a wheelchair user has unveiled a cloak of discrimination that able-bodied colleagues can’t see.
He added: “It’s made a big difference. I’ve always been aware of my social responsibility as a filmmaker, but it was very easy avoid seeing how much things need to change.
“Now I’m in a position where I don’t have the luxury of avoiding the topic of diversity and inclusion. It’s made me really determined to be part of the change that’s happening at the moment, and be part of the driving force.”
“I don’t feel like I’m one of the boys in the boys’ club”
The media has the power to make or break stereotypes, depending on who it casts. Productions are often seen as a reflection of the breakdown of society. They’ve historically been heavily skewed towards those that are able-bodied.
“In the media we make the stereotypes. We show people what normal is, and we create those beliefs in our culture. Over the last year or so, there’s been a change in what we’re showing on screen.” said the director.
But that on-screen awareness when it comes to inclusivity hasn’t necessarily followed through to who’s been employed in production.
“We need to make our hiring process catch up with that. We’re preaching about inclusivity without actually doing it,” he added.
“Going from able-bodied to becoming disabled, the difference is huge in terms of what people think I can do and achieve. Now that I’m in a wheelchair, I don’t get invited through the door when requesting a meeting or pitching an idea. Previously, when I was able-bodied but had less experience, it was easier.”
“I don’t feel like I’m one of the boys in the boys’ club,” he finished.
A different approach
Owen “loved” being part of the production crew on our latest campaign. Featuring real-life clients describing how the legal and financial support they received really helped them, it has inclusivity at its heart. The campaign, thought to have been made by the most inclusive production team assembled, has been produced with 60% of people in senior roles being disabled.
This has boosted his confidence and given him reassurance that change can happen. It’s even helped him further his career, after a London-based production company invited him to join their roster of directors.
“I’ve never been on a shoot that’s this inclusive. Irwin Mitchell is one independent company that’s decided to make sure the pre-production, the production and the post-production is inclusive for people with physical disabilities and people who are neurodivergent.” said Owen.
“All the people with disabilities are being really open about it. On film sets, I’ve spoken to people who hide their disabilities because they’re too scared to be open. It’s a real relief that everyone here is happy in their own skin and getting on with their work.
“I’m also getting to work with Oscar, the director. I have a background in independent film but want to get into commercials. Having access to him, as someone who’s in the space I want to be, is great. I’m able to ask why he makes the decisions he does. It’s been such a good place to come and learn.”
Owen believes that it shouldn’t be difficult to embed more practices in the sector to make it easier for disabled people to obtain work.
He said: “The good news is that it’s really easy for employers to make the change and start having much more diverse crews. You just have to make sure you’ve got an inclusive job posting so that you’re encouraging everyone to apply and ask them what they need.”
After that, a simple phone call or email will allow them to make the changes needed to accommodate the needs of disabled people.
“That’s it. There’s nothing more. It’s just having the initiative, making sure people feel welcome to apply and then asking them what you can do to help them work.
“I’m on wheels so I need to be able to get into the building. I don’t need any more than that. I just need to be present because my job is all about my eyes and my mind. For other people it’s about communication, so help could include taking masks off to help with lip reading or giving someone enough time to understand the list of kit they’ll be working with.
“I think once a company’s worked with a person with disability once, the whole process will be so much easier for them. They’ll realise that it’s really not that hard for them – it’s just business as usual,” concluded Owen.