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Tim Ferguson on the next screen revolution

Spin Out co-director/writer Tim Ferguson on the next revolution in the screen industry: giving a voice to filmmakers and actors with a disability.

Tim Ferguson (centre) having fun on the Spin Out set with the cast/Sarah Enticknap

Tim Ferguson believes people with a disability are a minority about to storm the screen industry.

The Spin Out co-director/writer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-1990s and has been vocal about living with MS since revealing he had the condition some six years ago.

In 2012 his live comedy show was titled Carry a Big Stick in reference to the walking stick he came to need because of MS, and he published an autobiography of the same name in 2013. These days, Ferguson gets around in a wheelchair – not that it makes a difference when it comes to filmmaking.

His feature directorial debut Spin Out, a comedy set around a bachelor and spinsters ball with lots of utes, rum and revelry, was filmed in Shepparton in Victoria. So they got creative, and built a golf buggy that doubled as video village, housing the monitors as well as enabling Ferguson to easily get around the set with co-director Marc Gracie.

“Sometimes you’ve got to make allowances and go out of your way a little bit, (like) build a golf buggy,” he says.

“(But) as I proved with Spin Out, people in wheelchairs can pretty well film anywhere on the most rugged terrains.”

Ferguson says Screen Australia’s diversity in TV drama report shows just how low the representation of people with a disability is. According to the report, the percentage of Australians with disabilities is more than four times what was actually shown on TV between 2011 and 2015. Only 10% of drama had at least one character with a disability.

Ferguson says the industry need to embrace people with a disability both in front and behind the camera.

“There’s no reason why a blind person can’t do sound. There’s no reason why a deaf person can’t do lighting. Both of them can direct actors,” he says.

And when it comes to characters, he says American shows such as The West Wing have had authentically-cast characters with disability, such as Marlee Matlin’s deaf political operative Joey Lucas.

“Deaf people… blind people, people who are amputees, have new body parts, wheels, whatever it is, screenwriters have to start thinking about it as well,” he says.

“The good news for a screenwriter… is there’s a lot of interest.”

Particularly, he says, from those with a disability, who according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) made up 18.3% of Australians in 2012.

“They might have an interest in it, and also if you’re overcoming a disability while you’re also achieving your goals, you’re interesting for two reasons in terms of story development.”

It’s something production companies such as Bus Stop Films and its co-founder Genevieve Clay-Smith are well-aware of.

Since her first job in the screen industry making a documentary for Down Syndrome NSW at 19, Clay-Smith has created inclusive short films – hiring people with disabilities to make up the cast and crew. It was the case for the short Be My Brother, which won Tropfest in 2009 and the nine other projects Bus Stop Films have made, and it will continue with Clay-Smith’s feature Baby Cat, which received development support through Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative.

Similarly, Shine Endemol recently made a point of authentically casting actors who are blind for an episode of Offspring (see actor Ben Phillips write about the experience here) and deaf writer/director Sofya Gollan has also been vocal about tackling the issue.

Ferguson says “the disabled are the women of the 21st century”, calling it the “next revolution”.

“Twenty years ago women were banging upwards on a glass ceiling… meanwhile no one was even thinking about the disabled. So the (Screen Australia) report is a great first step,” he says.

“But you’ve given the mouse a cookie, and we’re going to want a glass of milk.”

Spin Out is in cinemas now.