Over the last week, controversy has raged over the BBC’s decision to offer a disabled individual the opportunity to train, for free, to become a TV weather presenter.  Candidates need to have “a passion for the environment and the weather” but “don’t need to be an expert or to have a qualification in meteorology.”  The initiative forms part of a BBC effort to “improve on screen diversity” and “help men and women with a disability feel comfortable appearing on television, radio and online.”

The decision has been derided by some users of Twitter.  The initiative was called “political correctness gone mad” and it was suggested that it would prevent “the best person for the job” being hired.  In a letter to the Telegraph, an individual from Petersfield sneered “My friend has a chronic stutter. I wonder if his disability could help him land the job of a BBC weather presenter?”

There is no doubt that the question of whether positive discrimination can ever be acceptable is a thorny one.  Aspire does not want “special” treatment for people with Spinal Cord Injury.  We believe they should be treated equally to everyone else and that they should be empowered to work, have a family life, and play an active role in their communities.  

However, Aspire welcomes the BBC’s initiative.

It is important to recognise that disabled people face significant barriers when applying for jobs.  Our research shows that a wheelchair user is nearly three times more likely to receive an outright rejection for a role as a fitness instructor than a non-wheelchair user.

Furthermore, disabled people are underrepresented in many areas of work.  As the Minister for Disabled People, Justin Tomlinson, has highlighted, although 16 per cent of working-age adults are disabled, “precisely zero percent of BBC weather presenters are.”    Moreover, recent research carried out by Scope shows that areas in which disabled people are underrepresented, such as professional or managerial occupations, are growing, whereas areas where they find it easier to get jobs, such as in the public sector, are falling

Disabled people are underrepresented in the media in particular.  The fact that, in 2015, there was huge excitement about a wheelchair user representing her country in Eurovision, demonstrates this.  An increase in “on screen diversity” could improve the self-esteem and prospects of disabled people.  Aspire knows through its work with people who sustain traumatic injuries that damaged self-perception can often act as an obstacle to them finding work.  If disabled people working was increasingly normalised through a rising on-screen presence, this obstacle could be reduced    

Finally, it is important to note that the BBC is not seeking to hire a disabled weather presenter, but to offer a disabled person training that will increase their chances of being employed as one.  Aspire’s multi-award winning InstructAbility programme, which trains disabled people to become fitness instructors, works on a similar principle.  Disabled individuals face such significant barriers when applying for work that offering them specific training to improve their employability seems a proportionate response.  To offer training is very different from creating a job which is only open to disabled people.

The BBC’s decision to offer an opportunity to disabled people exclusively was a bold one.  However, it represents a recognition of the obstacles facing disabled people which is all too rare amongst major employers.  It’s great that the BBC have shown that they are willing to do something about it.  Aspire would like other employers to wake up to the problem too.