TV employers should be more open to Access to Work, says director Sebastian Cunliffe

As a deaf director, I don’t speak. My main method of communication is via sign-language interpreters.

On location, they are my ears; they tell me about the pesky aeroplane or the hesitant tone in the contributor’s voice; they voiceover my questions and translate the answers. They type up the transcripts so that I can do effective paper edits. And in my actual edits and meetings, they accompany me so that conversation flows smoothly.

Over my six years in TV, I’ve been able to direct many films effectively in this way. My interpreters are paid for by government funding via the Access to Work scheme, which pays for adjustments in the workplace for disabled people.

Access to Work is a great initiative that has helped thousands of disabled people get into work. It really is a lifeline and TV employers should be more aware and accommodating of it.

At work, I write my own development ideas, many of which have nothing to do with deaf ‘issues’. I believe my ideas are good enough in their own right, regardless of who I am – and I look forward to seeing them commissioned down the road.

People within the industry aren’t always aware of how to interact and work with deaf people and their interpreters. It can lead to embarrassing moments.

Attending the Edinburgh TV Festival as a ‘One to Watch’, via the talent scheme, was an eye-opener. People didn’t know whether to speak to me or the interpreter (answer: always to me), and were sometimes hesitant to approach me.

I understand this fear. I also understand that in changing times, as diverse talent becomes more prominent and accepted, people will have to face unfamiliar situations that are outside their comfort zone. Change is a form of disruption.

People generally love disruption – until it happens to them.

I’m really happy where I am at the moment. As a director on the BBC’s See Hear [pictured], I have a fantastic team and love the work I do. But eventually, I’d like to try something new.

Mainstream programming comes with bigger budgets, new challenges and opportunities for growth. It won’t be easy, and it will be awkward and frustrating at times, but I will learn so much from it – and others will get the chance to learn from me.

So, if anyone wants to commission my Monkey Tennis documentary, call me. ­

Sebastian Cunliffe is a television director helped by the government’s Access to Work Scheme