Breaking down the barriers
A conversation with Winnie Luk, Executive Director of the Disability Screen Office
The Disability Screen Office (DSO) has a two-pronged mandate: the organization works to eliminate accessibility barriers and foster meaningful disability representation within the Canadian screen sector. Earlier this year, the DSO hired Winnie Luk as its new (and first) Executive Director. Luk has embraced her new role with extraordinary enthusiasm.
She shares with Indiescreen why she is tailor made for this role, and outlines her plans to break down barriers to accessibility and representation for the disability community.
“Everyone will experience some type of disability in life,” says Luk, “whether by accident or aging. If you’re not invested in accessibility, you’re not doing yourself any favours.”
What were you doing before you stepped into this role at the DSO?
I started this role in June, and it actually felt very fateful when I was hired, because of my work history. Before and all through university, I was working in accessibility programming with the City of Toronto, and after graduating, I took a position with Inside Out, the queer film festival. Inside Out was essentially my dream job and my dream organization, and I got to work there for more than 15 years. I was the director of operations when I left to work as managing director for Rainbow Railroad, which was in its start-up phase at that time. Rainbow Railroad is a charity non-profit organization that helps persecuted LGBTQI+ individuals around the world escape violence.
That sounds like very serious stuff.
Very serious stuff. I spent a really incredible four years building up that organization, but faced burnout in a sector where my work really was life and death. So I was taking some time off to explore what I wanted to do next when I saw the DSO posting for their first ever executive director. I was attracted to the fact that the DSO is a very new organization, because I’m a builder—I build organizations. When I was hired, I reflected back on my career and everything I had done, and thought, Wow. Every choice I made, every move I made really made me perfectly suited for this role, especially the last four years working in human rights.
Being the leader of a brand-new organization sounds exciting— but also daunting. What are your first priorities?
The first few things that I’m planning to do are solidify our strategic plan, complete our communications plan, and build the actual infrastructure for the organization. Obviously getting sustainable funding is a priority, and not just programming funding, but operations funding. I understand that programming is very sexy and everyone wants to support programming, but if you don’t have a solid infrastructure then the programs and everything else don’t have a solid foundation. I cannot say enough about how important sustainable, unrestricted funding is to a new organization, to set it up successfully and on the right footing.
How would you gauge the response from the industry to the DSO so far?
Since day one, I’ve been meeting with folks and organizations, including other equity-seeking organizations, to think about collaborations and partnerships. I’ve been meeting so many incredible new people, organizations, businesses, corporations—everyone within the sector has been welcoming, supportive, encouraging, and really wanting to get involved in the work. We’re at this tipping point right now, where everyone agrees that change is needed. And it’s not needed presently, it was needed a long time ago. The screen sector is quite behind in disability matters, and people know it. And if you are not with us right now, you are going to fall even further behind.
Can you talk a bit about what the DSO is trying to achieve?
We’re working on two things: accessibility is about breaking down barriers, it’s a human right, it’s law. But then there’s representation when it comes to visibility as well, in front of and behind the camera. We’re going to provide the guidelines and standards and protocols for working with the disability community, but we also believe there should also be some real accountability. That’s where our production disability coordinator training comes in (see sidebar).
We need to be thoughtful and work with people who have experience. I know there’s a workforce shortage right now; that’s a huge opportunity. The sector can welcome in folks who are willing and ready to work, and make use of their innovation and their creativity—because people with disabilities have had to constantly adapt, because of the barriers they’ve faced. Imagine the skills, the knowledge, the learning that this community has. Imagine how the sector can benefit from that.
What the DSO is working on
In order to increase accessibility within the screen sector, the DSO has three initiatives it’s planning to launch this year:
1) Develop guidelines to help the screen sector work with the disability community. The first phase of this project will focus on data collection, “because there’s so little data out there, and what is out there is not necessarily accurate, since divulging disability is hard for people—they still feel stigma, and there are a lot of barriers to talking about it,” says Luk.
2) Create a centralized industry resource centre. Luk calls this project “a one-stop shop for everything disability related in the screen sector”: from crew to venues to accessible services. “My inbox is filled with inquiries about disabled creatives, workers, actors, and on the other side, people needing to find assistive technology services, interpreters, open captioning services. We want to be that place that everyone knows to come to and get linked up to whatever they’re needing,” Luk says.
3) Train accessibility coordinators to work with the screen sector. Luk believes that accessibility commitments are fantastic first steps, but accessibility coordinators on set can bring accountability and ensure productions are meeting those commitments. “There’s already an immense group of people who have the skills and knowledge, who just need opportunity,” says Luk. “There should be some real accountability in the sense of what it means to be accessible, and truly disability led.”