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Inclusive commercial productions are open, better connected, places

Hi, I’m Owen Tooth, a director and I've been using a wheelchair since 2017.

My films have won awards at festivals around the globe and my debut feature received a worldwide release. I most recently worked on a behind-the-scenes “statement” film to support Merkle B2B’s new campaign for Irwin Mitchell.

Before I became a wheelchair user, I’d done a lot of corporate work and solo shoots, in addition to my work in features and I quickly needed to adapt to be able to keep earning a living. I realised the best thing I could do is move into an arena where I can work with a crew around me, spending my time on the creative collaborations rather than trying to figure out if I can balance my chair in a way that’ll let me reach a light switch!

People suggested becoming an editor or sound mixer, finding creative jobs where I could stay seated, but that’s not where my heart is. I love directing and being on set with the community, pressure and excitement that comes with it. Commercials and TV drama are two places I realised I can really do my best.

On the Irwin Mitchell campaign, production company Annex was looking for someone to shoot a behind-the-scenes video and because of my ambition to move into commercials, the team there immediately threw in some experience, letting me join all the client meetings to see how they worked. Being mentored by Oscar Carris, who directed the commercials, and Basil Stephens, Annex’s head of production, immersed me in the workings of high-end commercials and gave me an insight which I’ve been dreaming of reaching for years.

Connecting with people

As well as their openness with disability, I was particularly impressed that they’d made sure people with mental health issues such as depression as well as neurodiverse people were hired as HODs. For people on a film shoot to feel at ease being honest about any of these issues is something I’ve never seen before.

The inclusive nature of the shoot went so far beyond anything that could be looked on as tokenism; I’ve literally never heard of a shoot like this taking place and on set, I spoke with people echoing that sentiment again and again, overwhelmed by how good it felt to finally get to this point. It gave us all so much hope that the future we’ve been fighting for is possible and within our reach.

It was such an open and free feeling, everyone was comfortable on set and no-one felt like they were “a problem”, or in the way. They were embraced and given a chance to show off what they could do. It was incredible to connect with so many other people with disabilities, share my thoughts with them, and have some of my own perceptions challenged in return. Connecting with those people really made me feel part of a community where before I felt so isolated.

Often when I’ve been involved in a shoot, my wheelchairs approached as a problem. On this occasion, the feeling of inclusivity was about “how can we make it work?” which was so refreshing.

It’s very emotional to think about disability and how it’s affected you because you’re so aware in your career of the difference it makes to you. That’s why it was wonderful having so much honesty from the other people around me to ensure that in the telling of the story I was representing them exactly as they wanted to be portrayed and showing the industry that this really is something they can do, too. I’ve never felt so close to a story I’ve told onscreen and I’ve never felt so good about a film as it gets released.

A bright future

The great news is that Annex has now taken me on as a director. As of this week I’m on its roster and they’ve already given me ideas to pitch for. That’s the best news I’ve had in years. The work that Annex is doing is fantastic and the same goes for this whole production and all the companies involved and I’m feeling better about my career right now than I ever have.

It would be amazing to see more of this across the commercials sector. The solutions are simple really – agencies and production companies should be willing to spread the net a bit further and ensure that job postings make it clear that the job is inclusive so people feel encouraged to apply. That should be the norm.

Above all, please just talk to people. It’s about having that first conversation rather than worrying if you can make it work: if someone has a disability, they’ll already have encountered any problem you can think of, and they’ll know a way to get around it and it’ll probably be far easier than you expect. Companies being afraid to engage with us is what stops so many people ever getting through the door in the first place – literally and metaphorically.

Watch the full Irwin Mitchell film here: 


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