Winnie Luk on the Disability Screen Office

Head and shoulders of smiling person with short dark hair, wearing a black and white shirt. The person is Winnie Luk, the director of the Disability Screen Office.

The Disability Screen Office is a relatively new organization that was incubated via Accessible Media, Inc. and became autonomous in September 2022. I was brought on as the Executive Director in June of 2023. On my first day, within my first few hours, I was already on the CBC One Stop Workshop. And then at the end of that first week I flew to Banff to attend the World Media Festival. It’s been nonstop ever since. Right from the start, it was evident that everyone was waiting for the DSO to come into play.

Our mandate is that we are a disability-led, bilingual nonprofit organization working with the Canadian screen sector to break down accessibility barriers and foster authentic representation on and off the screen. Our vision is a barrier free, inclusive Canadian screen sector.

We’ve established four main initiatives; the first of which is incredibly important because Canada is far behind in regards to data collection, research, funding, and programs compared to Australia, the UK, and the States. Before I started, there was some consultation across the country including key players, stakeholders, a few equity groups, folks from the disability community and allies, as well as decision makers and leaders within the screen sector, and it quickly became obvious that there was little work in this space. Which is why we’re engaging in a deep dive research project.

Our second initiative is a resource hub to house our research, including everything and anything that has to do with disability and the Canadian screen sector. It would be an incredibly useful resource for folks who can come and find reports, toolkits, or a glossary of terminology. (A very common question asked of me is, “Can I say this or should I say this?”) We plan to identify accessible venues and, because there are misconceptions, be transparent about what an accessible venue actually means. Part of the resource hub will also be a database of disabled talent and creatives. That’s another really popular question I get: “How do I find a disabled director or writer or editor or producer?” Which is incredible because it demonstrates that there are more and more productions that want to center disabled characters or stories and concepts.

Poster promoting the CBC television show You're My Hero. On the left is a young adult male in an electric wheelchair. On the right is the title of the show and some production details.

Poster for CBC Gem series You’re My Hero

Another initiative is to create an elevated production accessibility role that has more influence and decision-making power. Someone who is inserted at the beginning of the lifecycle of a production, so there are no more excuses. Our work is about doing all of this proactively, not just upon request, but essentially building accessibility in from the very beginning. We would formally train and certify this position, and work with labor organizations, unions, and guilds to develop it and eventually require that every production would have to hire a production accessibility person.

A fourth initiative became obvious as I was traveling across the country attending various film festivals and found out that the festivals themselves were not accessible. Whether it’s in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, or Calgary, disabled folks in these regions were not attending their local festivals because they didn’t see these spaces to be accessible to them. I found that incredibly heartbreaking and embarrassing on the part of these major festivals. There is an immediate need to fast forward this work.

Poster promoting the Marvel/Disney+ television series Echo. The title is written in large block letters on the left. On the right is a young woman with black hair, a purple turtleneck, and dark pants.

Poster for Marvel/Disney + series Echo

This segues into my own history. In my early twenties and even in my teens, I was involved with North York Parks and Recreation [now part of the City of Toronto] and there were always disability offerings integrated in their programs. As a young person, I not only participated in these programs, but, as I grew up, I became a supervisor. My last job there was with North York City Hall where I was the lead supervisor for all accessibility programing.

After that I worked for the Inside Out film festival for sixteen years as their Director of Operations and Events. Then I went to an organization called Rainbow Railroad, which is a Canadian and American nonprofit charity that works globally to help persecuted LGBTQI+ folks escape violence and persecution around the world. Working in human rights gave me a unique perspective on coming back to the screen industry last year.

When I was at Rainbow Railroad, I suffered sciatica for two years, but the thing is, I never actually stopped working. In retrospect, it’s a bit nutty that I didn’t take disability leave. It was normal for me to lie on the board table and have everyone meet around me, or work on a yoga mat on the ground. The fact that I didn’t take any time off then lead to a new attitude about how I run an organization now, how I work, and how I think about working environments. A barrier in the screen industry is its actual ecosystem. The way it works, the urgency and the chaos that it creates. A regular day is fourteen to twenty hours. I’ve heard of people becoming disabled on the job because of the long hours, the accidents with equipment, the health and safety hazards. Part of our work at the DSO is to change the whole structure and framework of the Canadian screen sector. We can break down all these barriers for people to access the industry, to make it welcoming and inclusive for folks who are disabled to work in it, but, at the same time, it’s not a good working environment.

A still image from the film All the Light We Cannot See. There is a young girl in the centre of the picture. Behind her is a crowd of people staring in one direction.

Still from Netflix film All the Light We Cannot See

It’s about attacking this at all the different angles and working with everyone across the sector. This includes Canadian Heritage, the CRTC, the broadcasters, all the funding bodies and agencies, the unions, guild associations and labor organizations, as well the producers and productions, the festivals and exhibitors and the markets. I can’t pick and choose which part of the industry to work with. We essentially have to start this work all together. I could work as much as I can on productions, but then the film or the show is finished and the broadcast system isn’t accessible. Or the film festivals that they want to submit to are not accessible. So, it’s really important to engage the whole sector.

I’m also very transparent in our journey and how we pace this work out. My background is operations and infrastructure, so it’s important to me to work at this methodically and make sure it’s realistic. When I talk to collaborators and partners, I make sure to tell them it’s only me. I’m the only fulltime DSO staff right now.

[This article was distilled from an interview with Winnie Luk.]