"Boss From Hell"
Tackles Discrimination of Workers with Disabilities

By Mark T. Richards

11/04/03

The employees in The Office, a new hit series in Britain (and on cable in America), are perhaps the most painfully familiar characters on television today.

As described on the BBC America Web site, The Office is “a place of petty rivalry, bad flirting, and easily bruised egos. Filmed in documentary-style, this sharply observed and highly acclaimed comedy exposes the excruciating truth about the world of nine-to-five. . . . The employees’ lives are alarmingly familiar to anyone employed in the modern workplace: ‘management speak’ and the people who speak it, petty squabbles over staplers and desk space, endless training days and health and safety seminars; stifled ambition and frustrated lives. Whether you're a temp spending your day filing and making coffee or a CEO making millions, you will undoubtedly recognize The Office as YOUR office.”

The boss, David Brent, is described as “a petty and pompous middle manager who winds up his staff almost to the point of hysteria,” and who laughs at the “handicapped and deformed.” He would seem to be the least likely character to tackle prejudice against disabled workers, but in a series of movie theater advertisements, when Ricky Gervais, who plays David Brent, comes on the screen, people cannot wait to see what this berk has to say.

jobability.com, the UK's leading employment site for disabled jobseekers, has launched a hard-hitting cinema campaign that aims to challenge employers' perceptions of disabled workers.

The advertisement highlights one of the many problems facing disabled jobseekers --employers' misconceptions about the types of role they can fill.

By verbalizing prejudices that usually remain unspoken, the ad has a big impact. Actor Ricky Gervais stars as a David Brent-like character who expresses his willingness to hire 'a disabled person,’ but then finds ridiculous reasons why employees with disabilities would not fit into the workplace.

"It was a conscious decision to include a disabled character in the second series of The Office," Gervais says. The David Brent character’s “world of fake P.C. was an ideal environment in which to explore this territory. I chose comedy for the jobability.com script because it's what I do and it's also a powerful tool for a serious message.

In one instance, a fire drill in The Office requires David Brent to ensure a character in a wheelchair gets safely down the stairs. After straining and wrestling with the wheelchair with little or no effect, Brent just gives up and leaves the person hopelessly stranded on the stairs.

“To me, someone who you know is a bigoted idiot saying the wrong thing does as much good as someone you know who is wise and fair saying the right thing. But the former is a bit more fun. Sadly, there is a bit of all of us reflected in Brent, and that's the point," Gervais points out.

Gervais wrote and directed the commercial, which began screening in movie theaters across the UK on December 20, 2002. "I had never written and directed anything for cinema before so that was exciting. The thought of my big fat face 20 foot high obviously appealed to me; that'll put them off their popcorn!

"There are still taboos and prejudices surrounding disability,” Gervais said, “so the subject matter is really something you can get your teeth into. The producers said I could do whatever I wanted which is about the best thing you can say to a writer director."

The voiceover for the short film says: "Whether you're recruiting or looking for work, jobability.com is the jobsite where people with disabilities are judged on their capabilities, not disabilities. So if you're someone who sees potential, not potential problems, visit www.jobability.com.”

Bryan Dutton, Director General of Leonard Cheshire said "Ricky Gervais' character in the commercial is an amusing caricature of an employer with a discriminatory attitude. Sadly employment statistics show all too clearly that employers do discriminate against person with disabilities.

People with disabilities make up a fifth of the population of working age and have a wide range of skills yet they continue to be under-represented in the work place. This is both discriminatory and a simple waste of talent.

"jobability.com helps level the playing field for people with disabilities by matching their skills with employers' needs, but the fact remains that we all need to abolish the myths - and unspoken or unrecognized prejudices need to come out into the open. We hope that this campaign will get everyone to question whether there's a bit of this character in themselves - and if so, to do something about it.''

Welcoming the new cinema advertising campaign aimed at tackling prejudice against workers with disabilities, Agnes Fletcher, Assistant Director, Public Affairs, at the Disability Rights Commission said: "One of the biggest barriers people with disabilities face is employers' prejudice and ignorance, as personified by the David Brent character. Last year the Disability Rights Commission received over 80,000 calls from people with disabilities who'd had problems in the workplace, been denied a job, or been sacked because of their disability. People with disabilities can and want to work. To be unfairly denied a job on account of your disability is not only unlawful it is a waste of the talents of 8.5 million disabled people in Great Britain today.

A jobability.com press release reminds us that people with disabilities continue to face discrimination and negative attitudes about their abilities, all too clearly reflected in employment statistics – over one million people with disabilities are unemployed despite wanting to work yet, at the same time, jobability.com research shows over three quarters of companies are unaware of the skills they have to offer.

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC), an independent body set up by an Act of Parliament in April 2000 to enforce the rights of people with disabilities presents the following facts about the workplace in the UK:

  • Persons with disabilities have employment rights under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). The Act covers all employers who employ 15 or more people. The Act took effect in 1996.
  • People with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.
  • There are 6.7 million people with disabilities in Great Britain.
  • Over 2.6 million people with disabilities are unemployed and on benefit.
  • People with disabilities are twice as likely to have no formal qualifications as non-disabled people.

Literature and advice for employers, and people with disabilities is available free from the DRC Helpline on 08457.622.633; Textphone: 08457.622.644; Fax: 08457.778.878; Email: enquiry@drc-gb.org or downloadable from the DRC's website: www.drc-gb.org.jobability.com is the UK's leading employment site for disabled jobseekers.

Launched officially in March 2002, jobability.com now carries around 1,000 job vacancies across a number of UK industry sectors and has approximately 5,000 users each month. This initiative is a joint venture between totaljobs.com, the disability charity Leonard Cheshire, and Microsoft.

 

 

 

 

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