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Johanna Garvin: Why can’t it be different?

Mar 31, 2016

Johanna Garvin is determined to forge a career for herself in the film industry. As a woman living with Cerebral Palsy (CP), Johanna brings a unique perspective to just how exclusive our film industry can be.  In this blog, Johanna reflects on the challenges she has been faced with in trying to enter the film industry and causes us to question: why can’t it be different? 


Like many young people I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I completed my HSC – but I loved storytelling, media and writing so my mum suggested I do Communications and Media at the University of Notre Dame – thus began my love affair with film studies and the art of filmmaking.

While enjoying my degree at Notre Dame, I was given the opportunity to participate in a Study Abroad program at the College of St Benedict’s St John’s University in Minnesota, the home of the Minnesota Vikings and the Cohen Brothers.

There, one of my subjects was film studies.


In our tutorials, we watched and discussed films like China TownHunger, and The Graduate. And as I became increasingly engrossed in the craft of film, I desired to pursue a career in its industry.

Upon returning home to Sydney, full of optimism and determination, I thought with finishing uni this would be the perfect opportunity to apply for film school and find a way into the industry I so desperately wanted to be a part of. Immediately, at my first go, there were already subtle barriers. After finding a course at a film school, I went to their open day. However, when I arrived there was one very large barrier – there was no wheelchair access. I thought to myself, “Why in the world did you forget to ring up and ask if there was wheelchair access?” But then I thought, “I shouldn’t have to, it should just be there; it’s an educational institution.” As you could imagine, I didn’t have a very good feeling about this. I decided to give the film school a call, explaining to them that I use a wheelchair and asked if there were any wheelchair access. As it turned out, there was…through the garage… not a very dignified entrance.

Despite the access issues, I decided to apply for the course and excitingly I was invited to come in for an interview – a surprising event faced with even more barriers to inclusion.  I was told things like “Oh we might have to amend some of the assignments for you because you might no be able to access some of the areas students go to.” My reaction was, “You’re already thinking about all the things I won’t be able to do without giving me the opportunity to show you what I can do.”

After being underestimated at this particular school, I decided to look elsewhere.


Metro Screen at the time was offering courses – I applied for one and was offered a spot to be interviewed. On arrival, I was very pleased to find I could: get into the building without any assistance, and that they were much more positive about my participation. I was lucky that I got into both courses but in the end, I decided to go with Metro Screen.

Starting the course, I felt very positive about my chances of working in the film industry. I was very excited but as the weeks went on, like all new things, it started to become quite challenging. I thought to myself, “Well, this is the real world.” The tutors had quite high expectations which sometimes felt difficult to meet but as a friend noted, “Take it as a compliment.  They’re not seeing the chair.”

One assignment we had to do was make a proposal for a documentary. I decided that I’d make a documentary about learning to drive. I wanted to make it because it was a unique story, especially as many would usually assume people with CP weren’t able to drive. I wanted to prove this idea otherwise.

To my delight, the proposal was accepted and we began making the documentary. During its production, I began to question the industry I was so thoroughly passionate about – I began to ask: how were people with disabilities often portrayed in film and television?


I realised we were (and still are) often seen as victims and our disability as a tragic circumstance needing to be overcome. Or on the flip side, we’d be seen as ‘inspirational’ simply for being alive and living a life. Writer, comedian and disability advocate Stella Young describes this as “inspirational porn” – when people without disabilities feel better about their lives after watching a story about a person with a disability, and being thankful it’s not them—That’s an issue. A BIG issue.

This lead to my desire for more positive, truthful stories about the lived experience of disability – stories told from the perspective of someone living with a disability. However, I realised that there was also a real disability apartheid in the film industry. I thought to myself, “I can only think of a couple of prominent people with disabilities working in the film industry.” One obvious one is RJ Mitte from Breaking Bad. RJ lives with cerebral palsy.

Another confronting aspect I had to deal with was when I was a part of a drama shoot at Metro Screen – the locations we were shooting in were inaccessible. I felt both excluded at times and frustrated. The experience of driving around the remote parts of western Sydney looking for a Maccas because you know there’ll be an accessible toilet, is one I don’t want to have to repeat as part of my working conditions. It was in these moments I thought, “How do other people who have disabilities deal with this? “ In the end though, I feel there was a silver lining to that experience, as consequently my classmates became more aware of the need to choose accessible locations.


As I reached the end of my course I found my situation very confronting because I began questioning whether I really wanted to work in the film and television industry. How would I get my foot in the door? Was I the only one who thought that the film industry wasn’t and still isn’t quite as inclusive of people with disabilities?

Luckily, as part of the course at Metro Screen I was offered an internship with Screen NSW. This has given me a sense of hope that maybe I could work in the film industry after all. The people at Screen NSW worked incredibly hard to insure that their space was accessible. They have been incredibly supportive of me and to my relief they said to me that there needs to be more opportunities given to people with disabilities. This has increased my determination to make this happen, to find a way to work in this industry. So while there is much change to be made in our film industry, I am hopeful that the changes can be made.

Written by Johanna Garvin
Edited by Bus Stop Team