Robyn Scott-Vincent transformed her media company into a disability programmes specialist to employ her oldest son Harrison, born with a severe learning delay. She talks to Amanda Sachtleben about making a business venture out of a very personal crusade.
What’s your background?
I started as a journalist in 1979, working for the Auckland Star and the New Zealand Herald before moving into magazines and television. I always liked the deeper stories and the human interest content. I was lucky that I was around in the era New Zealand On Air came into being [in 1989]. It allowed independent producers in New Zealand to grow and it was an era when documentary was really protected and encouraged. I made my first doco in 1991 as RSVP Productions and have made close to 50 independent documentaries now.
How did your son’s experience spark the formation of Attitude Pictures?
Harrison was born with a rare syndrome, and on his first day at the local school the principal turned him away and said, ‘We don’t want another problem.’ Someone from the disability sector said they needed me to be an advocate. I didn’t do anything then because I had three little boys, but thought ‘One day I’ll do something.’
When New Zealand On Air put out a request for proposal for a series about people with disabilities, that’s when I decided to do it. Harrison was 16 and I thought he’d likely leave school with no qualifications and he could come and work with me. He was diagnosed with leukaemia and died a week before we started production. I was then in the position of having to run 40 documentaries starting about 10 days later.
How do you use the business to try to change employers’ mindsets about recruiting people with disabilities?
It was really important I included people with lived experience of disability. From year one we brought in two guys, one quadriplegic and one paraplegic, who we started to train. That’s what’s been the most significant aspect of what we do. Thirty percent of our staff now have a disability and the business model should be that we have an increasing number of people with a disability. It shouldn’t be journalists talking about people with a disability – it’s people’s own voice. Sixty percent of people with a disability are unemployed and 23 percent of people who have a serious injury like a spinal cord injury or brain injury never go back to work.
How do you balance such a personal cause with keeping the business financially successful?
It’s never been about the money. We’re healthy and sustainable but if I’m perfectly honest I’d have done something like reality TV [if I wanted to make money].
The cool thing is I’m developing something we’ll be able to sustain. I now have my three heads of department and each has a disability.
Jai Waite is head of post-production. After his accident he spent the first few years at home without any real prospect of a job. As a quadriplegic he studied to be an editor. He has really poor hand function so you’d think fine cutting and computer skills would be virtually impossible. But last year we won the Asian Broadcasting Union Special Jury Prize, a union that represents 60 percent of the world’s viewing audiences. Jai was the editor of that. The frustration for me is when I hear employers saying it’s too hard or we can’t do it. That’s an area I’m moving into now. We want to really showcase to other employers that you can do it.
What are your prospects for growth?
We started in the living room of my house and I had a young colleague who did four jobs. I had the production skills and initially we used freelancers and built to taking people on staff. At first my senior colleagues mentored colleagues with a disability. Slowly those people moved up the ranks and they’re now mentoring others. The business is pouring back into developing what we’re doing.
We’re now into new media and we want to find young graduates who have a disability because they can help lead the new initiative. This is our 10th year of making 40 programmes a year. The value of broadcasts hasn’t diminished but part of our job is to make sure that through strong storytelling, we encourage people who don’t have a disability to know more about the one in five who do.