Fresh from Deaf Awareness Week, PETER BARRON shines the spotlight on a North-East business helping deaf and disabled people to forge careers in the world of television and film…

AS an award-winning investigative journalist, Kenny Toal knows a good news angle when he sees one – so he’s well aware of the success story unfolding during the latest chapter of his career.

These days, Kenny is on a mission to create opportunities for deaf and disabled people who have ambitions to work in broadcasting.

“Diversity is in our DNA – it’s production without prejudice,” he says, from the Gateshead offices of ITV Tyne Tees, where he is managing director of Signpost Productions.

Signpost is part of ITV but has developed into a growing, sustainable, independent business determined to develop the talent of deaf and disabled people.

“In the next five years, the industry has a commitment to double the number of disabled people and, for me, it’s about creating pathways,” adds Kenny. “What are the barriers and how can we get rid of them? How can we keep talent here in the North-East and give people real-life experience?”

Kenny’s own story began in Annan, in Dumfries and Galloway, where he was from a family of teachers. While studying sociology at Edinburgh University, he worked on the student newspaper and got a traineeship on the Edinburgh Evening News. He went on to work for the Dumfriesshire Newspaper Group before becoming a production journalist at Border TV.

The chance to do live reporting drew him to Tyne Tees Television in 2002, initially at the Belasis Studio, at Billingham, and then Newcastle.

Highlights of his TV career included covering the trial of two Libyans charged with 270 counts of murder in connection with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie on December 21, 1988. As a boy, growing up near Lockerbie, he’d seen the flames, glowing orange in the sky, and now he was reporting from Camp Zeist, in Utrecht, for a special sitting of the High Court under Scots law.

“There was a sense of being part of history and that was a privilege,” he recalls.

Kenny also conducted the last interview with Sir Bobby Robson, talking about the great man's cancer foundation, shortly before he passed away in July 2009. “I was told I could ask three questions, but Sir Bobby just talked and talked," he smiles.”

When Kenny saw a cutting from a local paper about a terminally ill Washington man, called Johnny Bliss, presenting a cheque to Sir Bobby’s foundation, he decided to follow his cancer journey with a video diary. Johnny had been given three months to live but battled on for 12, and raised £14,000.

“I’ll always remember him. He left a real imprint on me because of his attitude and determination to help others,” says Kenny.

Amid fears that ITV chief executive, Michael Grade, was looking to do away with regional news, Kenny took a role as Head of Journalism at Napier University, in Edinburgh, while still presenting and reporting on news as a freelancer.

“I loved developing talent and seeing young journalists grow,” he says.

When he returned to Tyne Tees TV in 2010, he was able to bring his experience in education with him, and implemented a training scheme while still presenting and building his reputation for investigative journalism.

In 2012, he won a string of awards, including Royal Television Society Journalist of the Year, for uncovering a scandal involving G4 security breaches at the London Olympics in 2012.

Three years later, the time felt right for a change of direction. The opportunity arose to become Operations Manager for Signpost Productions, and he was promoted to Managing Director a year later.

“Back then, Signpost was a department that did sign language translations of programmes, and I thought the way for us to grow was to start creating our own content as well as translating existing programmes,” he explains.

The first new programme was a 10-part ‘Signed Stories’ series for Irish broadcaster RTE that was animated and fully accessible to both hearing and deaf children.

Within five years, Signpost had a network of programmes, having made around 20 documentaries, two magazine programmes, and five children’s series for CITV. All have been supported with sign language but are also fully accessible.

Phase one of the business plan was to become good at making programmes. Phase two was to make network programmes by employing crew members who were deaf and disabled. Training schemes were arranged and, as well as growing the number of deaf and disabled employees, a diverse freelance pool was also developed.

That commitment has grown steadily, and Signpost Productions now employs 23 full-time people, plus freelances, with 50 per cent of them deaf or disabled. The ambition is to have 100 per cent of deaf staff making programmes for deaf people, and 60 per cent for non-deaf content.

Partnerships are in place with Teesside University and Gateshead College, and plans are at an advanced stage to launch The Signpost Academy.

The Signpost team also advises companies on diversity and inclusion, with deaf awareness training provided.

When Kenny took over, Signpost was a loss-leader, but now returns a healthy profit as an independent business, and was described as a “beacon of light” when it won the North East Chamber of Commerce Diversity and Inclusion Award last year.

Giles Bowman, who is deaf, joined Signpost three years ago, having worked as a freelancer on Emmerdale. He is now a production specialist: directing, acting as a lead camera operator, and managing auto-cues, lights and other technical systems.

“I was blown away when I came here and felt part of it straight away," says Giles, bottom left. "It’s the best production company to work for – making great programmes and so inclusive.”

For Kenny Toal, it’s about creating more success stories for deaf people like Giles. “Ultimately, we’re determined to grow as a production house, with inclusion and diversity at the heart of everything we do, and if that leads to more commissions, that’s great,” he says.

It's good to see the signposts so clearly pointing in the right direction.