Whatever next?

I just had to put finger to keypad to express my feelings over a phenomenon that has recently appeared on the nation’s TV screens… adverts featuring disabled people!

During my career in the media, which will enter it’s 25th year in 2013, I have discussed the lack of disabled people in advertising with several ad execs, normally at boozy media parties. They all told me that the industry was all about image and impression. The big worry was that if they used disabled actor or models it might create a subconscious association in the public’s mind between the product being advertised and disability, thus making people feel the product might be sub standard or in some way less. Invalid you might say. Whether it’s true or not, in the advertising world the product’s the thing so anything that might damage the product’s image is a no no. So hence no disabled people.

Occasionally someone in the industry decides to buck this trend and we have popped up in an ad. A big one was the advert for a brand of trainer (I can’t remember which one so that didn’t work eh?) which featured a group of wheelchair racers. Sure it was great to see disabled people in an ad and it was everywhere, but I always felt that the exec who had the idea kind of missed the point. As a wheelchair user I still own shoes and boots I purchased over a decade ago and they look like new. As training shoes are designed to make running easier, safer and more comfortable the idea of using wheelchair users to advertise them just can’t make the viewer focus on these selling points. It was obviously done to gain publicity, which it did very well. Doubt it old more shoes though.

I have even auditioned for parts in adverts myself, but I only ever landed a part in an ad for transmission in France. I have no idea what the ad was for as I don’t speak French. The most recent rejection was for a major department store and instead of a real wheelchair user the part of “father in wheelchair” went to a non-disabled actor who had his leg put in plaster. This clearly demonstrated that the condition the character was in was temporary, was something most people could identify with and so would have no subconscious impact on the advert’s target audience.

So I was stunned to see not one but TWO television adverts that feature disabled people hit our screens in short succession. Just like buses, you wait for ages and then two come along at once. The first is a Barclay’s Bank ad which features a wheelchair using amputee. It makes no mention of his disability and he is just a typical bank customer, which is really refreshing.

Without being too criticial, I am unsure why an amputee who has such a high tech and expensive prosthetic leg would use a wheelchair to visit his bank. I do wonder if someone in a brainstorming session said “we need a wheelchair”, and so any one with a wheelchair would do. The guys chair is obviously a sports chair, so if he was playing basketball in the ad it might makes sense. I do wonder if having the guy walk in on his new robot leg would have made an equal impact. But hey, this might just be soar grapes as I didn’t even hear about the audition. What is my agent doing? Whatever the nuances of the ad, it’s a big step, or wheel, forward.

But the advert that makes me smile every time I see it, and that fills my heart with a feeling of hope, is the superb Dove shampoo ad “Feeling is believing”. This is everything that adverts should be and more. The most amazing thing about the ad is that it uses the featured lady’s disability as a vehicle to demonstrate the USP of the product. She’s blind and so she can’t see her hair but she knows how fantastic her hair looks by the way it feels. This ad uses disability as part of the selling process which is a massive leap forward.

I am sure that some visually impaired people out there might worry that it does play into the stereotype that of you loose your sight your other senses become better, but I don’t know if I would agree. To me this ad marks a change that I hope carries on forever. Maybe we’ll see a wheelchair user advertising hand soap next. Let’s face we always end up with dirty hands with all the filth that is on our streets so if a soap gets my hands clean it really works. It’s that kind of thinking that makes the Dove ad stand out to me and long may it continue.

But why have things changed suddenly, in such a short space of time? Well firstly let’s keep our fingers crossed that it isn’t a flash in the pan. Hopefully we now start seeing disabled people in advertising, both as part of the real world and as models and featured characters. I know that many in the Paralympic movement claim that this year’s games will change the way society thinks about disability and perhaps this is the first sign that they are right. Maybe the advertising industry has just decided the time is right to be more inclusive. Whatever the reason, if we want this to mark a change in the way advertising works then all disabled people can do is go out a buy the products. Actually I should take this opportunity to congratulate the people involved in both of these adverts. Keep up the good work and don’t let anyone in your industry tell you you’ve made a mistake. No one will associate your product with negativity. In fact I am sure that the Dove ad will actually make the product fly off the shelves.

Remember this moment folks. It might be the beginning of a real change and be one we talk about to our grand kids. I’m off to buy some shampoo and I know which product I’ll be purchasing!

Before I go I just had to show you an American ad from Nike that just shows how far ahead they are in the US. Disability, product placement and HUMOUR! And it makes me want to go out and Just Do It!

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Ranting Round-Up No.1

Now where to start? As I’ve been crazy busy recently the list of things “Grinding My Gears” is quite long.

The first was C4’s Sainsbury’s Super Saturday. This music and sports show was to celebrate the launch of ticket sales for the Paralympics and was aired over a whole weekend on Channel 4. My issues with the show were many. Why was it only presented by non-disabled talent and why did so many of the pop stars who were interviewed allowed to use such out of date and non PC language to describe Paralymians? Those were the biggies. Surely C4 could have found some disabled presenting talent to work with Rick Edwards and Lisa Snowdon? Yeah they chatted with Paralympic stars but it would have made much more impact if the show had a disabled presenter too. The thing that really drove me mad was the way disabled people were talked about by various pop stars. The Sugarbabes condescendingly describing sport as a method to recover from the trauma of not being able to use your legs, for wheelchair users who were either born disabled or made that way through accident, got me so cross that I felt the steam coming out of my ears. Dappy making incoherent comments about the Paralympics was equally ridiculous. And they were just two of many to use language that seemed out of the 70’s. If C4 is going to be the Paralympic channel for 2012 they must have someone on their staff that ensures all of their output uses language that is currently acceptable and that does not set back the battle for equality for disabled people? I just pray that they clean up their act before the games begin.

Then I attended a meeting of a new charity run by disabled people called Enhance the UK , about a campaign they are planning. ETUK wants to design a campaign that questions the way disabled people are perceived when it comes to attractiveness. I don’t want to give away too much as I think it will be a really important campaign, so watch their website, but while we were all discussing how we could make an impact and what we should we cover, I realised that those of us who have issues of sexual function to deal with on top of the usual ignorance around disability have the journey we have to go on before we feel able to be sexy massively underestimated. Even by other disabled people. I know that I spent years coming to terms with the new me, and how bits of me worked. In a society that equates sex with penetration, to loose the ability to get a stiffy really messes with your head. I was just shocked that as we all sat round a table, discussing confidence, relationships and sexuality, everyone believed that most men who used a wheelchair were lucky as they all seemed to be confident. No one had any understanding that the huge bravado that most male wheelies exude is just a cover for exactly how messed up they are over the loss of what the world tells them makes them a man. I plan to write an article for ETUK’s website on the subject soon, and will point you all there as soon as it’s online.

Then this morning I was watching The Wright Stuff, as I do every morning, and found myself amazed at the discussion on whether Page 3 girls could be feminist role models. The women on the panel seemed to think that Page 3 girls were less damaging to the feminist cause than Size 0 fashion models, and this totally shocked me to the core. Now I can’t say that I haven’t used pornography, or looked at a Page 3 girl, but I can’t imagine that anyone could claim they were role models for young women. Especially compared to fashion models. I shall explain why using my own analogy. I got into the media after I was spotted by a TV producer while performing a gig with a band I fronted. Everyone who booked me to present, act or appear on a TV show always said that one of the reasons they hired me was because I was nothing like the stereotype of a disabled person. With my bleached spiky hair, leather gear and massive motor bike boots I was in fact the antithesis of that stereotype, and so using me made people question their attitudes of what a disabled person was. A lot of disabled people thought I was a bad role model because by being so different from what most disabled people were like I gave a false impression. I understood this view, but as I was just being myself and I spent a large amount of my time using my high profile to raise issues around equality and access, I did not feel I had to change. I also know that if had, the work would have dried up quick time.

So how does this have anything to do with Page 3? Well Page 3 creates a unreachable ideal of a sexualized female that impacts on all women and how men perceive them. They use their sexuality and the way society expects attractive women to be sexually available as a way of making money. Fashion models however, are not playing on sexual availability to further their career. They are playing on how clothes hang on them, and how the fashion industry wants their output to be seen. Sex rarely comes into it. Sexiness maybe, but not sexuality. In the past I have been friends with several fashion models and they are actually very normal women. They aren’t even that thin, just really, really tall. When you meet fashion models the first thing that hits you is how tall, and big they are. They are mostly around six foot tall, and their bodies match their height. They just look thin in photographs.

But I digress. No matter if they are very thin, or just really tall, they have a very different role from Page 3, and they have a very different effect on society. Some people claim that fashion models create an unobtainable ideal for young women and girls, and there is some truth to that. Just as some disabled people claimed that I created an ideal of being disabled that many disabled people could not achieve and that was not representative. But those ideals did not create an atmosphere and perception in society that makes the world less safe. Any ideal that revolves around a false impression of sexual availability damages society, and Page 3 must make the world less safe for women. Fashion models do not. In the same way that I may have had an image that was very far away from what most disabled people were like, but they could have achieved my “look” if they had have wanted to. Just most didn’t! I really feel I never had a damaging effect of the way society thinks of what a disabled person is like. To have the same effect as a Page 3 girl I would have to start claiming that all disabled people were just lazy and were all benefit fraudsters. We all know how damaging that has been to the way society thinks about disabled people as it now seems to be the way the press paints us at every turn. Either that or we’re super humans that are bravely over coming adversity. I can proudly say that I was neither. Just a punky, loud mouthed weirdo that told everyone to be whatever they wanted. I also never got my chest out for money… and I was offered!

So that’s my ranting round up for now. Not sure it all flows the way I’d like, and maybe I should have edited this blog before posting it, but I always feel that blogs are more fun if you use them as a stream of thought affair. I’d love to know what you think on any of the subjects in this blog, dear reader, so comment below.

I will close by saying if anyone at The Wright Stuff is looking for a panellist I am available. It’s been a ritual for me to watch it since the show started and I was even up to appear to the show many years back, but was too ill (with my second broken back!) to do it. It’s always been something I want to do… get paid to get the chance to air my opinions on National TV. Pure bliss.

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We come a short way baby!

After a crazy few weeks rehearsing for and performing in the Graeae Theatre Company’s production of Rhinestone Rollers – Wheels On Broadway I thought I deserved a day off. As I sat flicking through the channels on my Sky+ I stumbled upon an episode of a favourite show from my youth, The Fall Guy. Starring my all time childhood hero, Lee Majors, who played the Six Million Dollar Man (the fantasy of any kid who had a knackered leg in the 70’s – bionics, something I really thought we’d have by the 21st century) before becoming the stunt man come bounty hunter Colt Seavers, this episode was called “Wheels”. The story revolved around an old friend of Colt’s who was now in a wheelchair… and it was played by real wheelchair user… IN 1983!!!!

I watched the episode, and was amazed at just how well the subject of disability was covered. Loads of jokes about public sympathy, a real action cripple in the guise of Colt’s old pal, a super fast electric wheelchair with a side-car and an entire cast of real disabled people. Not one single non-disabled actor playing disabled anywhere. Again, I must point out this is 1983! The disabled main character even gets married at the end, and is planning kids. IN 1983!!!!!

Even today, here in the UK us disabled acting types still have to argue as to why only we should be playing disabled parts, and as for a story line that is as positive as this one… well we can still dream. How many young disabled people would ever believe that so long ago prime time shows like The Fall Guy were being made that did disability so well? Today’s TV producers and writers should take a hard look at their output and at how old shows like this covered disability and hang their heads in shame. How far have we come in nearly 30 years?

Another subject that has been playing on my mind recently is education. On Wednesday I took part in a march to Downing Street over the education bill. With the government stating that they want to “overturn the bias towards inclusive education” and promote special schools, I really felt it was time to sit down and be counted. I was very lucky to attend mainstream schools through out my school career, and I cannot believe that exactly 30 years since I left school we live in a country that is trying to move away from inclusivity. Not only did attending a “normal” school help me, it helped my non-disabled friends. I got a pile of exams and learnt that my AB mates were just like me, and all my physically perfect mates learnt to see disabled people as just like them. I am proud to know that after taking me all of my schools became fully inclusive and still are today. I plan to start working with my old high school, Putteridge High in Luton, in the future around issues of inclusion and awareness and to mentor some of their current students.

But it really is shocking to me that most people still think that allowing disabled kids to be schooled in the same way as non-disabled kids is not an obvious thing to work towards. Even many disabled people in the public eye are unconvinced. I won’t name names, but surely it is a right of all children to be schooled to the best of their ability? How can we disabled people ever expect to be accepted as part of society if we are kept apart from the rest of society from such an early age?

Of course there can be issues to confront for schools, but nothing is insurmountable. Instead of using these issues to bar entrance to a mainstream schooling, they should be seen as mechanisms for expanding the experiences of all the other pupils. What about a school project to explore access solutions for a pupil that is entering the school next term, or a buddy system for pupils that might need extra help? This kind of thing opens up the educational and social experiences of all the pupils of a school and makes the disabled pupil feel an accepted member of school population.

So yet again I find myself asking, just how far have we come? I would never have thought that at the age of nearly 46 I would still be fighting for correct portrayal of disabled people in the media and for inclusive education. I absolutely would never have thought I’d be fighting against plans to take our education system back to a time before I went to school. All I know is that I am glad I am not a disabled child today. To find yourself thinking like that makes me very angry, and ashamed. To think that if we are not careful all the gains disabled people have made in my adult life will be thrown away, all in the name of cutting deficits.

Right I’m going to stop myself there. I could go on to blame the Tories and go all Red Wedge on you all, but I thought I’d give you all a break from my socialist tirades. Whatever your politics, I am sure you will agree that we all must work hard to ensure that no more ground is lost.

Right I’m gong back to the TV. Sounds like Batman is on. Kerpow!

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Epithany

I am writing this at 5.15am after laying in bed watching the green numbers on my bedside clock inexorably click forward for many hours, my head full of thoughts. I found myself unable to sleep after watching the Channel 4 program Katie: My Beautiful Friends, which I was looking forward to(see my last blog for why). However much I wanted to enjoy the show and hoped it would play a part in changing the attitudes towards people who are scarred, the show fell short thanks yet again to the use of language. The old clichés of bravery, courage and inspiration peppered the script, and as I lay there considering why C4 had gone down this road yet again, what I could do to explain why this kind of language is so damaging and who I could contact in the media to make my voice heard, I had a realisation.

Suddenly I not only grasped the reason why this kind of language had such an effect on disabled people but how the use of language tied our minority group to all the other minorities out there and how charities played a massive part in continuing this use of damaging terminology. I have already stated how language effects that way disabled people are thought of in society. The word brave, for instance, when used to describe some who is disabled leads the non disabled to a series of preconceptions about disabled people, their lives and what it is like to be disabled. It also creates fear that if they faced a disability, they might not find the level of bravery within themselves to be able to cope. Both these thought processes lead to a feeling of otherness around disability, and create barriers. As well as that it forces disabled people to either fit into the brave category, and so if they appear to be so by achieving some amazing feat or battling through with a smile or holding down a job then they could be described as a success, but if they do not do any of the above, not only are they not brave but they are also a failure. Language like brave has no room for explanation or exploration of experience. Disabled people face many barriers to opportunity and equality, and these can prevent people from achieving the acts of bravery and inspiration that the media craves from super cripples. In truth this is real experience of disabled people in our society.

I know that I have on occasion done things and acted in such a way that I could be described as brave and inspirational. In fact as I laid there in bed I found that if a described my life in the right way almost every moment of my life could become an inspirational story of courage in the face of adversity and triumph over tragedy. Actually you could do so for every living being on the face of the planet. Not just disabled people but everyone. We all battle against problems, we all face adversity and we all have our victories, no matter how small. You could use the language that is now used to describe disabled people to describe anyone. Especially other minorities. Surely aren’t all ethnic minorities brave and inspirational to exist and succeed in society made up mainly of white people, many of whom are hostile towards people from other races? Doesn’t every member of the LGBT community battle courageously a society of straights that see them as weird and different, and even as wrong and dangerous? Aren’t religious followers inspiring to exist in a society that is turning it’s back on faith? But then surely aren’t those who do not believe also an inspiration as they reject millennia of doctrine? Even though all of these statements could be considered as true, we very rarely hear them used. The media would find itself in hot water if it did so, especially if it did it time and time again.

So why does the media feel it can get away with it when it comes to disability? I think the reasons are two fold. One reason is that there are not many disabled people working in the media at the minute. The majority of people in the media are able bodied, but more than that they are even more obsessed with perfection than society at large. We are always being told how the media plays a role in creating issues with young people around body image due to portrayal and have been recently reminded of the pressure on presenters to stay young looking, so it is obvious how they see and cover those of us who are obviously different. The media also is driven by the need to create stories. How many meetings have I been in where the air is thick with terms like “narrative” and “jeopardy”? They are so focused on whether the story has media impact they ignore it’s wider impact. But then again, how would they know? In an industry with so few disabled people in it, then how will the majority of able bodied media types know what damage something as seemingly innocent as language can do? We all need to make our voices heard about how unhappy the use of this kind of language makes us. We all know what happens if TV presenters use the wrong kind of language about another minority, so why aren’t we kicking up a stink when it happens to us?

I have found recently that the few disabled people that are actually working in the media find it hard to question the way the media portrays disability. Partly as they are ignored, but also because raising the issue can risk their jobs. I know how unpopular I have made myself in the industry on this issue, and know how that has impacted on my career. Maybe if we all shouted as loudly as I do on occasion then we might nip the current slide backwards in the bud. But I digress.

The second reason why words like brave, courageous and inspirational are used so often around disabled people is that this kind of language actually helps some people and institutions. Let’s face it, however much last night’s show was about the issues faced by people with scars it was also about someone trying to start up a charity. Charity needs donations to exist, and no one is going to give money to someone if they are perceived as being just like everyone else. If disabled people are portrayed as either brave and courageous, and so deserve charity as they are so inspirational, or tragic and pathetic, and so desperately need charity and support, then the cash will roll in. Charity is big, big business and charities that help disabled people are major players in this massive industry. So there is an incentive to continue the use of language that dis-empowers disabled people, all in the name of income. I must also admit that during my years in the media, many of my contemporaries have actually started up their own charities. They all claimed to want to help disabled people, and they also felt that it was time that this support should be provided by us and not for us. I have always felt uneasy about going down this path, partly because I feel that there should be no need for charity and partly because I mistrust the motivations behind such an act. However much I want to be believe the good intentions given I can’t help feeling that this is in some way just a route to a more secure income.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel all charities are wrong and evil. I am a patron of the Neuroblastoma Society, who raise money to research into the cancer I had as a child and support those families touched by it, and of the National Association of Bikers with Disabilities, who help get disabled people into biking. I also work closely with the Alliance For Inclusive Education as I believe that all children should attend mainstream schooling, as I myself did. What I do feel is that charities do need to play a more vocal role in fighting to ensure the correct type of language is used when discussing disability. They have to start using their financial muscle and political clout to explain to society as a whole why the language used to describe disabled people can be a major barrier to us, and in turn to everyone. Let’s face it, able bodied people are just us the day before the accident or illness. Disabled people are the only minority to exist in every other group out there. If you get it right for us, then you get it right for every one.

Right, that’s got that off my chest. Back to bed.

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Out of Touch?

I regularly run a session of disability awareness training for various companies, and am about to venture into training for media companies. I got the gig after I passed on some comments about language and disability to a TV production company. But before I begin advising them, I must admit I find myself filled with self doubt. You see I wonder if am out of touch with how disabled people feel about the way the world sees them now.

When I began my career in broadcasting, I lived a life where I was always the only disabled person in my social group. There was one other guy with a disability at my high school, but he was year or two younger than me so we didn’t really know each other. Other than that I was always not only the only but the first disabled pupil at all of my schools and colleges. I knew no other disabled people, and knew nothing of disability politics. This did get me in some trouble during the early part of my career. I got in deep doo-doo when I fronted the London area’s coverage of the ITV Telethon in 1992. I had no idea that disabled people were so against charity events like this, and truly thought that I was striking a blow for disabled people by showing that we could give to charity instead of always being the ones who received. This mistake really effected my career, and even today I get people calling me a “traitor” for being involved with Telethon.

This violent response, which included being spat at and physically attacked on occasion, led me on a quest to understand the politics of disability. I tried to get an insight into what was meant by disability politics, and asked my most ardent attackers all about it. I still remember a lift journey with Vicki Waddington that opened my eyes to why everyone was so upset with me. The time I spent working with the BBC’s Disability Programmes Unit was what really educated me about the subject, and allowed me to reassess how actions and words all have political implications when dealing with disability. Well that is actually true of most things, but when you are part of minority it is doubly true.

This was around the same time as the move away from the use of the medical model of disability towards the social one. Gaining an understanding of the differences between the two models made disability politics become clear to me, and I promised myself that from then on I would only be involved with projects that I felt were valid. I feel that I have always kept true to that promise. More than that, I began trying to help the able bodied people I met within the industry to see why there is more to ” doing disability” than just having us on screen.

Anyone who is disabled knows the feelings that comes from watching a program that includes disability, only to find that it also contains one of the stereotypes or clichés of disability too. There’s the “brave” cripple, the “super” cripple, the “tragic” cripple, the “angry” cripple or the “evil” cripple. We’ve seen them all, whether in factual output or dramas and soaps. For the able bodied people involved in making or watching the programs they just see good stories, with loads of all the ingredients that they feel make watch-able TV. But for anyone disabled, we see a continuation of all the attitudes and stereotypes that create the barriers to us being seen as equal. There have been moves to create guidelines for program makers. I was part of the team that created the BBC’s Producer’s Guidelines on Disability way back in the 90’s, but when I spent a period working there in 2008 I was shocked to find they were no longer used. So how can the people in the media be expected to know when they are getting it wrong?

Well this is where I thought I should do something. I found myself having to contact the teams behind any project that I thought had got it wrong. I soon learnt that no one wanted to make TV that portrayed disability negatively or even incorrectly, and it was always done through ignorance. But not always through the ignorance of able bodied people. Many shows had asked the advice and input of disabled people, some well known disabled celebs. But it seemed that they had been fine with the things I had found troublesome. I even found that on the Open University psychology degree that I enrolled in a few years back, that when the course covered the identity of disability it was taught from the medical model, which by the was well out of date. More shocking to me was the audio that came with the course had four well known disabled people discussing their disability and how it effected them medically, with almost no mention of what I thought was the globally accepted social model.

So before I begin advising media companies that they should start being aware that what they shoot, how they shot it and what they say about disability must all fit within a set of rules that strictly adheres to the social model of disability, I must ask you all dear reader, am I right to do so? Do you care if the media has stories of brave disabled soldiers climbing mountains, or TV shows about tragic disabled kids battling their condition, or dramas with angry, or depressed or evil disabled characters? On a purely selfish level, I know that by criticising the industry and what it does I may burn a few bridges, and I will freely admit I don’t want to put the final killing shot into my on screen career by trying to change the way the media portrays disability if most of you feel it isn’t that important. If you would rather just see disabled people on screen, no matter why they were there or what they were saying then I will stop my crusade. I am sure we would all like to see more disabled people in the media, but I think we know that this is coming soon, with the commitment to the 2012 Paralympics. I just wonder if we need to be fighting to make sure they get the chance to be doing and saying the right things too. If any of you have feelings about this topic please add our comments below. It might stop me committing career suicide, or spur me on to fight to make our screens represent the real experiences and desires of disabled viewers and educate the able bodied ones at the same time.

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Oh, to be an able bodied older woman!!??

I was very pleased to hear that Miriam O’Reilly won her case for age discrimination yesterday. It is time that the BBC’s obsession with youth was ended, but I do feel it is important to point out that however bad it might be to be a female presenter/broadcaster of advancing years the discrimination that they might face is nothing compared to what disabled talent face whatever age they are. Sadly when Ms O’Reilly announced that she was going to sue the BBC a while back she claimed that no other groups would be treated like she had, and included disabled talent in her list of people who had it easier than she did. I was so upset I even e-mailed her and her legal team. But it does just show how little everyone else in the industry understands the truth about disability and the media.

However much the media talks the talk around disability, the total lack of disabled people actually on our screens working as presenters shows the truth. In fact in the last ten years the whole industry has gone back to the position it was in pre 1970’s. The only person working as a regular broadcasting presence on our screens is Gary O’Donahue, who is a journalist on BBC news. And he only got to this position by suing the BBC after they gave a story he had discovered to an able bodied journalist claiming that no one wanted to see a blind reporter on prime time news. Back when From The Edge was cancelled, the powers that be claimed that they wanted to mainstream disability. Yet what actually happened was that while the back room talent was moved to other roles in the BBC, all the on screen talent was dropped. Gary moved to news, and Kim Tserkezie got a role acting in kid’s show Balamory, but the rest of us were mainstreamed to invisibility.

But this was mainly due to the fact that whatever the grand plan was in the board rooms of the BBC, the people who made the programs still felt that disabled people as part of their presenting team was a total no no. I had a meeting in the late 90’s with the series editor of Watchdog, and with my track record working on FTE I would have been a superb addition to the show, but during the interview I was informed that “they’d be no f**king cripples on my show”. Lovely. In a way this level of blatant discrimination is easier to deal with. He was a bastard and was sacked shortly after. The major problem is the less obvious way disability is mistrusted by those who decide who gets to be the faces on our screens or voices on our airwaves.

Just after FTE was cancelled I landed a job as roving reporter on the BBC LDN’s breakfast show. During the interview I had asked that I was always accompanied by an assistant, to carry heavy equipment and help with any access needs. The BBC employed a team of access workers and so I knew this was possible. On my first day I arrived to do my first outside broadcast, only to discover that my “assistant” was a heavily pregnant radio producer who refused to carry anything at all. I fully understood why, but that was no help to me. As it was my first day, and this was a major break for me, I gave in and tried to hump around a heavy radio pack to carry out some interviews. As I jumped off a curb with the pack’s strap round my neck and the pack on my lap, I pulled a muscle in my back and did myself a major injury. The pain was so bad that for the rest of the morning I found myself fainting, yet I still managed to carry out the interview. My wife was listening and had no idea how ill I was until I wheeled through the door when I got home. Yet the next day when I rang to find out how the team felt it went I was told not to bother coming back. I took this to the BBC legal department and an agreement was reached ensuring me a post at BBC LDN once I had recovered from my back injury. During this time it was discovered I had broken my back again, after a car accident I had in 1999. The pulled muscle was actually my spine pulling apart, and the injury was now life threatening. Once the BBC found this out, the agreement was broken and I was back in the wilderness.

By now I was having to take morphine for the pain while surgeons tried to work out how to fix my now twice broken back. Morphine is way too strong of a drug to be able to work as a TV presenter, and with my image most people in the industry thought I was using heroin, so I decided to focus on getting well. So I stopped pushing and searching for jobs in the media. Shortly after I had my spine op, and spent the next few years being very ill. All the while I watched TV and listened to the radio, waiting for the new Mik Scarlet to come along. What happened? Well Ade Adepitan did come through as a major disabled media talent, but even he didn’t exactly become a major on screen presence.

No in the eleven years since FTE, the last of the special interest disability programs, was cancelled and mainstreaming was the buzz word for disability in the media we have not one disabled presenter on our screens. Instead we are still in the position of needing a forum on BBC Ouch to shout our joy at seeing a disabled person on our screens. We might get the occasional person being interviewed on show, or see a disabled contestant or contributor, and even get a short item fronted by someone disabled but there is not one member of what might be called key talent with a disability anywhere on any of our British TV output. So much for more choice in our digital age eh?

So however hard it might be for a women who is of increasing age to get onto our TV screens, the battle they face is nothing compared to the huge number of talented disabled broadcasters out there. Not by a long shot! So if the BBC is going to try to get more representative faces on our screens, let’s hope they focus on all the groups they ignore. I mean I am now an ageing disabled broadcaster, so I cover two of those groups. Gizza job!

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Disability & TV – The Mik Scarlet Lecture – Part 3

Before I explore the subject of content, disability and television I feel I must just quickly give my solution of the issue of the title of the C4 show “Freaks of Nature”, that I posed in my last blog. The answer is a question mark. “Freaks of Nature?” not only makes the program’s content make more sense, but also stops the casual viewer or listings reader seeing the show as saying that disabled people, or disabled Paralympians, are freaks of nature. Just a small question mark makes the show a more valid political statement on top of being a fantastic sports program. This really demonstrates how language is so important and must be paid very close attention. Not only when covering disability but at all times.

I’ve covered how to use language on TV but not what to talk about. But why not cover that first? Well, program content can be a case of personal taste and what appeals to one person may make another rush for the remote control, but the language used is vital whatever the show is about. In that case, why even try to explore program content? Because the way that content and individual stories are covered can change the way a program works dramatically.

Let me demonstrate by referring to a program I was involved in again. Sometime ago I went to the BBC with a documentary idea around the decision I had to make about whether to undergo surgery and to try to walk again. It was put into production with brilliant new up and coming deaf producer, Ally Scott. We wanted to make a show that really explored the issue and showed that it wasn’t such a cut and dried problem, as most people thought. The program would revolve entirely around my life, how I lived and we would explore what being able to walk might add to my life, if anything, and what it might cost me in time and commitment. There were plans afoot to film all manner of footage that showed the subject in a glamorous, positive and televisual way. We hit a problem when a misunderstanding between the production team and my surgeon led to the artificial hip being manufactured, at a cost of over £150,000. My surgeon was annoyed, to say the least, when we talked and I explained I felt I would not being going ahead, and he insisted that a new production team was put in charge of the program. This new team changed the direction of the show, and in the end it included three other people, all of whom desperately wanted to walk again. This was done for “balance”. While the show did examine the issue, it did so from a view point that made not wanting to be disabled normal and so reinforced the very attitude I wanted to dispel when I first approached the BBC. The show was well received but I know how massively important the program would have been if it had followed the original direction.

Many times disability makes it onto our TVs with balance as one of the driving forces behind how it is shown, yet that balance is there to reflect many of the attitudes that disabled people wish would change. We want to see our real lives represented, and that should be all of our lives and not just the areas where being disabled might have an impact. Also how one person’s disability impacts their life will differ from anyone else, so it is the elements that might be considered “normality” that ties us all together. For example, I get asked to get involved in many shows about how hard it is to find partners if you have a disability but I always ask are you going to include those people who didn’t find it hard and examine whether it is really that different for able bodied people who are lonely? I explain that I feel to make a show about disability, sex and relationships there needs to be balance (that word again – play them at their own game!) and if a program is going to cover the problems that disabled people might have when looking for sex and love, it must also explore solutions, compare what it is like if you looking for love and able bodied and show the good things, and even the benefits, that being disabled can bring to your love life. (For more details visit my website Mik Scarlet – Wheelie Sexy). Of course by doing this I scare off the production companies, who have a fixed idea of what such a program will contain, and hence no Mik. But at least I have my integrity. Good for the soul, crap for the bank balance.

Many shows portray disabled people as “tragic” or “brave”, even if they don’t use the language itself. Time and time again when we see disability on TV the program is focusing on someone who is sick (tragic) being cared for their by their wonderful children (brave), or a disabled child (tragic) who is fund raising for charity (brave), or a disabled soldier (tragic) who is battling to get up on his false legs so he can walk down the isle (brave) or something similar. But while TV has to have these personal stories running through it, especially in today’s reality obsessed culture, the bigger issues are never even mentioned. Why is the child being expected to care for their sick parent and where is the state provision in that care? Why does this charity exist at all? Why does the soldier see disability as such a negative thing that all of his time is spent trying to be fight it? How can society be shaped to make all of these people’s lives easier and fairer? These types of questions are key to changing how disability is thought of in society and I do not think it would detract from the show’s direction to bring up the deeper issues.

So as the Paralympics and Channel 4’s push to get more disability on TV gets closer, I hope that those involved in creating this output wants to explore those deeper issues. I have always wanted to see a show that goes into why so many newly disabled people turn to sport as an outlet. Mainly as I dived into the world of music and art after I started using a wheelchair, and truly thought “Yippee, no more sport” when I was told I’d never walk again, but also as I want to understand the psychological reasoning behind the choice. It’s the world behind the what we see that TV can help us understand and by doing so it can make a real difference to all of lives. And do it while creating entertaining and enjoyable programs everyone wants to watch. I also really expect some serious documentary programming that delves into how disabled people really live in modern Britain, and not just a load of positive puff pieces about super sports personalities and how great everything is.

Well that’s the end of my exploration of disability and it’s portrayal on our TV screens for now. It’s subject I know I will come back to in the future, especially when I see something that I feel misses the mark. I know that it is a subject that is high on the agenda of many disabled people out there, and I would love to know what you feel about this important subject, so please comment below. I also plan to examine how disability is covered in the print press, magazines and other forms of media in the near future, as well as why we seem to be so poorly represented in industries like music and fashion. Please watch this space.

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Disability & TV – The Mik Scarlet Lecture – Part 2

In my last blog I hope I helped to explain why most disabled people find the use of the words brave and courageous in television output offensive, and why these words can have an effect the the mental health of anyone during the process of readjustment that occurs after coming to a disability or illness. In this blog I want to explore words like tragic and sad.

These two little words pop up all too often when the media cover anything to do with ill health. The main reason is that finding yourself disabled or being diagnosed with an serious illness is pretty tragic, both to anyone not involved, who are watching from the outside and to those going through the process. But how these words are use is massively important. I shall demonstrate this by telling you the story of why I am disabled.

My parents tried to get pregnant for over three years, and where over joyed when they got the news that my Mum was expecting. They spent the next nine months decorating my nursery and buying lovely baby clothes. On the day of my birth, my Dad ran up and down the streets of Luton going up to strangers, giving them cigars and exclaiming “I’m a Father!” and “It’s a boy!”. He even purchased a tiny Luton Town football strip, as he had planned my future career already. Mum always calls it “One of the happiest days of my life”. However in only eight weeks time I was rushed to hospital, as I was having serious trouble breathing, and a huge cancerous tumour was discovered. My parents were told it was pretty definite I was going to die, but there was a new treatment that might give them a few more years with me. So after a massive operation, the next five years were spent ferrying their much wanted little baby around the country to be pumped full of toxic chemicals or shot with massive doses of radiation, with the dream of a little more time together. Then after those five years, when they were told that the treatment had worked and the cancer was totally in remission, my Father suddenly died of a heart attack.

Now I know that is a tragic story. Not only because I lived it and I have a heart, but because I have been giving autobiography to publishers and agents recently and they all say “What a tragic story”. Yet it is my story, and I kind of feel it is much more a story of what people are capable of. Not brave or courageous, but more aren’t we just amazing. I know that if this was being made into a TV documentary, the desire of the production team would be to focus on the tragedy of the situation. Poor sad parents, poor brave little cripple boy, and the tragedy of loosing the Father. Move over Eastenders, this is TV gold. But how ever much it is tragic, it is the events that are sad. Not the fact that I ended up disabled. That was amazing and joyous, as everyone thought I’d be dead by the age of five. Surely everyone who finds themselves disabled, especially after injury or illness, is wonderful… as the alternative is death!

It is a difficult line to tread for the media when covering such a story, but it a very important one. When they make the fact that someone is disabled, or has become disabled the tragedy then they do everyone watching a massive disservice. However much the huge car crash is tragic, the fact that the driver or passenger ends up disabled is much more desirable than a funeral service. Why? Because if the viewing public is continuously told that becoming disabled is a tragedy, then they see it as something sad and worthy of pity. They also find themselves fearing being ill or disabled, and we all know what humans do when confronted by things they fear. So whenever the media tries to cover stories about disability they must ensure that however sad the story is, they word the piece so that it is the events that are sad and not the out come.

I did plan to go on to explore the kind of content that TV goes for when exploring disability and illness, but I really want to cover another word first. That word is Freak. Last night Channel 4 transmitted the sports programme “Freaks of Nature”, which was a re-edited version of the superb “Inside Incredible Athletes”. I thought that C4 had kind of lost the plot a bit when they used the term “Freaks of Nature” to advertise their Paralympic coverage and the Inside documentary, but then to use it to name a shortened version of an already shown program really sets alarm bells ringing. I really hope that someone at C4 starts trying to make sure that everyone involved with making their Paralympic output has an understanding of the correct use of language when covering disability. You see, the word Freak is the same as Cripple and any medical term used as an insult, such as Spastic. We can use them to talk about ourselves, but no one else can. It’s the same as Black people and the “N” word. I have played in bands called Freak Show, and Freak U.K. (although that was more because the initials spelled FUK and we sold a shit load of T-Shirts) and my good friend Mat Fraser has performed a series of theatrical shows using the word Freak. But we can, it’s our word. Unless everyone involved with the C4 program was disabled, they needed to choose a different name. Especially as they had already called the show Inside Incredible Athletes, which was fine. Another reason why FON was such a shite name for the doc, was it just showed that Paralympians aren’t Freak of Nature but are so good because of their commitment. I used to work with Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson in the 90’s and could not believe the amount of dedication it took for her to be such an amazing athlete. It was nothing to do with nature, I can tell you. It was all her. So why not just Incredible Athletes?

I think when it comes to the word Freak, I can explain it best in the following way…

I can call myself a Freak, you can call me Mr. Scarlet!

Next time – Content and Cripples (another word only we can use!)

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Television & Disability – The Mik Scarlet Lecture – Part 1

Last night watched the Huw Wheldon Lecture with Dr Brian Cox OBE. As my wife Diane is currently studying for a degree in Physics, and so I am becoming interested in science by osmosis, we tend to catch whatever programs he is involved with. Not only is the Coxster one of the sexiest men is science (as I am told repeatedly by Di and her friends), but he is one of the key movers in making science more popular and understood by society. When I saw he was giving a lecture on how science should be portrayed on TV I knew I had to catch it. Finally a program about science where I would be as knowledgeable as my wife.

Of course Brian, and as someone who regularly visits my front room I feel I can call him that, didn’t let us down. The lecture was fantastic explanation of how good science programming should be made. Let’s face it, Brian Cox is one of the leading Physicists in the world today, The Wonders of the Solar System is one of the best science shows ever made, and with the help of his wife Gia who works in the media, Dr Cox (more formal now) is one of the best people to explain the direction that science TV should be moving.

Royal Television Society Lecture – You Tube – Part 1
Royal Television Society Lecture – You Tube – Part 2
Royal Television Society Lecture – You Tube – Part 3

After watching the show, I found myself wishing that someone could do the same for the direction of disability in factual and documentary TV. As I can’t get a TV company to give me 40 minutes of air time, I shall try to address how TV should deal with disability in blog form.

The first question that’s needs answering is that of language. Whatever the story being covered, what language is used changes the way that story is perceived. Let’s take an example. Say a local news station ran a story about a disabled child raising money for charity. Now having seen this story many times we all know that words like brave and courageous will pop up somewhere. The problem with words like that is context. If the child had done something that anyone might call brave or courageous, such as climbing a mountain or a parachute jump, then maybe such words might be OK. But if the child has just put on a jumble sale or done a sponsored swim then these words imply that the fact someone disabled has done these things is some way different that if it had been an able bodied child. This is not the case. The story should be about what a thoughtful child this was, and almost ignore the disability. Why? Well, the focusing on the disability makes the good deed a side story to the fact a disabled child can actually do things. It continues a belief that anyone disabled is less capable, and that this disabled child is uncommon. There is also a more subtle issue. It creates an impression that any disabled person who does not push themselves to do such uncommon tasks are in some way less. As disability is already thought of as making someone less of a person, this kind of language entrenches this attitude. As I have already said, the focus of the story should be on the fund raising and not on the disability.

This focus also carries over to the stories about people fighting illness or coming to disability. Those who are in this position are not brave or courageous. Actually most people will fight and try their hardest to cope. This is demonstrated by the fact that so few people do kill themselves or pop off to Dignitas. Of course it is hard, and I do understand that it can help your state of mind to think of yourself as brave during a dark time. But I know from personal experience that it can have equally dark effects.

When I went into my wheelchair, I was always being told I was brave. It appealed to me to think of myself that way and helped me cope. But whether you are ill or newly disabled or your disability has changed in some way, you will come to a point when it does get to be too much. When it does, you find yourself not only depressed by the situation you are in but also by the feeling that you have let everyone down by not being brave any more. In fact the lack of bravery can make you feel like you would be better off not being around, for all concerned. It happened to me when I 17. I had been in my chair for 2 years, and had coped very well (and bravely) with the illness, the surgery and readjusting to life. Then one day I found myself wondering would I ever have a girlfriend. I was sure no one would want to be with a cripple like me, and I crashed into a depression. Then I felt a total failure. Not only was I going to be alone for the rest of my life, but I was also a coward. I considered killing myself, and even prepared everything. I cut the cord of an electrical appliance, plugged it into a socket, ran it to the bathroom and ran a bath. I was going to get in, and drop the cord into the bath. It was only the fact that my parents would be the ones who would discover me that stopped me. Typically, within a few weeks I had a girlfriend and I realized that the whole “brave” thing was foolish.

At that time disability never seemed to be on TV, so this was the result of just the language used by my family and friends. We now see soldiers coping with horrific injuries and disabled sportsmen and women as strive to be the best at their chosen sport, continuously being called brave and courageous. I know that it will be having a much greater effect. Especially as these types of people have mind sets that revolve around performance and excellence. Imagine how it will effect them when they feel that they hit a low point, and have become less by no longer being brave.

Not only does it effect those who are disabled or sick, it also creates an attitude towards disability and sickness that has an effect on all society. Anyone who is not disabled or sick is sure that they could not be that brave, and so they begin to think about the subject with fear. They are sure that if it ever happened to them they would rather die, mainly as they doubt they could cope. If the media showed that the majority of people face such a life changing event in the same way as these soldiers and Paralympians do, it would make disability much more accepted and understood.

The reason why I know people would cope is because it’s why humans have evolved to be the most advanced life form on the planet. We adapt to pretty much everything that’s thrown at us. Also it would mean that when these soldiers and sporty types hit a moment when it gets too much they won’t find themselves feeling like a failure for not continuing to be stoic.

Now that’s a lot to read through, so I will stop there. Next time I will look at words like tragic and examine the subjects of news stories and documentaries. So stay tuned.

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Wedding Blues

So, Prince William and Kate Middleton are getting married eh? The country goes Hooray. As Philip Scofield said today on This Morning, “Everybody loves good news”. But then isn’t that part of what the Royal family is there for in the modern UK? To take our eyes off times of trouble. Timed brilliantly to coincide with the start of the cuts coming into effect, we all now have something to become obsessed about. Already the media has gone into a frenzy, so by the the time the big day comes round they’ll be rabid. They’ll be much less time and focus on how our society is changing as this government slashes and burns everything we have spent so long building up. Who cares about student fees, look at her dress. Who cares about the widening gap between rich and poor, aren’t they a lovely couple?

Time and time again during the last Labour government there were stories in the press about the lengths gone to to hide bad news on days where really big events filled our media. The Tories made a big deal about this, as did the media… after the event. It is a mechanism that has been used through out the history of this country by those who rule. I want to make sure that I voice the fact that I see this as just as cynical. I am not a Royalist, not by a long shot. I even turned down the chance to go a to private dinner with the Queen and members of her family back in my TV star days, as I was not prepared to conform to Royal protocols. Whatever my personal views on having a monarchy, that is not what this blog is about. It is how much the people who are in control of our society work together to shape how we see that society.

I will use the example of disability as it something I know about personally. When I hit adulthood, I had just started using a wheelchair. Before that had a limp, and the world was my oyster. I had ten offers of great jobs, and could see my life going in the same direction as all of my school friends. Once in the chair, all those jobs offers disappeared and my future became quite different. I was told I would now be “unemployable” by social workers and others trained to assist me through this difficult time. And so I was farmed of onto benefits. But no one called my a scrounger and a drain on society. The general consensus was that at that time, was with such high unemployment (it was in the UK of the 80’s) how could anyone with a disability find full time employment? How could a boss be expected to employ someone with health issues over an able bodied person? However much these attitudes might offend, they are kind of true. Especially at times of high unemployment.

I went forth and made a life for myself with out any help from anyone, except my family. Everything went quite well until my recent accident. While I was too ill to work, and while I recovered from all that fun surgery, I realised that society had started to change. It began with the DDA. Anyone who knows about the DDA, and the Equality Act that replaced it, agrees it is pretty toothless law. Not only is discrimination an act against the person and not the state, which means anyone who feels they have been discriminated against has to take out a private prosecution at their own cost, but with the word “reasonable” in there it also makes it much harder to prove unfair treatment. But this change in disabled people’s rights did have one real effect. It started the ball rolling on a move to making society see disabled people as a group who take and don’t give. I personally believe that any rights we were given were due to a feeling that disabled people were equal, but more with the long view to start cutting how much we “cost”. OK I am a bit of a conspiracy nut, but how things have shaped up since makes me think I was right.

From there it was a small step to “Once we had rights, surely we should have responsibilities? So why should society pay us anything or give us any help?” Just look at the way the Blue Badge is seen. When I first got a car no one had ever heard of someone using one fraudulently or stealing one. Now I have to padlock mine to my car, after having four stolen in just a few months. Why did this happen? Because society was slowly guided, by the media and government, to ask why should those cripples get something I can’t? No more understanding of why disabled parking exists, and just a kind of envy of us and what we get crept in it’s place. Once this attitude had taken hold, we then start to hear of all the fraud within the “disability benefits” system. Now anyone who has undergone the process of applying for any of these benefits know how hard they are to get. So getting them via fraud is bloody hard, and very rare. Let’s not even mention the millions that go unclaimed each year by people either too afraid to claim , too proud or who just don’t know they are entitled. So how do we fight this “terrible fraud”? Cut the benefits for all, and make it almost impossible to claim anything. Very much a very large sledge hammer to crack a very small nut. But the majority of the public believe it is the right thing to do.

Now I wish anyone who is getting married well. It was the best thing I ever did and I wake up everyday glad that I found the right one. I just can’t shake this feeling that this announcement is very well timed. I won’t even ask who the bloody hell is going to be paying for it all? I mean let’s face it, at a time of growing means testing I feel that this family is one of the few who can afford to pay for the lot.

Right, that’s my topical gripe out of the way. Sorry if it has upset all of you who are overjoyed at the happy news. But then this blog is called “Mik Scarlet Sees Red”.

Addendum:
When I read this through I found myself unsure whether to post it or not. I felt I was being a little unfair to the future King and his future wife. So I sat down and watched some TV. When even the continuity announcers on the BBC mention the engagement in their links, I wonder. I suppose the one thing I can be sure of is that I shall have to take a foreign holiday next year when the wedding is on.

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