Bladerunner Blues

Today I did something that I almost never do. So rare an event that it dragged my wife away from her Physics studies to find out what was going on, and as she has a paper due in three days she hasn’t got time to waste. You see today I watched… SPORT! I sat on my sofa and watched the athletics. The Men’s 400m semi final. I felt I had to, not as I am in anyway interested in it, or even because it was the such a historic event, with Oscar Pistorius being able to compete with non-disabled athletes on an equal level. No the driving force behind my going against my deep dislike of organised sport was the fact that the IAAF, sports commentator and some athletes were against Mr. Pistorius competing as they felt he had an unfair advantage.

Let’s just dwell on that a minute shall we? A man with no legs, in a top level running race has an unfair advantage. A man that to train harder, and who has had to learn an entirely new way of running and balancing has an unfair advantage as he uses specially designed artificial legs. Forget the fact all the other runners were using a fully working body created by millions of years of evolution and honed by training to be at the peak of physical perfection and Mr. Pistorius is a member of a section of the world’s community who no one could describe as having an unfair advantages. He has worked hard to be able to compete to this level, and as well as the training that all the runners had to go through I am sure that Mr. Pistorius has had to spend time learning elements of running that come naturally to the rest. Not being a big runner, I can’t be sure but I imagine that the blades that he runs on must take some getting used to. As well as balance and reading how each step will effect his gate and direction, he has had to learn how to feel that track through his add-on legs. I know how long it took me to be able to use my chair as I see fit, so I can only guess at the skill it takes to thunder round an athletics track, racing at such high speeds in competition. Unfair advantage my arse.

But why would anyone make this kind of claim? Well I think it is simple. No one wants to be bested by a member of society that they see as less than them. It wasn’t that long ago that people all of the world were very upset when they saw whites being bested by black people. Up until more recently boys and girls could not play school football together. Disabled people are the last group to be so excluded in the world of sport that we have our own events and ruling bodies. Why is it the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics? Why not one fantastic event where all competitors are equal and if they can compete against each other, like Oscar Pistorius, then all the better? There might even be a move towards designing new sports that allow disabled and non-disabled people to play together in one team. Mixed basketball, or whatever. (Don’t ask me, haven’t a clue)

Now I could go off on one now, and rave on about how sport is filed with people obsessed with perfection and competition, but that obvious. That’s what sport is about, especially at this level. The mentality behind world class sport means that these people, whether they are taking part or running the events, are precisely the wrong kind of people to make decisions on whether disabled people can take part in a mainstream sporting event. They do not see it as a step forward in equality, or even as opening up their sport to a wider audience (though they even got me today!). They are all about winning (oh and the money from the TV viewing rights). Everyone who is involved with sport at this level has got there by focusing on themselves, and being selfish. So who cares about creating a better world, a fairer world, if it might mean they don’t win. So keep the fast cripple out. He might beat me.

This why I think it is so sad that sport is being put forward to disabled young people as a way of gaining self confidence and even to getting on in the word. A whole generation of young disabled people will be entering the world after the 2012 games with the idea that sport will allow them to make something of themselves, but not see that it is the very past time they enjoy that is playing a part in keeping them down. All sports should be opened up, whether it is mainstream or disability based. Everyone should be able to take part, and we should all be playing together. Then maybe I might even take something up.

Before I go, I’ve just read that the IAAF have ordered Oscar Pistorius that he can only run in the first leg (excuse the pun) of the 4x400m relay race, as his might injure the other runners with his blades. He answered the ruling “I’ve run in many relays in different legs and I’ve never had a problem or an incident.” Personally I start the race and then run off track, find a member of the IAAF and shove the baton somewhere the sun don’t shine.

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Too Close For Comfort

So the Olympics opening ceremonies are now a year away, with the Paralympics following 44 days after. Whatever my feelings on the event now, when the bid for the games was announced I was overjoyed. In fact I volunteered to help the bid team by demonstrating how the games would help make London more accessible for disabled people. You see I regularly holiday in Barcelona and have seen how much the Olympics improved that city. It was especially amazing as Barcelona is a city filled with historic buildings. Not only did it have an effect during the work around the games but it has influenced how the city has developed ever since. Every time I go back it has got better, and it is a credit to the city and it’s government.

Which is why I feel so let down by London’s bid. I really believed what I was told. That by bringing the games to London it would be the catalyst to a massive move forward in the city’s accessibility. Yet with only 365 days to go before the games and 409 days before the Paralympic opening ceremonies where do we stand… or sit? Sure things have got a little better but how much of that is due to the games? Has our public transport system been up graded to ensure that disabled people can attend the games? Have the tourist attractions of our capital been made inclusive? Do we have the capacity in our hotels for the predicted numbers of disabled visitors during the games? Can we all say that London is now a world class city when it comes to access and inclusion?

Sadly the answer to those questions is not a resounding YES. The tube has no chance of being accessible in time and the buses still only have one space for a wheelchair (unless a Mum has decided that her push chair needs that space). The DLR was already pretty accessible, but unless you live in East London getting to the line is a nightmare. Black cabs are accessible, but they are not allowed into the Olympic site so there’ll be no door to door journeys there either. As for driving to the games, forget it. While many more visitor attractions are accessible now, that is not really due to the games. Regarding the hotels situation, it is well documented that we will fall massively short. So with such a short time to go it looks like London will not have seen the major improvements that were promised.

Yes, East London and the Olympic site especially will be state of the art, but if the games are to be the London games I think we all expected the whole city to feel an effect. Not only for those of us who live, work or visit London from inside the UK, but for all of those people coming here from abroad. I know that I got involved as I really thought everyone involved in the games would want to make London a shining example of how a city can be made inclusive to the rest of the world. Instead, unless we see a huge rush of works in the next year, London will be a major let down to many of the people who travel here.

I know that in my area, Camden, there has been almost no change at all. In fact in some places things have got worse. Bars and shops have become harder to use, and there has been almost no drive from the games organisers to help the businesses and councils in London to improve their access. Instead the organisers are advising disabled athletes that places like Camden, with it’s poor access, should be avoided in case they injure themselves before their event. How sad is that?

To me the saddest thing is that there has been no outcry from the UK’s Paralympic athletes about the lack of improvement. Sure sport is selfish at it’s heart, and athletes at such a high level must focus mainly on their training, but I have heard no mention from any of them around how little is being done on the issue of access. I do hear that merely seeing so many disabled people excelling in sport will change opinions towards disability, and I am sure it will, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make real physical change to our capital and it is slipping through our fingers. Mouthy gits like me do not have the profile to raise the issue, but these athletes do.

So come on Team GB. Stop working so hard going for gold, just for a minute, and give a thought to what real legacy for all disabled people the games could leave. Look at how little has been done, how little time we have left and make some noise. Trust me, if you do every disabled person in the land will be cheering you on in a way you could only dream of. If you do raise the issue you’ll be doing more for disabled people than winning a gold medal ever could, and long after the games have gone you will be able to look at the London left behind and feel a sense of pride second to none. You’ll be a real winner. As will we all.

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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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The "Social Model" strikes back!

Now I didn’t really want to write a yet another blog that is heavy on the disability issues agenda, but recently I’ve had a bit of access bother that really grinds my gears! I live in Camden Town and as everyone knows it is a shopping Mecca for those of us who like life on the alternative side. I first came to Camden from my home town of Luton back in 1983, and soon became a regular at the Camden Palace. and the Electric Ballroom There were always issues about enjoying Camden in a wheelchair. Whether it was crawling down stairs to get to the dance floor at the Palace, or fighting to go to the toilet in the Ballroom, it was always kind of do-able. But however hard it was to experience Camden in the 80’s, there were two things that made it bearable. One was that the rest of London was equally as bad, and the other was that things would obviously have to get better in the future.
So let’s leap forward in time 27 years, to today. While other areas of London, such as Islington, Covent Garden, The South Bank, Spitalfields, Kensington and pretty much the entire East End, have made steps towards building access into the environment, Camden seems to be going backwards. If I was to list the problems individually this blog would be a mile long, so instead let’s look at this in a more general fashion.
Where should I start? Well to get around a place you have to use the pavements. Paving in London is in a shocking condition, even in some of the areas listed above. Here in Camden the council have just re-paved Camden High Street, from outside the tube station (let’s not get started on accessible transport just now) right up to where it meets Chalk Farm Road, and there are plans to re-pave that part of Camden too. So wheeling on new paving should be like wheeling on glass (not broken of course). No chance! Large areas of the paving is concrete with slab pattern etched into it, which makes the surface bumpy. Even though it has only just been laid, it has already been dug up by a power company and they filled the holes with tarmac, that has sunk to cause great big holes that you hit in a wheelchair on pain of death. There are trees planted at regular intervals with huge areas of earth around them. These will turn into quagmires when it rains and will be equally dangerous to anyone with mobility issues. Then there are areas for delivery vans to park on that are paved with cobbles. COBBLES!
Cobbles in themselves have there own place in hell, and are the bane of anyone living in or visiting Camden in a wheelchair, pushing a pram or even wearing high heels. They are everywhere, and are even being promoted as a paving material by the council’s planning department. The Henson Building, a new housing development in my street, has been paved right up to the front door with cobbles, and not even well laid cobbles at that. So you’ve had it if you want to buy or rent a flat there and you are in a wheelchair. Huge areas of Camden have been paved in cobbles. Almost all the Stables Market, and the Dingwalls Market are cobbled as well as bits through out the borough. Now I’m currently advising the Stables Market’s owners on how to improve their access, but they informed me that they were told to lay cobbles during their re-development of the site by the council. Even if every cobble in Camden was lifted and re-laid and re-pointed so they are a level surface, they are just not suitable for high traffic areas. As the cobbles stand at the minute, with their uneven surface and massive gaps between them, there are places in Camden that are dangerous for Olympic athletes to get round, let alone those of us with mobility issues.
Lastly, so many of the shops, bars and restaurants in Camden have steps up to get into them. Not only that but some places have had their access made worse during recent re-furbishments. One bar on the High Street has had it’s disabled toilet turned into a cupboard, and a restaurant near my flat has had it’s level entrance replaced with steps. Has the council pointed out that this not only breaks the Disability Discrimination Act but also building regulations? Have these venues had their licenses revoked for barring disabled people? Of course not. This week I visited a cafe/bar that used to have a fantastic wooden ramp outside that was so good I used as an example of good practice to other businesses in the area, only to find the ramp had gone. When my wife asked the staff in the shop, she was told they had removed it after the council had told them they couldn’t leave it on the pavement, as it blocked foot traffic. To put it back the shop needed to apply for planning permission, even though it was a temporary ramp that was laid out when they opened and removed at closing time. If that is the case, why have so many places in the area got folding signs, with menus and “2 for 1” drinks offers advertised on them, outside on the pavement? They cause people to have to avoid them just as a ramp would. But then most places in Camden don’t even have a portable ramp that can be put out when needed, which is now required by law. Time and time again I get the “Huh?” response when I ask how I get into a shop or cafe.
I thought that council’s all understood the social model of disability, and how it is our environment creates our disabilities. So why is it that Camden council seems hell bent on making Camden less inclusive? Let’s face it, in less than two years time there is going to be a massive influx of disabled people into London, thanks to the 2012 Paralympics. Does the council want them to visit Camden and feel excluded due to the terrible access? Do they want disabled people from Third World countries to come here and think “Hey it’s a bit like the pavements back home”? Whatever the council think, it’s time that we disabled people say no more. So come on everyone, let’s stand up to this injustice and tell them we’re not going to take it sitting down any more! (wheelchair joke to end on!).

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