Here’s my first report for 5 News, exploring the idea of a Paralympic Legacy and what it means to disabled people.
It was an amazing day working with great people, and fingers crossed they ask me back. Watch this space.
My latest article for the Huffington Post has just gone live. It’s a review of the Graeae Theatre’s production of The Limbless Knight, which premiered at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival this Friday.
It’s a great show, that entertains and challenges in equal measure. I described it on Twitter as “Like being hit by a brick wrapped in a beautiful velvet cushion”. For a longer exploration of what I saw in the show see the Huffington Post Entertainment section.
I thought that just in case anyone missed the articles I wrote for Time Out last week I would up load them. So here you go…
It’s a quick guide to places I like in Camden, so if you are planning a day out round these parts take a look.
I am also writing a series of three pieces around the Paralympics and this is the first of them. I will up load the rest a week after they are out.
It’s been a fantastic opportunity to discuss some of the issues that the games bring up, and well done to Time Out for allowing me to do so.
Right, it seems that the entire media wants to focus on the tragedy of the disabled, whether we have managed to triumph over it or not. I have always been against this kind of coverage but it seems that people who agree with me are being ignored. So if everyone out there wants to hear the tragedies of disabled people I intend to be on that band wagon. (I do hope you getting the irony here… it doesn’t always work in the written medium)
So where shall I begin? Well at the beginning I suppose. I was born in 1965 to Michael and Joyce McGrath (pictured above). They had been trying to have kids for three years and were overjoyed when they found they had fallen pregnant. When I was born my Dad ran round my home town of Luton shouting with joy, hugging strangers and handing out cigars. But as soon as I came home they began to worry. I just would not stop crying. Nurses and doctors visited and told my Mum she was a panicky parent. This went on for five weeks. Just screaming and screaming. Then I went quiet. My parents rushed me to an aunt who was an ex-nurse and she said something was wrong… very wrong. They took me to hospital and it was soon discovered I had cancer. It was in fact an Adrenal Neuroblastoma, which even today is very difficult to beat. I was extremely lucky, as my surgeon had just read about an experimental drug that was being trialled and he applied to have me put on the trial. So with a major surgery, radical radiotherapy and this new chemotherapy, which lasted for five years, I now faced an uncertain future. In fact my [parents were told not to expect me to live long. “Go home and enjoy the time you have left with him” my Mum was told.
So home I went. That’s me with my Mum, all ill but very loved. I didn’t die though. Obviously. In fact I went from strength to strength. There were hick ups. I got two huge sores on my feet, which nearly killed me with infection, and I broke my right leg almost in half, while trying to pick up a train that I was playing with – kind of forgot I couldn’t walk that well – but when I got to the age of five my parents were told he is in remission. Cancer free. I had a future at last. At which point my Father died, from a heart attack. My Mum had a nervous breakdown and life sort of fell apart. My Dad’s parents were awful, and our lives were thrown into turmoil yet again. My brother came out worst. My Mum had to spend so much time looking after me that Steve had kind of become Dad’s kid. So when Dad suddenly disappeared he couldn’t understand what had happened. Mum tried to explain, but he was so little the “Dad is with Jesus” didn’t help much. So the great news of my beating the big C didn’t matter much once Dad was gone.
I started school and was immediately bullied for being the limpy kid. I fought back, but as anyone who has been the target of the bully knows it’s not fun. When I was eight, my Mum remarried. Now I will admit that by now both Steve and me were horribly spoilt kids, but our new Step Dad was… let’s say very strict. As he is still around I won’t go into it all too deeply, but it wasn’t much fun. But time passed as it does and I was soon nearing an age where I could protect myself. But at the age of fifteen my spine collapsed. It actually happened at Wembley Arena at the farewell gig of my hero Gary Numan. I had great seats, in the fifth row, but had to remove myself to the back as the pain was unbearable. I somehow managed to get myself home and fell into bed. The next day I arose early as it was the day of my German O Level (no I did not spend the night studying – I was a Numanoid!) but when I tried to get out of bed I collapsed into a heap on the floor.
Oh, this is the last picture I had of me standing up. I’m in the middle, with my Mum and brother Steve. Anyway, I was still sent to school in a cab, but when I arrived I collapsed again and was rushed to hospital. While I was there I was told I was dying as I had cancer again. But no it was actually a huge spinal collapse, caused by a side effect of my experimental chemo as a baby. After two major operations (14 and 15 hours), two bouts of MRSA and one heart attack on the operating table I spent nine months in hospital only to leave in a wheelchair. No one told me at this time I wouldn’t walk again, and so I spent three years fighting to get back on my legs. After this time I went to my surgeon to say I was giving up, only to be told I never had any chance but they didn’t tell me that as they didn’t want to depress me. Nice.
Now at this point I feel I should stop. I could go on about being in an abusive relationship for years, or my second broken back just as my career was taking off, just over ten years ago, that nearly killed me and has left me in chronic pain, but I actually want to examine that fact that while this might be read as a list of tragedy it all led me to be the person I am today. And I like who I am, so everything that has happened is must be a good thing. To always go on about how becoming disabled is a tragedy means that nothing good can come of it, and to make anyone disabled who succeeds triumphant means that those who are having a hard time coming to terms with it must be lacking something that those super humans (dig, dig C4) have in spades.
All I know is that my disability has shaped my life hugely, and has allowed me to have experiences that most non-disabled people can only dream of. I have been a TV star, toured with Gary Numan, and lived a rock and roll lifestyle second to none. I then met and later married the girl of my dreams, someone so amazing that she cared for me while I recovered from my second broken back and even made it fun. Yes she made six months on bed rest fun. It may sound weird but I know part of what she loves in me is the person I am because of my disability and so for that, if nothing else, I refuse to see any tragedy in anything illness or disability that has entered my life.
But I could easily make my life a list of one awful event after another. I could have then made a big deal of how brave I’d been to triumph over the crap cards life had dealt me. And the media would have lapped it up, but I just cannot. Instead I will say what I have always said… Disability was the making of me. It set me free and allowed me to live a life that I wouldn’t give up for a second. Not for legs that work, not for being in tip top health, not even if I could fly. My disability is super positive element in my life, and I just wish that the media would focus on how positive being disabled can be. Just once would be nice.
So as you watch the stream of stories over this Paralympic period, try not to be sucked into the feeling that everyone has in some way beaten the worst thing that could ever happen to them. I mean if they weren’t disabled they wouldn’t be at the games, they’d be at home watching them on the TV and missing out on the chance to represent their country in a global sporting event. Disability can be a positive thing and if more people believed this then if it ever came into their lives they might be able to cope better, recover quicker and rebuild their life to become better than it was pre-disability.
Right got that off my chest. I’m currently dying my hair ready for the Paralympic Opening Ceremonies tomorrow. Got to look good, even if I am one of 4000. If you see a red head in a chair who is out of time… it’s probably me!
Sorry for going quiet recently. I’m crazy busy at the minute, getting ready for the Paralympic Opening Ceremonies. I can’t say any more, as we all want to keep the secret, but it’s going to be huge. I’m also writing a series of pieces for Time Out about the games, so watch out for those.
On top of that I have an article on the rehearsals in the next issue of Disability Now.
Anyway, the picture above is some of the great people I have met and am working with. So make sure you are glued to Channel 4 on August 29th.
I’m swatting up on Wheelchair Rugby, as I will be presenting the in-game coverage at the arena. So if you’ve got tickets to see this high octane sport, see you there. Can’t wait.
Normal service will be resumed once the games end.
I am currently at the start of a marathon encoding session, with a pile of old VHS tapes filled with some of the programs I recorded for TV. I thought I’d lost them, but my Mum found them all in the loft of our family home. It’s weird experience watching yourself from over twenty years ago. I never really watched myself when these went out, as it made me cringe with embarrassment, so having to sit and watch hours and hours of TV where a younger version of me smiles out of my TV screen fills me with a myriad of emotions.
The craziest thing, other than how young I look, is the fact the I have so many hours of TV footage with disabled people in it. Think of today’s schedules and we are invisible, unless it’s some kind of stare at the freaks type program (mentioning no names). This series of clips from Beat That really shows how far backwards we have gone. Beat That was a prime time kids series on C4 that got millions of viewers per week, yet it was fronted by a wheelchair user and had a mixture of kids, some disabled, some not. The disabled thing wasn’t really mentioned in the publicity or made a big deal of, and C4 was proud of the fact that their first kids series was fully inclusive without banging on about it. This was the future for TV. Disabled people would just be part of what you saw on your goggle box. They were really ahead of the game… so far ahead that no one has caught up, even today. Not even C4 themselves.
Actually that’s not really true, CBBC regularly has disabled kids on some of their shows and doesn’t make a feature of it. But they are the only ones. The second series of Beat That was transmitted in 1992, so it’s exactly 20 years ago yet there are still very few disabled people disabled people on our TV screens at all. Even if there is a change in the representation of disabled people on our screens in the next few months, with the Paralympic coverage, it will only be catching up to the place we were at two decades ago. Why did the TV industry drop the ball in such a big way? I wish I knew. I do know that for someone who was one of the best known disabled people in the media, I suddenly found it impossible to find work around the year 2000. Now everyone seems obsessed with New Talent, but most of the people that are discovered during the many talent searches that have taken place since Beat That went out ended up being ignored by the industry.
I think it is really important that everyone remembers that not that long ago disabled people were on our screens. I mean between Beat That and the BBC disability show From The Edge I alone was on almost every week. And there were quite few other well known faces too. Whatever does come along in the next few years, we mustn’t forget that we are only playing catch up.
Over the next few days I plan to put up some of my music stuff too, and if you think the TV industry doesn’t like disabled people you wait until I tell you about the horrors I witnessed from music types! Stay Tuned Folks!
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.
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.
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.
I spent the weekend encoding and uploading a pile of old video clips from my TV presenting career, as well as editing a new showreel. I’ve now got that online too, and here it is….
What was really weird was having to sit and watch myself presenting, especially as the clips span a period of nearly ten years. I normally never watch myself, but I’m kind of glad I did. Not only because there is no way I will ever get any work with out a showreel but because it gave me a chance to actually realize I wasn’t half bad. Now I won’t blow my own trumpet too much. Just not me, but I do think that perhaps I was a bit too British in my past reticence at actually watching to work I did. Yes, of course I was a bit embarrassed at seeing yourself the way others see you and as I am always sure I am in need of a diet, I thought it was easier to do the whole “I never watch what do darling” thing that so many media types do. Now I have had to watch myself back as I coping hour of VHS tapes onto my computer, not only did I like what I saw but I also could see what I was doing wrong. If only I had made myself watch in the past I would have got even better at my job.
But this isn’t what I wanted to blog about. Something that struck me while I watched the most recent of my box of VHS tapes was how almost all of it revolved around disability based stories. Yes of the stuff I did with From The Edge had to be, as it was a disability magazine program, but also the news stuff, and some stuff I didn’t upload. But it was really good stuff. Fun items that would have been enjoyable to watch whether or not the viewer was disabled. Some pieces were thought provoking, some just light, some campaigning and some very political. All really good. Well written, filmed, edited and presented… watch it, don’t get too big headed there. But most of all what struck me was the language. It was so great to watch a good few hours of TV about disability and not hear “brave”, “courageous”, “tragic” or any other of the standard disability words… other than in the two items on the use of language of course.
It crazy to think that the oldest of these items was filmed in 1999, yet the media industry has gone backwards in it’s portrayal of disability. With the Paralymics coming up, and all the media gearing up for a frenzy of coverage I just hope they remember how well it used to be done. Whatever each Paralympic sports person achieves, they aren’t brave or courageous. Just bloody good at sport, after years of training and effort. Let’s hope we manage to get to enjoy coverage that avoids the standard clichés in 2012. And if anyone involved in making that coverage needs any help or guidance, take a look at my showreel. And if you need a presenter, give my agent a ring… please!