Cobbles – Can a Paving material be evil?

Now this blog’s title might be a little dramatic but as I am still recovering from an injury incurred while wheeling around on my arch nemesis cobblestones I hope you understand why I am so down on the outdated solution for the creation of a road/pavement surface. I think most people truly underestimate how much cobblestones impact in the lives of people with mobility issues, and how they are in fact a very subtle form of apartheid.

Lock Night Market

Only yesterday my wife and I wandered down into the heart of Camden Town with the intention of spending an evening at the Camden Lock Late Night event, but found that the only way to gain access to the area was via some very uneven cobblestones. Now I didn’t fancy making my injury any worse so instead we ended up going straight back home. Can you imagine how it feels to have to change your plans just because a pavement might cause you an injury? Do you have any experience that allows you to empathise with the emotions that run through the minds of people who feel excluded just because of the choice of material used to pave an area? Have you any idea how unimportant you feel when time and time again the concepts of heritage and conservation are held up as being more important than creating an inclusive society that allows you to experience all it has to offer like most of the other people in it?

Well trust me, after attending many local planning meetings and community engagement events I know all too well. So often I witness people arguing passionately about saving local heritage but when I raise the issue of ensuring that alongside this there must be an equal drive to make sure the place where I live is accessible to me and other disabled people I find that my arguments are met with anger and dismissal. So this is why I am going to explain the problems with cobbles in this blog. From now on I can just point planning officers, architects, town planners and local conservation committees to this and save me having to make the same impassioned argument over and over again.

Cobble stop

I think I should first explain what it feels like to wheel over cobblestones, whether you are a manual chair user or use a powerchair. The best description I have heard is that it feels like being kicked or toe punted repeatedly in your bum for as long as you are traveling over the cobbles. I know that after one particularly long wheel over some very uneven cobbles in Camden Town centre my left testicle swelled up and was very painful. Another time on a site visit with the late David Morris to assess Camden for a Paralympic Tourist information leaflet we had to bungy cord David into his powerchair to stop him falling out as he was being thrown around so much by the cobblestones. He decided to advise any wheelchair using visitors not to come to Camden, which is not something I would have expected the local council to be happy about, but even then nothing was done.

The key reason for the lack of movement around building a more accessible environment in Camden Town is the power of the heritage and conservation lobby. I have witnessed far too often the voice of history winning out over other lobbies, even ones like access that have a legal requirement. I currently work advising the owners of the Stables Market here in Camden on ways of making their site more accessible, but it is a difficult path as so many areas have had new cobblestones laid to mirror old ones, even down to the terrible unevenness of them. All of this was due to the advice and lobbying of the local conservation groups, but at no point did the council ask if there was anyone giving access advice. So annoyingly we are now playing catch up, but hopefully we will get there.

Stables Market

But it’s not just modern cobbles laid to continue the local feel or poorly maintained original cobblestones that cause issues. Oh no, I injured myself in an area that is held up as an example of good practise when trying to maintain heritage while ensuring access, the area around Tower Bridge. The issue is, as the wife of a TV director friend of mine says, there is no such thing as a good cobble. Even when they are laid well and maintained they are still very uncomfortable to travel over if you are on wheels, and so they surely are not fit for purpose?

Modern cobbles

To me that’s the most important issue here. No other material would be continually used that so poorly carried out it’s desired task. Whether we are talking original cobbles, stylised copies or modern granite setts none of them really fulfil their desired use in a manner that works for all of our society. It is always a choice of aesthetic over function and we really need to start to reconsider this. There has to be better solutions that can maintain a heritage feel while making travelling surfaces smooth and easy to use. Well of course there, but I am not arguing that we remove all cobbles everywhere and damn history.

I entirely understand the desire to maintain the historic feel of our towns and cities, but I do ask (no demand) that it is not done at the expense of function. If some members of a community cannot use an area due to conservation then not only have we conserved our building heritage but the social injustices from the past too. But there are ways of creating access beautiful historic environments. One answer is to create pathways over the cobbles that are flat and allow those who need a flatter surface easy access. I have seen them in Barcelona and they work very well. I hope that this solution may be put in place here in Camden, as not only does it ensure accessibility but also allows all of the cobbles to preserved. I also know that English Heritage support the creation of Yorkstone pathways through historic cobbled areas, although why this is hardly ever done I have no idea.

BCN path

In future I hope that we can find a way of ensuring our heritage is preserved for future generations and our society can become more accessible, but while we wait for that day it is vital that we remember it is now a legal requirement of any new build, environmental works and major refurbishments to ensure accessibility. The heritage lobby might be very vocal but they do not have the strength of the law behind the. All it will take is one very annoyed wheelchair user to take case to the EHRC and win, and suddenly all cobbles and the like will be deemed illegal. I don’t want that to happen, although I must admit I close to becoming that litigating cripple myself, so I feel it is time that all parties start talking with each other and find a way to work together for a common goal. As it currently stands all everyone does is fight their own corner and no really wins. Especially those of us who spend our lives living on wheels.

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disAbled Models – The Documentary goes live!

The campaigning group Models of Diversity have just released a video on the subject of getting more disabled people into the modelling industry. Featuring up and coming new faces like Jack Eyers and Shaholly Ayers as well as established disabled models like Kelly Knox, plus some ramblings from little old me, the film really proves that disabled people can be beautiful too. It highlights the issue of how invisible disabled people are both in the fashion and advertising worlds and why it is so important that they strive to be more representative. Director Adam Finch covers the topic really well and with a style that suits the fashion industry to the ground.

Something I’m rather proud of is that I provided all of the music for the film. So if you need a theme tune or soundtrack for your project please get in touch. These tracks are rather dance orientated but I can do pretty much what you need. Plug, plug.

So take a look and see that soon disability will be the next big thing. Darling.

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Time for a spot of dinner.

In the last few years I have developed a diet that has helped me loose quite a lot of weight. It revolves around eating soup for two days and then a normal meal on the third. As I really enjoy cooking I tend to make both the soups and then go to town on the main meal. But every now and then I think it is important to treat yourself, especially when you are on a diet that revolves making such drastic changes to the way you eat for ever. On those treat days Diane and myself have a few local restaurants that we love to visit. One that is at the top of that list is our local Italian eatery Good Fare, 26 Parkway in our home town of Camden. But it’s not just because it is nice and close. We both feel that it serves some of the best Italian food in the capital. Not the posh highfaluting stuff but good quality home cooked Italian fare… Good Fare!Mik and Menu

We are both creatures of habit when we visit Good Fare. Diane has two dishes that she loves, Penne Italiano and Tortellini Spinachi, and I always have Penne Al Arrabiata. As vegetarians we normally have a very small choice when eating out, but at Good Fare this isn’t the case… so we could go nuts. But if something isn’t broken why fix it? As Diane always points out, there is nothing worse than trying something new and then all the way through the meal wishing you had gone for your favourite choice. As the Penne Al Arrabiata is the best I have ever tasted I’m sticking to it like glue. Just the right combination of heat and yumminess that keeps me coming back for more. In fact that’s the same reason why I love Diane… tee hee. So my choice was easy, and Diane went for the Penne Italiano as she was the mood for cheese. As this meal comes covered in a wheel goat’s cheese the size of a small plate, it was a wise decision.

Di waits her foodAs we waited for our food to come we sat and watched the world go by.  Sitting outside in the busy heart of exciting Camden Town soaking up the sun is one of the joys of this restaurant, and the attentive and friendly staff is another. The meals arrived with the usual speed, and we tucked in like greed piggies… who had been fed only on soup for two days. As per usual the meal was gorgeous. Di was rewarded by joking with our waiter that she would like “loads of Parmesan” cheese with a deluge of the her favourite food… cheese! So she was in food heaven, as was I. By the end of the meal my lips were just the right amount of numb to indicate a good Arrabiata, and I was shortly followed by Diane clearing her plate. Di normally eats much slower then me, so it showed how much she enjoyed her meal that I wasn’t left waiting for ages. In fact we both fell on our meals so quickly that I forgot to take any photos of the food, so you’ll just have to take my word for how good it was.

All goneWe then ordered another Good Fare favourite, Caramel Latte. Trust me, if you’re in Camden and want a coffee, forget the chains; it has to be Good Fare. Truly great coffee. Another treat to try is their breakfast cakes. A personal fave is the chocolate twist, served hot with chocolate sauce. Just thinking about it is making my mouth water. If I’m honest, the only draw back for me is they don’t have an accessible toilet, but that’s it. (Well they do in their sister restaurant Al Parco but the door is fitted wrong so I can’t get in with my chair unless I don’t mind the entire restaurant watching me do my business) Our meal, comprising of two beers, two lovely meals and two yummy caramel lattes came in under £30. So not only great food but great value. Of course now I’ve told you all about Good Fare I’m worried it will become even more popular and we won’t be able to get a table next time we want to treat ourselves. All I can say is “cheers Good Fare!”.

Cheers

 

 

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More or Less Cyborg? @ The Dana Centre – A Great Night Out

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Ever since I was a child I dreamed of emulating my hero, the bionic man Steve Austin (aka Lee Majors). My friends and I would run round the play ground in slow motion making “dududududu” sound effects, dreaming of what it would be like to be part machine. I was never allowed to be the “Six Million Dollar Man”, as I was disabled, but was instead named “Peg Austin” or the “Six Million Dollar Cripple”. Did I mind? Of course not, because however much my non-disabled play mates wanted to be made of metal I was the one who had a real bit of bionics strapped to my right leg, in the name of my caliper that allowed me to stand up. Oh yes, I was already a bionic boy.

As I grew up (in years but not necessarily in maturity) I still imagined what it would be like to have a body augmented with machinery. My wheelchair could be described as a bionic device, as it is an external mechanical element of my body that allows me to function in a way that I could not without it (or it stops me from having to crawl everywhere) but I do fantasize about more. What would it be like to really be Steve Austin? So when my wife told me about an event at the Science Museum‘s Dana Centre called “More or Less Cyborg” I knew we had to go. So on the evening of June 13th 2013. we headed off to the exhibition district of sunny Kensington ready for a night of feeding my childhood fantasies.

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The Dana Centre is a great building and has the most amazing staff, who are always helpful and friendly. They have a bar for these night time events and serve bar snacks. But more importantly they strive to make science accessible. We have been to several similar nights before and they have always been great fun, but tonight I was going to discover if I would one day be able to become a cyborg. However actually this was not a night of could we, but more a night of should we and if we do how will we cope as a society?

The night kicked off with the audience being split into three groups and each group had to arrange a series of Science Fiction characters into order depending on how human or how cyborg they were. This was going to be OUR kind of night. Diane and myself threw ourselves into the passionate debate over which of these made up people were more or less machine with gusto. Was Darth Vader more of less human that Trinity from the Matrix? (when she was in the Matrix – details matter in such important matters) While this was entertaining it also opened up wider questions over what it was to be human that the guest speakers explored next.

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The first to speak was Rick Walker, managing director of Shadow Robot, a company that builds ground breaking robotic prosthetic hands and who worked to create an artificial person using surgical replacement parts and prosthetics for Channel 4 on their How To Build a Bionic Man TV show. Rick explored the possibilities of what the future holds for the mechanics of bionics and explained the technical challenges around building the C4 Android. His passion for his chosen field was obvious and his talk brought the future in to sharp relief. It’s not only a case of what will be possible that is amazing, but what is actually possible now.

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Next to speak was Steve Fuller, who holds the “Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology” (whatever that is?) and he blew the lid of my expectations by exploring what the social and philosophical implications might be on a society that is fast approaching the ability to really build cyborgs. More than that, Steve made us ask ourselves are we not already cyborgs, both due to our use of technology, such as mobiles and laptops, and our ability to record knowledge, via books and writing. It did take a bit to get my head round that concept, but as Steve explained how a cyborg is actually an entity that has been altered from it’s so called natural state by any means, including learning, it started to make sense. His talk threw open some big questions that he had no chance of answering in his allotted 12 minutes.

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Last to speak was Sarah Chan, Deputy Director, Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation and Research Fellow in Bioethics and Law, University of Manchester, who challenged us to ask the ethical questions the surround cybernetics. We’d done the what and the could not Sarah was the should. But she covered more than this. She took Steve’s concept that we are already using forms of cyborg technology in our daily lives and delved much deeper. Very few people could imagine not having access to the internet, or mobile phones, or cars and bicycles to get around with and a world without medical intervention terrifies most of us. So once we develop the technology to augment the human body it won’t be long before we view that in the same way as the gadgets we love so much now. Will it not be those who are not cybernetically enhanced that are at a disadvantage? And were will it lead. We already have GPS in our phones and our governments may (or may not – yeah right) be recording everything we say over those phones or send over the internet, but we can at least stop using these devices and escape to solitude. Once they are implanted into our bodies would we be able to do the same and how would we ensure that outside influences could not effect our being in some way? Also who would get these upgrades? Would it be everyone, or the rich and powerful?

When Sarah finished, the Q&A section started and I had to ask what the panel thought about my take on the subject as a disabled person. Let’s face it, us disabled types are always seen as being the first beneficiaries of this kind of technology but yet if what the night had shown was true, and those who used assistive technology of any kind was already a cyborg, then weren’t disabled people the best people to talk to about the social and ethical implications? I also wondered if we understood how society might view those who were physically different from the non-cyborg norm better than most. Sarah found agreed with this concept and all of the speakers thought that it was an interesting take on the subject. After a loads more thought provoking questions, volunteers were called for to put on masks and re-order the fictional sci-fi characters from the start of the night. Di jumped at the chance and was given the mask of 6 from Battlestar Galactica (see a sci-fi nerds dream night out or what?).

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The room now began a heated discussion around the question of humanity and each speaker argued for one of the characters considered less human. Diane explained to the entire room about the details of the humanoid/symbiont relationship from the mythology of the TV series Stargate Sg-1… you know, that Jaffa only incubate them but have free will, that with the Goa’uld the human host is totally controlled by the alien symbiont and in the Tok’ra the human and symbiont live in harmony with mutual control. So obviously Teal’C was human as he was in control of his own actions, only making any bad decisions due to indoctrination rather than external control. When she finished I was overcome with nerdish pride that I shouted “that’s my wife” at the top of my lungs.

So a highly entertaining and informative evening drew to an end. Before we left, I grabbed a quick chat with Rick and Sarah, as it was such a thought provoking evening that I am planning to do a series of interviews with these guys on the topic of cybernetics and disability very soon; to which they both agreed. And so off into the night Diane and I went. I did do a little “dudududu” as we wondered back to the car, but in truth we were both still reeling with the questions that the evening had thrown up for too much childish exuberance. Just enough. I cannot under estimate how much fun these events at Dana are. If you like science, from an academic interest like Diane’s (she’s studying Physics at the OU) or a nerdish love like mine, you can’t go wrong. Especially if you like to spice up your facts with some seriously well designed mucking about.

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This Morning Brothel Discussion

Here is the video of the This Morning Debate between myself and Becky Adams on the issue for a brothel Becky is planning to open which is specially designed for disabled customers. I have already written several blogs on this issue, which can be found in my blog section. Please give it a watch if you haven’t seen it and I wonder which side you fall down on, if you excuse the very mild pun?

First shown on ITV Jan 18th 2013

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The Skin I’m In

Kings Rd 02

Every now and then I am reminded just how amazing and weird biology can be. Especially mine. A few days ago I was wheeling down a street in the Kings Road, during a shopping trip that broke my heart as what was once a street filled with the coolest of fashion is now just another chain store high street (even if the chains are a little more up market), and I hit a pot hole in the pavement. With the annoying habit that the laws of motion have on a person on wheels, when my chair stopped I did not. Luckily I did not fly out of my buggy into a crumpled heap, but I did twist my spine quite badly. I soon started to feel the pain of this little accident but as we were searching for a coffee, which would have allowed me to take a break from the discomfort of both the pain in my back and the sadness at passing yet another boring chain store, I soldiered on. We tried to visit the Bluebird Cafe but were royally ignored by their waiting staff in a blatant act of either discrimination or ignorance, and ended up scoffing a lovely creme slice and sipping a caramel latte at Patisserie Valerie in the sunshine. With no shopping for me but loads for Diane, which was also rather a downer on the spirits as I was hoping to do some serious spending, we ventured home. I spent the evening laying on sofa relaxing the old spine, hoping that my near crash hadn’t done too much damage.

It all seemed OK at first the next day, when we decided to take in some more of the unseasonal sunshine by wondering around our home town of Camden. As I smiled at the fact that Camden is one the few places in London that has resisted the onslaught of the big brand, I started to notice that my left leg was feeling weird. It felt like it was growing in length, gradually at first but it soon felt like it was huge. Only my left leg, which by now felt around double the length of my right one. If this wasn’t disconcerting enough, the weird felling began moving into my entire left side. By the time we were walking towards our flat I felt like my body was the shape of the hunchback of Notre Dame, with one really long leg and a huge left arm that was more muscley than three Popeyes. Of course I may have felt like this on the inside, but on the outside I looked just as normal… your standard Mik.

Why was I undergoing this bizarre transformation? Well one of the lesser known side effects of nerve damage is a change in sensation. Some people experience phantom pain, some experience sensation that comes and goes, some experience changes in the way their body feels, and some are like me and get the whole lot. This time I was being told by my brain that my body shaped nothing like reality, all thanks to the fact that the messages my skin was sending to my noggin were being scrambled and turned into QuasiMikdo somewhere on their journey up my spinal column. I cannot explain how strange it is to inhabit a body that can change it’s shape on an hourly basis but it can tick you off a bit at times.

What makes it more annoying for me is that through out my younger years I also fought with Bulimia, and even today I have issues with my mirror. I still see someone who could loose a stone or two, no matter how thin I get. I really learned how distorted my vision of myself is when I was very ill back in the early naughties. I kept loosing weight as my spine collapsed, causing pain that stopped me from sleeping for days on end. This pain meant I needed stronger and stronger pain medication, and the lack of sleep and drug induced haze meant that eating was the last thing on my mind. Within a few months I was thin, and few months after that my Mum was ringing my poor wife to check if I was OK, after she saw me on TV looking gaunt and skeletal. But did I see this sickly bag of bones? No, all I saw was someone who was finally approaching the weight I dreamed of being. It was only after living through this period and coming out the other side that led me to the much happier place I am now. Once I saw photos and video of myself looking so bad while remembering how happy I had been with my decreasing size, I began to shake the distorting glasses of body dysmorphia.

Typically this revelation led me to put on a pile of weight after my last surgery back in 2003, but I finally understood that I needed to find a healthy way of getting to the size I should be, but not the size I thought I should be. So I began a healthy eating campaign and over the last couple of years I created a menu full of all the things I need (and like, can’t cut out the choccy completely – that would be crazy) in sizes that have allowed me to get to a weight I like. I will never totally shake the disease and end my battle with Bulimia, but I am happy with a stalemate. I might see a huge fatty who needs to loose weight big time but I know that isn’t what the rest of world sees.

The key issue for me is when the two types of dysmorphia combine to create my own personal type of crazy. Every now and then the person I see in the mirror is matched by the person I feel through my skin, with both my eyes and my that pesky skin lying to me. But whatever I might see or feel, I try very hard to remember that it’s all just lies. I might not manage the perfect physique, with a six pack,  muscle definition and a tiny waist, but I don’t look too bad for a guy of 47 who beat cancer and two broken backs. Not bad at all.

As I write this I do wonder if I’m giving away just a little too much information, but if those of us who have these kind of problems don’t speak out about them, and explain that it is possible to live successfully with them, perhaps even beat them, then they just stay secret and hidden. I feel that being open about this kind of thing is important, so there you go. Isn’t that the point of blogs?

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Right to Die? Right to Live is better!

Yet again the press is filled with the story of a campaigner who are going to court to end the terrible suffering of their life as a disabled person. This it is Paul Lamb who is claiming that his life is should be ended at the hands of the medical profession, as he feels he no longer wants to go on but is too disabled to end his life himself.

I am so saddened that another person feels that they have the right to even consider taking this case to court, whatever their disability or condition. I keep hoping that our society will start to see that if we do go down this road, we are starting out on a very slippery slope. Once the law has been changed to allow doctors and medical professions to assist a person to die, where will it end? I know from own experience that some doctors see someone like myself as having a “poor quality of life”, no matter how much I have tried to make them see how wonderful and fulfilling your life can be when you are disabled.  But we never see that anywhere in our media, not even when the Paralympians were going for gold. It’s always how amazing we are in spite of our disabilities, not thanks to them. And you never see anyone who feels like me, that becoming disabled was the making of them. The constant barrage of  negativity creates a stereotype of disability that feeds into the psyche of everyone, especially those people who suddenly find themselves with a new level of ability. Something that is really important about Mr Lamb’s case is that he is not terminally ill. No he has a static disability, and therefore is not being “saved” from a ever growing level of illness or incapacity but rather from his feeling that things just cannot get better for him and people like him.

I know, as while I have been disabled from birth, when I became a wheelchair user at the age of 15 I really thought my life was over. I just couldn’t see how I would live, work or find love. I imagined the kind of life which Mr. Lamb describes when he talks about his own. Yet this is not what happened. Instead, with the support of  family, friends and many others, as well as taking advantage of all of services that the state provides, I began to build a new future for myself.  Within a few years I had started out on the road to becoming the man I am today, with the amazing life I live. I now look back on my newly acquired level of disability as a truly positive thing, the day my life started for real. I truly believe that everyone could learn to feel this way, if they were given all the assistance, guidance and support that is required to help people come through what is a hugely difficult process.

This is what Mr Lamb really needs. Not a change in the law that would open a can of worms for all of us, whether we have a disease, disability or are elderly… or eventually squinty, ugly or just undesirable. No he needs help! From watching his interview on the BBC earlier this evening, it is obvious to me that he is depressed. Not only is this a normal effect of learning to live with a  disability, and I myself went through a serious depression early on in my life on wheels, but it is also caused by chronic pain, another issue that Mr Lamb complains of suffering. Yet again this is something I fully understand as I also have long term chronic pain  as part of my disability. So I really do understand why he feels this way, but I just can’t support his quest for assisted suicide. I would instead want to see a campaign that ensured that people like Mr Lamb were supported to have the kind of life he wishes he could have, which is possible no matter what society might believe.

We must stop always focusing on the negative stories of the very few people who are finding it difficult to cope and instead expose the myriad of positive stories our there of happy, contented disabled people. It will be of benefit for all of us, disabled or not, and will go a long way to changing the lives of so many people who are having such problems with building a new life after coming to a disability. The thing that saddens (and worries) me the most is that this campaign coincides with the big government push to cut costs and services. To me this is not by accident. Why spend all that money on creating a society that ensures that disabled people can live fulfilling, happy, independent lives when you can assist them out of this world and save all that lovely cash for the fit healthy non-disabled? Combine this with the terrible way disabled people have been portrayed as drains on society or fraudsters and it is a perfect storm for this story.

So please, everyone who reads this; stop and think. Next time you see someone begging to be “put out of their misery”, no matter how much you might buy into the stereotype that this must be the only human thing to do, please understand that you are entirely wrong. The only true act of humanity would be to stand beside them, support them and help them through on their journey to a new understanding of what is possible for someone with a disability. If we all fight to create a world were that is the reaction to seeing people in Mr Lamb’s position then not only will they benefit, and thus become less and less common, but so will we all. Because at the end of the day the fear of how people would  cope if it happened to them fuels the public support for this campaign, and of course all non-disabled people are just disabled people the day before the accident or illness hits them. So if we could remove that fear and instead start living in the knowledge that we would all be helped to create a new, and possibly better, life, then the word “disability” would no longer have all the negative connotations that are currently associated with it.

Being disabled should never be considered a reason for a person to be put down. I just hope that one day being disabled will be something that people feel  proud about. I know I am… very.

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Paying the price for being made scapegoats.

Today two teenage boys have pleaded guilty of killing blind 85 year old Paula Castle and this has been widely reported in the press. This is such a sad story but I feel it lifts a lid on an underlying issue with our society at the minute. These two young boys felt nothing as they violently attacked this elderly person, who was obviously very frail and disabled, and even repeated their crime on the day that Mrs. Castle passed away, this time against 75 year old Rose Mohamed. But why is it that there are young people out there who have so little consideration for those who are weak and vulnerable? Many people, especially in the press who are so outraged by this kind of crime, will say it shows that society is falling apart and that we need to crack down on these types of criminals. While I do agree that tough sentencing is required for this kind of crime, I think it is vital to place some of the blame at the feet of some sections of the press who have complied with the current government’s campaign to make scapegoats out those members of our society who need assistance and support.

As a disabled person I have also been a target for young people who saw me as a soft touch. My wife and I were targeted by a group of youths when I lived in West London, which went on for some years, escalating in severity during this time and ending with me having to flee my home in fear of my life after a threat to burn my flat down. The police, while being supportive, insisted they could do nothing until something actually happened, but not wanting to wait until the flames licked around my tyres or the knife stuck out of my or my wife’s ribs, I felt that running away was the best course of action. So I gave up my fully adapted two bed flat that had been my home for years, and the friends I had in the area, and hid in a one bed un-adapted flat in my wife’s home town of Camden. It took us years to rebuild our lives, but at least we both got away alive. We had to live apart for two years after we were married as neither of our flats were suitable for us to live together in, but that is another story I feel.

Throughout this ordeal I was told by my youthful tormentors that it was “all right for me as I got loads of benefits off the state”, that I was “a drain on society” and that “people like me should be put down”. Now where would these young people get these attitudes from? Well obviously their parents, but they got them from the media, as did their charming kids. For too long now the old and disabled have been portrayed as an expense that our country can no longer afford, and that these groups get stuff that everyone else doesn’t get, and for free. If you are a poor unemployed teenager it is easy to start resenting those who society seems to be upset about due to the cost of having them as members. So the old and disabled become valid targets.

Once peer pressure alone would have stopped a teen mugging someone who was 85. I know when I was in my early teens Punk was the big thing, and while we all sauntered around in our bondage trousers with our spikey hair and our safety pins we would never have dreamed of mugging some one elderly or disabled. Not only would it have occurred to us, but even if it did our mates would have kicked the poo out of us if we dared to suggested it. But that was because even though we wanted to shock our elders and betters we still considered them as vaild members of society. We looked at those in power as the ones to blame for our problems, not the old and disabled. However much we were hated by the press and public we still had respect for our elders, even though it might not have shown.

But if you continuously hold those who are least able to defend themselves up as part of the reason why our economy is so bad, as a cost we cannot afford and as people who would be better off dead then you end up in the position we are in now. With hate crime against the disabled and elderly going up horrendously, and an attitude of jealousy and distrust becoming more and more pervasive in our society. While this is a truly tragic case, and the boys who did this crime must be punished, I do hope the press takes a moment to reflect on how their reporting and the language they use may when they discuss groups like the elderly and disabled may have played a part in creating a world where this kind of crime happens.

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Oh no not again! – Jonathon Creek loses it’s magic

Both Diane and myself are big Jonathon Creek fans and so we were most happy to see that he was about to make a come back tonight. We both sat back ready to spend an evening looking out for clues with the BBC’s floppy haired magical detective. But it soon became clear that alongside the mystery that we were meant to unravel there was another one that might have been missed by most viewers, but one with a more obvious answer.

You see as soon as Rik Mayall wheeled into view, my heart dropped and the game was afoot. “But what is the mystery you speak of Mik?” I hear you ask. Well it why has the BBC’s casting department seen nothing wrong with getting a non-disabled actor to “crip up” and play disabled, yet again. I began to watch closely, trying to seek out those hard to spot clues that might give me the answer. As the show rolled along I started to wonder if the reason was that at any minute Rik was going to jump up and walk. Oh yes, that must be it! HE was the one who was to blame for the shenanigans that Jonathon was trying to make sense of. That must be why the BBC and the JC production team had made such a faux pas. It was going to be the hidden twist and the wheelchair was all a ruse to throw the viewers off the fact that Rik was playing the villain. The minutes ticked by and I became absolutely sure. It just must be the answer… but no, I was wrong. As the credits began to be squashed to one side by information of what was coming next across the Beeb, I sadly knew that I had just sat through another example of just how out of touch the media still is when it comes to disability.

If we ignore that ridiculous idea that there exists a I-Pad clamp that can be used as a weapon by a man who is meant to be paralysed in such a way that he can only move one finger (I won’t say too much in case you missed it and want to enjoy poor writing at it’s best), at no point during Rik Mayall’s performance did anything happen that made it essential that a non-disabled actor was cast to play the role, either through the portrayal or script. In fact it was only that he was a returning character that apparently had been shot and paralysed while JC was off our screens that could be said to be why it had to be Rik.

But the big mystery that this show needs us to solve is why not introduce a new character who was really disabled, both in the drama and in real life? I know of so many truly talented disabled actors who could have nailed this role, including little old me. Not only would have brought a reality to the role, but it would have shown that the BBC is really committed to the idea of Integrated Casting, which all the industry says it is signed up to.

Integrated casting is where disabled actors may be cast to play characters that are not written as disabled and so their disability will not be mentioned in the piece. Now in a way casting a non-disabled actor to play disabled could be described as integrated casting, but in truth it is not. This form of casting is designed to try to mirror the real world, and to get more disabled talent onto our screens. But it was also meant to be the next step that the media took after ensuring that only disabled actors played disabled roles.

In fact casting mistakes like tonight’s just demonstrates that when it comes to disability the BBC is still in the place it was back in the 60’s and 70’s with the portrayal of Black and other ethnic minorities. I shall just say “The Black and White Minstrel Show“. It is just as offensive to most disabled people to see yet another job that should gone to one of us going to someone not disabled, no matter if they are a “name” of not. How will there ever be a big name disabled actor if we never get the roles? How can we ever get to prove ourselves as actors if we never get the roles? How can we even think of going into the industry if after so long campaigning to make the people who cast TV drama to cast disabled people to play disabled people we still never get the roles?

There is no excuse for tonight’s casting. Whatever those involved say it was just plain wrong. It belittled the show, it belittled the viewers and sadly it made me think considerably less of Rik Mayall. As someone who I have worked with in the past, on the show Wham Bam Strawberry Jam; also for the BBC, I would have hoped that he might see that taking the part was wrong. Even if he wasn’t fully versed in disability politics surely it must feel wrong, or at least weird, to play disabled?

In my heart I would hope that all professional actors would see it was wrong to play disabled but no. It’s still seen as fine and might even win them an award or two. So this is a plea to all my fellow members of Equity, the actors union. Please stop taking these roles. If you stop, then the casting directors will have to cast the talented professional disabled actors out there and you will have played a part in making a real change in our society. You will have helped to create a new type of image of disabled people. One that shows we can work, and work in a professional manner, as well as ensuring that when we do play a role we can work with the writers and directors to create a character that is realistic and true to the experience of all the disabled people viewing.

Come on BBC, and every other production company out there, no more. Make tonight’s Jonathon Creek go down in history as it’s the last time you do this. From now on, if the role written is for a disabled character then only cast a disabled actor.

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The Moment I Became Me

Well hello Bloggersphere, sorry for going so quiet recently. It’s been a bit of a crazy time. February was marred by a period of chronic pain, which was nice. And as soon as that passed my work load went through the roof. Mustn’t grumble about that though. Another reason why I haven’t been to prolific on the blog front is that fact that I now get paid to write articles that are so similar to my blogs by various publications that I am finding I have to keep my best ideas for those paid jobs. So that really is nice. But it does mean that I am trying to think of what to actually blog about. So while I struggle with what I can waffle on about in the ether (for free) I thought I’d tell you all about a project that I working on at the minute, and more importantly the actual real events that are behind it.

Me and my brother when I was 14, just before my spine went wrong.

As you may or may not know, when I was 15 I was very ill. I was rushed to the Royal Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London, and was put in, what it transpired, was a terminal ward. Very early on in my stay I asked what I thought was a doctor what was wrong with me. Without batting an eyelid he informed me that I had cancer and that I was dying. Suddenly I was a boy of 15 who was about to check out. I was still a virgin, who had never been to a nightclub or dyed his hair. Or at least these were the things that I would never do that I listed in my mind. I had to ring my Mum to tell her, in floods of tears, and then laid in bed for the nearly 24 hours despairing about all the things I would never do. Then the next day my parents arrived and together we asked my surgical team what was going on. It then transpired that I did NOT have cancer, and while it was serious I was not dying. The worst thing was that the guy who had told me this turned out to be an orderly wearing a white coat. Funniest moment during this was seeing my doctor grab this orderly and pin him against a wall, while shouting at the top of his voice. He was not a happy man. So while I was not dying (yippee), I did spend the next couple of months being treated in a terminal ward, watching almost every other patient passing away (boo). Sometimes in very gruesome ways. Real horror film stuff.

But all of this did really change who I was. By the time I was let home from hospital, nearly nine months later, I had truly learned how precious life was and it made sense to live each day as if it might be your last. I had experienced what it was like to lay in bed, dying with a huge list of things you wished you’d done. I vowed that the next time this happened my list would be of all the things I had done. So that is how I started living. I won’t say that it always paid off, and I have made some crazy mistakes in the name of having fun and living fast but I have made some amazing memories and done some amazing things.

Teenage Goth Mik, just out of hospital – notice very dyed hair!

So what has this got to do with my project? Well recently I have been writing a play with the help of the fantastic Graeae Theatre Company, based on this very experience, called The List. I am very nearly finished, with a just a few lines left to go. Then it’s just a bit of time doing rewrites and my first play is in the bag. What will happen to it once it’s done, I don’t know but I do hope it does get performed. I do know that the “dying/not dying” moment in my early years helped me find what was important in life and I feel that this play might be a much less traumatic way of helping others to do the same. (At least I hope it won’t be as traumatic – depends on how good my writing is eh?) If nothing else it would be a night out.

The funniest thing is that when I was at school my English teacher read out something I had written to the whole class as an example of terrible work. She said I was terrible at writing and would never pass an English O Level (Of course I did pass one with a B) Now every time I have another article published, perform a song or poem, and now do some creative writing I think of her and go “Up Yours” in my head. I won’t even mention my music teacher who told me I was tone deaf… I then went on to be one of the only pupils from my year to become a professional musician. School eh?

Right, that’s enough from me. Always remember, life’s too short to regrets. Or it’s always better to regret doing something than regretting not doing it. Might get messier or course, but much more fun!

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