Friday, 28 January 2011

Not going to take it sitting down!

I haven't written a blog recently as my wife and I had some very sad news early this week. Unfortunately, at the weekend my wife's father, Lenny Rodgie, died. He was a great bloke, and he is going to be sadly missed.

I always felt I had met a kindred spirit in Lenny. He also was disabled, with epilepsy, but had gone to mainstream schools, got married and had three fantastic daughters, one of whom I was lucky enough to marry. Whatever the expectation of him was, he seemed to ignore it and lived what most people would call a "normal" life. I know that his influence means that my wife, Diane, understands me better than anyone I have ever known, and I thank him for that.

I know he had to fight every step of the way in his life, against the ignorance of the public about epilepsy, and was a huge campaigner on the issues faced by epileptics. As he epilepsy meant he had every type of fit known to science (in fact he was key to them discovering a few new types too), he was always being poked about by doctors and surgeons, and allowed himself to be experimented on through out his life. Not only in the hope of controlling his own epilepsy, but in case he could help others who had his condition. He even allowed himself to be filmed many times, even while having fits, as he felt it was important to let people, especially the medical profession, see what happens.

I know he hoped that the world would grow to understand and accept people with his disability, yet as he got older I think everyone who knew him could see the fact that things did not seem to change effected him. When he was young if he had a fit in Camden, where he lived for his whole life, people would help him but not make too bigger deal of it all. Gradually he kept coming out of his fits to find himself in hospital, with all of his clothes cut off him. Now finding yourself in hospital is always a bummer but as he knew that most times after a fit he was going to be fine, the whole situation really got him down. Worse than this, he started to find himself treated as an old drunk. Many people he met took his slurred speech, caused by a mixture of the strong drugs he was given and the damage his fits caused to his brain, as a sign of alcohol abuse and treated him appallingly. Not only people in the street, but those in authority, such as the police. At times this really effected him, and made those of us who knew him very angry. When he got sad or down, he would tell us stories of how he been discriminated against in his life. Once while staying at a B&B, he had been made to eat his breakfast in a cupboard, as the owner felt seeing him have a fit might effect the other guests. He had lost count of the number of times he been sacked for having a fit, with one job only lasting a few minutes. He was never really housed in suitable housing, and when he died he was still waiting to have a shower fitted in his latest flat, even though having a bath was highly dangerous for him. Yet, through his work with the Epileptics Society and the people he met there, he would always tell us how lucky he was to live independently, and what a great life he had had.

So, when I heard he had died I found myself filling with a fuming rage. I know that I always thought that by the time I was in my forties, as I am now, that the world would be a very different place to the one I grew up in. The thought that the guy who fathered my wonderful wife had died still waiting to be seen as an equal in the society he lived in, really hurt. The fact that he still found himself being made to feel second best, that he had to fight to get things he was entitled to, and that he still dreamed of being cured so he could be "normal" made the tragedy of his death even greater.

I only have 17 years until I am the age he was when he died, and I know that I refuse to take the slow pace of change any more. I don't know quite what I plan to do about it yet, but I hope you all agree with me that we cannot go on with this "slowly, slowly catchy monkey" approach that seems the rage at present. I know that I want a disabled child who is born today, to grown up in world where disability is "normal". They should be hit their 17th birthday, in a world where they have had all the chances they would have had if they had been born able bodied, and live in world that is totally accessible to them and where inclusion and equality is so natural that everyone doesn't even have to think about them. We cannot allow cost, or time, or difficulty to be used as an excuse to slow or stop those changes any more.

We have a really long way to go, but we must get there. Not only for ourselves and future generations, but for all those great people, like Lenny Rodgie, who died while we were on the journey.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Thoughts on Home

I have just come back from visiting my parents, in my home town of Luton. As usual, I drove around seeing the sights before dropping in the folks. I even dragged my poor wife into the Mall Shopping Centre, that was called The Arndale back when I lived there. It's a weird thing to come from Luton. It's town that you hear about a lot on the news, but never in a good way. It's the home of the English Defence League, radical Islamists and has bred a couple of terrorists. On news coverage alone you'd think it was a hell hole place to live. And it really does have it's problems, but it still holds a place in my heart.

Sadly Luton seems to have been developed with division in mind. For as long as I can remember there was an area of Luton where the Asian community lived, Bury Park. This was just the way it was. When the by-pass around Central Luton was built it cut this area of Luton away from the main town, and really emphasised the division. This led to further separation of the disparate groups that made up the population of Luton, and that made people view each other as even more different. They fell back on the security of their culture and that fed a stronger feeling of division and difference. I remember what it was like to grow up in this kind of atmosphere. At my school there was two Black kids, Corey and his brother, and three Asians, my best mate Alex and his two beautiful sisters. Oh and one crippled kid... me. Not exactly representative of the Luton population but maybe of the area I grew up. At school we could see no difference, but whenever we were around adults we were reminded of the "them and us" attitude. Luckily back then rebellion was hard wired into us, so the more grown ups disliked us all mixing together, the more we did it. You have no idea the hullabaloo when two of my mates came out as being gay! The tragedy was that as we grew up this mixing of colours and cultures seemed to fall away somewhat. I can't really complain, as I moved away from the town that bred me.

But however much Luton wasn't a shining example of community cohesion, everyone kept on going. This was thanks to the fact that jobs were easy to find. All thanks to the massive Vauxhall car factory, and all the subsidiary work that brought. That was until it totally shut down. This led to unemployment on a scale that had never been seen before. Within a few months Luton started to fall apart. The massive unemployment led to a major problem with drugs and crime, and of course the divisions between communities grew. A radical Islamic movement grew and started campaigning on the streets of the town centre, which did not please many Lutonians. Hence the rise of the EDL. Now anyone who reads my blogs will know my politics, so I hope I don't need to say how I feel about the right wing EDL, but it is the obvious outcome of building a town with division built into it's fabric. All of the communities of Luton feel under threat, and have fallen foul of the old divide and conquer routine.

Sadly the simmering feelings of people in Luton were ignored while things were good, and so it all went wrong when bad times hit. Allowing the car plant to close ruined Luton, and all the people of my home town should have got together and fought for a better deal. They should also have received better from local Let's face it, the parent company of Vauxhall Motors didn't shut the German plants down, mainly due to their government acting, German union having some power and labour laws being strongly in favour of the worker. This is what happens when we all allow UK manufacturing to be moved abroad, all in the name of profit.

Whatever problems Luton may have, I still feel at home there, and have fond memories of growing up there. I only left to further my career, although I'm not sure that worked out. I know that most people there want to live together in peace and dream of a time when this town, filled with history, tradition and pride will rise again. Of course before that happens it will have to ride the storm of council job losses and budget cuts. I know that if the people of Luton work together they will get there, and if anyone can think of a way this Luton boy can help please just shout!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 January 2011

Saints, Sinners and Commissioning Editors

After a weekend of trying to stick to my new year's resolution of keeping fit, that involved a four hour wheel in and around Central London, I have spent the day stuck on the sofa with back pain. When they say "feel the burn" I don't think they mean it quite like that, but that's the price you pay when you push yourself that hard that quickly. Hopefully over the next few months I will be able to exercise without ending up knackered.

The day on the sofa was accompanied by my friend the widescreen TV. I wanted to watch The Wright Stuff but they had Gillian McKeith on as a guest, and however ill I might feel I am not going to watch someone who made a career telling people how to eat only to become a total freak when she decided to revive her career by appearing on I'm A Celebrity. Totally tragic that TV celeb bookers see someone like Ms McKeith as a valid contributor on a show. Let's hope tomorrow's guests are better.

The Wright Stuff

Instead I flicked over to the BBC, and got caught up in the greed and avarice of Homes Under The Hammer. Funnily Lucy Alexander and I worked together way back when, when we were continuity presenters on the kids TV channel Nickelodeon. I know I shouldn't like the show, but I do. Mixture of seeing how the houses are done up, deciding who you want to make money and who you dislike enough to see them fail, and an overpowering feeling that maybe you should be making something of your life. Of course when you combine that with seeing someone you worked with doing so well, when you career seems to have tanked big time it doesn't always make a fun watch. Masochistic TV... that's a new one huh?

Homes Under The Hammer

Homes Under The Hammer, was followed by a show that seemed to come right out of the worst kind of sensationalist TV hell, Saints and Scroungers. The bulldog with a heart, Dominic Littlewood presents this bizarre show that explores the world of benefits. "Exposing cheats and highlighting those who deserve to be supported" is the tag line that I imagine was used to get the show commissioned but I am amazed that a show like this is on the BBC. I fully appreciate that there are many people out there committing frauds on the benefits system, and that is totally wrong. When I was a youngster I worked for the dole office and saw people who were obviously working and signing, and I knew how hard those who investigated the frauds worked. The problem I have with this show is the way it is worded. Way too sensationalist.
The fraudsters are treated as the ultimate criminals with little background information, but those who need financial support are treated even worse. Patronised in a way that I last saw in the early 80's. Most of these people should have been helped by the system to get the benefits and help they so obviously needed and deserve. That little issue annoyed me, that and the total omission of how massive the amount of unclaimed benefits run to each year. We always hear how much each fraudster cost the tax payer however. The best way to describe the show is it's the kind of program that the Daily Mail would make.

Saints and Scroungers

I just feel that this kind of show feeds the current obsession with cutting benefits, and is a little too political to be made by the publicly funded BBC. Time and time, each of the fraudsters are claiming what is always called Disability Benefits", yet anyone out there who has applied for these knows how hard they are to get. There never seems to be any examination of how these people managed to get benefits they weren't entitled to, or what they had actually done to commit their frauds. Just a series of films of people who claim "not to be able to put on their own socks" playing golf, or running marathons or whatever super physical activity anyone getting benefits shouldn't do. There is a kind of subtext that anyone claiming benefits is dodgy unless they are in need of 24 hour care. And the experts who give their opinion on a claimant's eligibility never seem to be doctors or medical experts, but are OT's and Physiotherapists. Professionals, but not experts.

Of course fraud must be stopped and those who deserve it must be helped, but if the BBC is going to make a show like this it is essential that they film it in a way that empowers those people who need help. It might make a great show to portray the sick, disabled and old as desperate, but it does nothing to the bigger picture. It shouldn't be that to deserve state assistance you have to be a tragic figure. The benefits system is there to create a level playing field, and all of the "Saints", who really are the kind of people that the system was invented to support. They could just as easily be included without the histrionic language and gnashing of teeth.

Sadly we keep going back to the issue of language and portrayal but until those who make the content on our TVs understand how important it truly is, moany gits like me will keep banging on it. Let's face it, show like Saints and Scroungers could still exist while ensuring that everyone on the show are not shown as either evil law breakers, who we are made to hate for their terrible crimes, or sad pathetic outcasts, who we obviously have to weep for their tragic problems. Criminals are doing wrong and that needs to be stopped, but maybe looking deeper into each story might make the perpetrators more rounded. Those who it seems are being let down by social services and the benefits system shouldn't really need to be assisted by a TV show to get the help they need. Maybe a show exploring how many people do fall through the gaps might really be a public service. Let's face it that's what the commissioning editor saw this show as when they gave it the green light.

It's just hit me that if I keep on like this I'm going to end up as a cross between Nabil Shaban and Mary Whitehouse!

Friday, 7 January 2011

Don't read this... read that

I did plan to write a blog about the various proposed changes in what assistance disabled people get via benefits and care packages, but I actually feel that everyone would do better to visit the Disability Now website, or read the current issue of the magazine. The team there have put together a series of fantastic articles that really explain the planned changes.

Disability Now

I must congratulate Ian Macrae and his team at DN for their superb work helping anyone who might be effected by the proposals to understand what is ahead. Well done.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

A New Year call to arms

I hope you all had a fantastic festive season, and a humdinger of a new year. I know I've only just about recovered from the NYE partying. Of course that is more a sign of increasing old age than a good time nowadays.

While I was almost comatose on the sofa over the New Year weekend, my wife really got into watching the repeat (not re-run) of the series Downtown Abbey. Even though just the thought of the show cut me to the core, as a rabid socialist, I did find myself sucked in. Damn you Julian Fellowes! At certain points I did find myself shouting "Kill them all in their sleep!" at the screen, as my revolutionary zeal grew watching the privileged ruling class complain at their tiny problems, but for most of the show I let the fictionalised frolics do their job. Nice easy recovery TV, that spanned a three day recovery. However at the end of the series the First World War is announced, and I found myself shedding a tear. Not for the fictional TV people, but for the total waste of life that all viewers knew was coming. Especially as that war was really caused by an argument about who should have the most boats between two of Queen Victoria's offspring, yet it would be the people at the bottom that paid the price. The horror of that war, and the scars it caused led eventually to the Second World war, where even more lives were lost. I fully admit that WW2 was a valid war, to put a stop to the evil of Nazism, it is sad to think that while both world wars were hailed as wars to end all wars there has been a war going on somewhere in the world ever since VJ day.

Don't get me wrong. Yes I do believe that war is wrong and they could all be avoided if those who ruled over us talked, but I also truly support all of the troops who fight wars. They are expected to do and see things that the rest of us can't even begin to imagine. I myself have worked with soldiers on and off ever since the first gulf war, especially those who returned disabled. I have always been amazed at their resilience and strength. This is what this blog is really about. As we enter 2011, we know that this year the government's cuts will begin to bite, and there are battles ahead around how disabled people are to be supported. I am getting involved in working with the government to try to ensure that some the extreme ideas they have put forward are reconsidered and that eventually we end up with proposals that do not put disabled people at a disadvantage.

I wanted to put out a call to arms to any soldiers that have returned with a disability to join the battle. You more than anyone, deserve to be secure in your new life and these entitlements that disabled people have spent years fighting for should be there for you all too. I understand that early on in the readjustment to a new disability, most people want to fight to be as "normal" as possible. Sometimes receiving benefits can make a person feel less than normal. These benefits are there to make sure that disabled people can lead normal lives. One day our fight for equality will pay off and we won't need these benefits, but we are a hell of a long way off yet. Just go down any high street to see inaccessible buildings, or try to use public transport, or get a job, or... the list goes on. Of course we want equality, but while we work towards that we do need support.

Now I don't want to go mad on the histrionics, but I have always found disabled soldiers to be the kind of people the disabled movement needs, and as we go into a year where that movement may need to be very proactive, you guys will be essential to ensuring we don't loose out. If anyone reading this does want to get involved contact a local campaigning group for details of how.

My next blog will give details of what is being proposed and where to go for more info.