Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Whatever next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 July 2012

DadaFest 2012

Last Thursday I had the honour of being the compare and master of ceremonies at the launch event of the UK's biggest festival of Disability and Deaf arts, DadaFest. Held at the Bluecoat in Liverpool, this event marked the start of two months of the very best that the Disability and Deaf arts scene has to offer, with contributions from artists and performers from all over the world. I had been pestering DadaFest's CEO Ruth Gould and her team for some time to try to get involved with the festival and so when the call came to come up and compare the opening day I jumped for joy. 

The event kicked off with drinkies and nibbles upstairs at the Bluecoat bar, with speeches from the key players in putting on DadaFest 2012. Patron and major player in disability politics Sir Bert Massie gave the audience his take on how the disability and deaf arts scene plays a massive role in advancing the understanding of disability in the wider community and made a plea for big business to see the potential in funding the fantastic creative talent on show at the festival. Next Sue Harrison who is the chair of the Bluecoat outlined what we should expect from the next two months, followed by speeches from the key funders of DadaFest, Councillor Wendy Simon from Liverpool City Council and Julia Keenen, the lead Arts Council officer for DadaFest. They both outlined why they felt that DadaFest is so essential to the arts scene and to Liverpool itself. As this year's DadaFest is an official part of the Cultural Olympiad, LOCOG's Nigel Hinds then explored the history of culture and the games and how DadaFest fitted in to the whole 2012 Olympic/Paralympic experience. Lastly Ruth Gould thanked everyone for coming, gave us an outline of what to expect during the run of the festival and then declared DadaFest 2012 open. She then awarded a cheque to local dancer and sports star Shauna Hogan, who is about to go and compete in the Special Olympics.

The proceedings then moved on to the private view of the UK premier of the exhibition Niet Normaal. Originally from the Netherlands, where the phrase is used to mean 'cool' as no one wants to be thought of as normal, this version was curated by Ine Gevers, who originally developed the show, and Garry Robson. I can't truly explain how fantastic this exhibitions is. It not only explores the question of normality and conformity from a myriad of different angles and mediums, but each work is strong, beautiful and thought provoking in their own right. 

My personal highlights were Pharmacopeia by Suzie Freeman, Dr. Liz Lee and David Critchley, which explores the modern relationship between medicine and day to day life by creating an installation that charts the pills taken during two peoples life times, Cast from Nature by Christine Borland, that raises questions of beauty within artistic representations of the dead body by contrasting the positioning of two casts of a dead body, Bad Mummy by Birgit Deiker, that uses fetish imagery to examine motherhood and body image, and Ambush - Non Traceptives with Intelligent Sperm Selector by Andreas Vinther Mølgaard, who questions the consequences of new technologies with this mock up of a new condom that allows the user to screen for genetic mistakes.

A piece that had a personal impact, as someone who had over £250,000 worth of titanium in my body holding my spine together was the video work by Floris Kaayck, Metalosis Maligna. Filmed as a mock-umentary, Kaayck uses the conventions of television documentary to examine our relationships with mechanical implants by creating the fictional disease of the title. I could go on but if you can, you must visit Niet Normaal. An amazing exhibition which you miss at your peril.

Later on we moved to the Bluecoat performance space, for a night of entertainment. First on the bill was The BeatHovens, who combine rock and rap to great effect. Next up we had poetry from the superb Roger Cliffe-Thompson, who continued the Liverpool tradition of poetry that is both funny and insightful with a strong political heart. To follow things got a bit sexy with the first of two burlesque acts of the night, Diva Hollywood and her performance Black Swan. She told me later that she created this fun sexy dance to allow her to explore how MS effects the way her body functions. This act demonstrates what DadaFest is all about, using art and performance to find new ways of examining disability. Once the feathers had been swept off the stage, the hilarious comic Vincent Biljio put us in stitches. (Please forgive my useless attempt at pronouncing your name Vincent - I will try harder next time). With the tears of laughter still in my eyes I announced the next act, Burlesque act Millie Dollar. All I can say is do try to catch her act as she is one to watch... oo-er. All over come and hot and bothered, it was now time for the Beathovens to return to the stage and play the evening out. They managed two encores, topping the night off with the most amazing version of Led Zep's Whole Lot of Love.

As the day ended I did hope that we might all retire to a local hostelry to celebrate, but the whole team were dead on their feet. The work that must have gone into putting on this year's DadaFest must have been phenomenal, and it had obviously caught up with them. So instead Diane and I wondered the streets of Liverpool, which is another city that seems to be confronting accessible environmental design head on. While the Albert Dock is a little difficult, mainly due to blooming cobbles everywhere, the rest of Liverpool was great. The Bluecoat Arts Centre itself is also superbly accessible, and as it an old building it just goes to show that it can be done.

All in all it was an amazing day. The are some fantastic events, shows and performances on over the next two months as well as Niet Normaal. The whole experience really demonstrates that the Disability and Deaf arts scene is a thriving and vibrant one, and I believe it is going to be the place to look for the next big talent. Or two, or three....

DadaFest runs from July 13th to September 2nd, with live performances beginning on August 18th.

For more details check out

Monday, 2 July 2012

Good news: Big Smiles and No More Mr Grumpy!?

Baby Mik, during my treatment for cancer - the spiky hair was caused by the chemo!

Today has been a good day. This morning I had an appointment with a surgeon, who gave me the great news that I don't have cancer! "What's this?" I hear you say. Yes, for the past few years have been suffering the joys of undergoing a series of tests to find out if I had the big C. I don't want to go into what the symptoms were that gave rise to this need to check whether the disease that I beat as child had reared it's ugly head again, but anyone out there who has had Mr Cancer come to stay in the hotel that is their body will know that from the moment you are given the all clear and Mr C has been evicted, you live with the fear that this unwanted guest may return at some point in the future.

The bastard thing about cancer is that you are never told "You're cured". Instead you are in remission, and even though I was given that news so long ago (41 years ago when I was only 5) that I don't remember it happening the fact that the disease that is so feared by everyone might come back haunts my every waking hour... and some times my dreams too. I am sure this is the same for other members of the cancer survivors club. Every time you feel ill or have a strange pain you become terrified that the cancer is back. I know I have spent my adult life thinking that any cough, twinge or cramp is the first sign of another battle with my bodies inability to reproduce it's cells. I must admit that it has made me a bit of a hypochondriac, if a quiet one. No, instead of vocalizing my worries I quietly pop off to the GP's and get myself checked out. Of course the fact that I have beaten cancer already tends to make them panic a little too and the tests start over again. 

The annoying thing for me is that every time I have a major issue with my health, such as my spinal collapse when I was 15 or my recent spinal hassles after my car accident in 1999, my surgical team get really panicky and send me off for a series of "routine" tests, as if I don't know what is going on. Nothing sets off alarm bells like surgeons being secretive. When I was 15 I was actually told that my cancer had returned and I was going to die. After spending 24 hours laying in bed thinking of all the things I'd never get to do, my chief surgeon popped by to tell me there'd been a mistake and I didn't have a tumour. I know that this experience really effected the person I became and made me enjoy my life, but it also forced me to face what it might feel like if the cancer ever did return. So every time I get the feeling that something is wrong, I relive that day. Of course I do it alone, as admitting what is going on would be admitting weakness would it?

I am so obsessed with keeping my fears quiet that even my lovely wife didn't appreciate my feelings and so as I sat waiting to get the results this morning I ended up snapping at her about why I was so grumpy recently. This is why I am writing this. I feel so crappy about being Mr Grumpy that I felt I should put out there the feelings that I am sure many other cancer survivors carry with them, and tell the world that those of us who have beat the C can, on occasion, be right moody. I know that over the last few years, and many other times in the past, I have been a right unbearable git on and off. Short tempered with a short fuse. At the minute I am rehearsing for a role in the Paralympic opening ceremonies and I have not been the joy to work with I would have hoped to have been. Of course everyone would totally understand if only I told them what was going on, but that is just not part of the process. Not only does anyone hate the idea of being thought of as ill or weak, but it's especially difficult if you still don't know what tomorrow might bring. It's just you have that "feeling" that something is wrong and everything else seems to get on your nerves. You really are forced to appreciate your mortality way too regularly and this makes everything that impacts on your life unacceptable. Thus your ability to cope and patience disappears. All that happens is you annoy everyone around you and come across as a totally f**k head.

So with today's news I feel I should apologise to my wife and anyone else who has been at the sharp end of my moodiness through out my life. It might sound like an excuse, but I know that I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders today and I hope to be a happier, smilier person from now on. Well as happy and smiley as a git like me can be. I hope you can forgive me if I did have my grumpy hat on in the past? I promise to try harder next time I get the fear, but don't hate me if I don't manage it. My past track record doesn't give much hope I feel.

To anyone else out there who is going through this at the minute, whether you are waiting for results or know someone who is, I wish you well.