Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Too Close For Comfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 11 July 2011

Showreel-tastic

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 clich├ęs 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!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

With age comes wizdom... or what was I like?

At the minute I am transferring some of my previous TV work into the digital domain so I can up load it on to You Tube, in the hope that it might get me back into the media. While most of what I did was really very good, even if I say so myself, there are some items that made me squirm as I watched them. Back in the early 2000's I was regularly asked to come in to the BBC's News 24 studio to review the newspapers. I thought I was there to be a bit out spoken and unlike the usual paper reviewers, who were normally editors and columnists from those very papers and I remember my appearances as being quiet rational fun comment on the news of the time.

Oh boy, was I wrong. As I watched 5 minute clip after 5 minute clip, I found myself wanting to go back in time and slap myself. OK, there was the standard Mik Scarlet left wing rantiness which any of my regular readers know and love (?), but I also had a few subjects that seemed to throw me into a crazy irrational state. One of my favourite targets was the farming industry. At this time Foot and Mouth gripped the UK farming industry, and the hunting ban was being discussed. Yes, I have strong beliefs on methods used in modern farming and equally strong feelings on hunting (and the current cull of badgers being considered at the minute) but I seemed unable to even see the opposing view.

As I realized just how many reviews I had done, and how often I seemed to go off on a crazy rant on various personal hot topics, I felt feelings of shame and embarrassment creep over me. Just as I was about to rush towards the off switch of my coping machine to prevent me anyone from ever seeing me make a fool of myself, it hit me. This was a really bad time for me. I had found it necessary to stop working as a presenter, due to ill health, and this was pretty much the only work I was doing at that point. I know myself well enough to see that this angry 30 something in front of me had been made that way as he was in the grip of a serious and life threatening problem with his spine. Yeah most other people would have tried to be measured and thinking of the future, but I was really unsure I'd have one and so felt this was my chance to comment on things I felt were as unfair as my illness. I have always found that getting angry when I'm ill gets me through. It might not make me fun to work with, or the nicest guy, but the energy it creates gives me the strength to get through.

The weird thing is this is the first time I have been able to see myself during one of these phases, and it has really freaked me out. I look back on that time and know how bad it was and I now feel I owe a debt of gratitude to anyone who stuck with me. Especially my wife. I also would like to say sorry to anyone who found me difficult going during this time. I know I alienated some of my friends and people I worked with, and I also know that my attitude during this period did effect my career. To anyone who worked with me between 1999 and 2005, I am sorry if I was an arse. I hope you understand... and might even forgive me?

As well as the realization of why I was so confrontational, I found myself confronted with the truth that your state of mind can really effect your politics and beliefs. The stress and worry of being so ill had robbed me of my ability to show any empathy, and I wonder if the entire country is not going through something similar at the minute? The dire financial situation, and personal worries regarding money and jobs is causing society to become like I was during my newspaper reviews. Fixed in an extreme position and unable to see how that position might effect other people.

So I ask everyone who reads this to remember this phase will pass. I am now back to full health, and feel much more positive. The world will come out of this period of financial chaos. When it does, and it looks back on all the things it did and said during the fear and worry of it's past, I hope it hasn't done anything that can't be undone. I'm lucky. Most of the stuff I have appeared in on TV exists almost no where except in my box of VHS tapes, and now on my PC. I doubt I'll put the more extreme ranting online for others to see, and I will definitely learn from my mistakes. As a society we might not be so fortunate. Major changes to our society made while we are frantically scrambling around for a solution for our current hassles might really damage the steps forward we have made, and may never be able to be undone. I won't say what changes, but I do hope we really examine what legacy each new decision and direction we take will leave behind. If we do, we will not have the awful feeling of looking back to wish we could undo something that caused great suffering during a difficult period.

On a lighter note, the one great thing about looking back at footage of a younger me is that I haven't aged anywhere near as much as I thought I had. In fact I even look better now than I did in some clips. So while I hope I may be wiser, I don't look that much older. Now that has made me smile... a huge wide cheesy smile. Tee hee.

Friday, 1 July 2011

We come a short way baby!

After a crazy few weeks rehearsing for and performing in the Graeae Theatre Company's production of Rhinestone Rollers - Wheels On Broadway I thought I deserved a day off. As I sat flicking through the channels on my Sky+ I stumbled upon an episode of a favourite show from my youth, The Fall Guy. Starring my all time childhood hero, Lee Majors, who played the Six Million Dollar Man (the fantasy of any kid who had a knackered leg in the 70's - bionics, something I really thought we'd have by the 21st century) before becoming the stunt man come bounty hunter Colt Seavers, this episode was called "Wheels". The story revolved around an old friend of Colt's who was now in a wheelchair... and it was played by real wheelchair user... IN 1983!!!!

I watched the episode, and was amazed at just how well the subject of disability was covered. Loads of jokes about public sympathy, a real action cripple in the guise of Colt's old pal, a super fast electric wheelchair with a side-car and an entire cast of real disabled people. Not one single non-disabled actor playing disabled anywhere. Again, I must point out this is 1983! The disabled main character even gets married at the end, and is planning kids. IN 1983!!!!!

Even today, here in the UK us disabled acting types still have to argue as to why only we should be playing disabled parts, and as for a story line that is as positive as this one... well we can still dream. How many young disabled people would ever believe that so long ago prime time shows like The Fall Guy were being made that did disability so well? Today's TV producers and writers should take a hard look at their output and at how old shows like this covered disability and hang their heads in shame. How far have we come in nearly 30 years?

Another subject that has been playing on my mind recently is education. On Wednesday I took part in a march to Downing Street over the education bill. With the government stating that they want to "overturn the bias towards inclusive education" and promote special schools, I really felt it was time to sit down and be counted. I was very lucky to attend mainstream schools through out my school career, and I cannot believe that exactly 30 years since I left school we live in a country that is trying to move away from inclusivity. Not only did attending a "normal" school help me, it helped my non-disabled friends. I got a pile of exams and learnt that my AB mates were just like me, and all my physically perfect mates learnt to see disabled people as just like them. I am proud to know that after taking me all of my schools became fully inclusive and still are today. I plan to start working with my old high school, Putteridge High in Luton, in the future around issues of inclusion and awareness and to mentor some of their current students.

But it really is shocking to me that most people still think that allowing disabled kids to be schooled in the same way as non-disabled kids is not an obvious thing to work towards. Even many disabled people in the public eye are unconvinced. I won't name names, but surely it is a right of all children to be schooled to the best of their ability? How can we disabled people ever expect to be accepted as part of society if we are kept apart from the rest of society from such an early age?

Of course there can be issues to confront for schools, but nothing is insurmountable. Instead of using these issues to bar entrance to a mainstream schooling, they should be seen as mechanisms for expanding the experiences of all the other pupils. What about a school project to explore access solutions for a pupil that is entering the school next term, or a buddy system for pupils that might need extra help? This kind of thing opens up the educational and social experiences of all the pupils of a school and makes the disabled pupil feel an accepted member of school population.

So yet again I find myself asking, just how far have we come? I would never have thought that at the age of nearly 46 I would still be fighting for correct portrayal of disabled people in the media and for inclusive education. I absolutely would never have thought I'd be fighting against plans to take our education system back to a time before I went to school. All I know is that I am glad I am not a disabled child today. To find yourself thinking like that makes me very angry, and ashamed. To think that if we are not careful all the gains disabled people have made in my adult life will be thrown away, all in the name of cutting deficits.

Right I'm going to stop myself there. I could go on to blame the Tories and go all Red Wedge on you all, but I thought I'd give you all a break from my socialist tirades. Whatever your politics, I am sure you will agree that we all must work hard to ensure that no more ground is lost.

Right I'm gong back to the TV. Sounds like Batman is on. Kerpow!