Sunday, 1 May 2016

Prejudice and Representation

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This blog post is a part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016.  For more information and to read other work on the theme of disability descrimination, pride etc, see Diary of a Goldfish

Prejudice grows like mould; the smaller and darker the space, the worse the problem.  In an insular group, everyone is an outsider.  It's so much harder to treat anyone with bigotry when you're surrounded by a variety of voices, a variety of faces, a variety of hopes and dreams.  So one of the key tools in fighting prejudice is to feed people with broad and positive representation in fiction, film and television.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember very little about Grange Hill beyond the bullying which I recognised in my own school, and the character played by Francesca Martinez - the first person I saw with Cerebral Palsy.  I remember, in extremely white Surrey, programmes like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and their broad cast of entirely individual people of colour.  And I remember the bad, too - the disabled villains, stereotypical black men, and non-existant or entirely passive women of a hundred different programmes and films.
Comic book style image of numerous young people and an alarming sausage.
Grange Hill Theme
Of course, I am not a product solely of these things.  But they are some of the earliest cultural rungs in the ladder of my life.  And some of them appear to have been deliberately greased in the hope that I would fall back into prejudice.  Fostering an atmosphere of mistrust and prejudice, where the same kind of people play the same kind of roles, enables those who are already at the top of the pecking order keep their place.  It also maintains a bland and simple world which takes little imagination to navigate. If Francesca Martinez had never set foot in Grange Hill, viewers who had never and would never come into contact with disability would not have to think about it.  As it is, social awareness is talked about as if it is a chore; when the BBC hired Cerrie Burnell to present on the CBBC channel, parents were upset because “they were forced to discuss difficult issues with their young children before they were ready.”


In terms of narrative, it's obvious that, in the case of original stories like Grange Hill and The Fresh Prince, there are no barriers to inclusivity.  If someone had wanted to write one of the Banks family as disabled, that would have been possible.  However, there are also other situations in which people feel they have a genuine excuse for what amounts to disablist laziness.

Historical fiction is created with weight of fact to wrestle with.  This is further complicated when the history is ancient as sources become uncertain or contradictory.  In some ways this benefits the adapting author as they have numerous narrative options open to them.  But those with privilege (or those brainwashed by the powers that be into thinking that things are as they are because that is how things *should* be)  are restricted to the same old stories of Straight White Non-Disabled Men fighting their way to the top.  These stories, damaging to our cultural health, are immensely boring.  And, as Foz Meadows describes in this excellent post, it's missing something about what *really* happened in our history.

A line drawing of Richard the Third naked, looking none too well.
Richard the Third's death
An interesting example can be found in Shakespeare's Richard III.  At school, we were told that Richard's disability was merely a metaphor, that the Tudors had painted a hunchback onto the last Plantagenet king to symbolise his corruption.  Then in 2012, archaeologists discovered Richard's body buried under a car park and revealed he did, indeed, have substantial spinal problems.

It is true that historical figures are often 'tainted' with a disablist brushstroke by critical contemporaries.  But disablist caricatures only really work if we take those disabilities to be negative.  If there wasn't an association between hunchbacks and evilness, Richard's disability would be neutral. There would have been no reason for historians to be sceptical about its reality, if it wasn't being used to cast him as a pantomime disabled villain.

We've recently watched a couple of historical TV series which have made choices to show disabled characters.

The Last Kingdom (adapted from the Bernard Cornwall novels) tells the story of a Saxon boy surfing the political and social waves of Britain during one of its biggest upheavals.  In it we meet Alfred the Great (played by the great David Dawson). This Alfred, although viciously astute, is not a well man.  There is significant historical evidence charting the course of Alfred's health, enough, in fact, to allow G. Craig to attempt a diagnosis.  He demonstrates the high possibility that the king had Crohn's Disease or something similar.  He also theorises that the early-Christian audience for the original manuscript would feel more kindly towards a king who was struggling with great suffering.

An icon showing Alfred the Great in strong colours carrying a book, orb and sceptre.
Alfred the Great
The Last Kingdom uses Alfred's disability to contrast his razor-sharp mind with physical weakness.  It becomes a symbolic struggle – abstinence from the rich food he desires brings him to an equilibrium which is also spiritual.  In comparison, Uhtred, the main character, is relatively unsophisticated.  And the whole series has a huge problem with the presentation of women (there are four main female characters, three of whom sleep with Uhtred, the fourth being the harridan wife of Alfred).

Vikings, now in its fourth season, follows the story of Ragnar Lothbrok.  One of his sons, Ivar the Boneless, is disabled.  Given the comparatively weak historical evidence (other than his name, the other significant information is that he was carried on his shield by his men – an act of celebration which need not have anything to do with someone's ability to walk) it is interesting that the writers chose this route.  Vikings is a brutal programme with graphic violence and sex.  One of the theories for Ivar's epithet is that he was especially lithe and it was his graceful fighting which made him so successful.  This could easily be used – you can imagine his character now; the same as a million other white male warriors.
A small green train driven by a friendly looking welshman.  A dragon sits on the chimney.  No vikings.
Ivar the Boneless. Not to be confused with Ivor the Engine.

However, they've chosen to portray him with a condition like Osteogenesis Imperfecta.  He fits in well with the rest of the cast and as a young adult his condition is not talked about (or not as far as I've got in the series!).  We know from numerous examples that great military leaders need not be the strongest physical specimens (Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson etc) so it doesn't preclude the historical narrative.  Diversity and flavour are added.  And the unlikely disabled character will, if the history is followed, eventually trick his way into a great British city and earn himself a huge following of warriors.

However, the young child Ivar has suffered from more prejudicial writing.  His disability is a symbol (perhaps not unfairly – Vikings is a series with a lot of symbolism) but his evilness has no historical backing that I can see and the extreme violence he meets out as a child is completely unexamined.  This is damaging and seems rather at odds with some of their other choices.


So what should writers do?  I'm certainly not saying that they should overturn historical facts to create a weak link to modern social justice*, but the truth is that the world has always been a diverse place. It has been our own prejudice which has mangled even the most reliable sources to fit in with our present day cultural narratives.

In order to make realistic fiction we have to include a realistic diversity in our depiction.  And that's especially true of disability at a time when cultural narratives are being written in big, thick marker.  Bad stories.  Stories that cast us as villains or helpless victims, stories which question our worth and which exclude us from significant roles.  Impairment is an inevitable part of life and always has been (in fact, increasingly so the further back in history one voyages).  Whether you're King of the Britons or executing one of them, your disabilities are a key part of who you are and are necessary in any good narrative that describes you.

* An interesting example here would be Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – a very popular book which I can't stand.  It reworks the story of Achilles and Patroclus amidst the Trojan war as found in the Iliad.  Miller overwrites the original complex ancient sexuality with a modern soap-opera version of homosexual love.  The story of Briseis in the Iliad is replaced with a bizarre escapade of gay men rescuing women from the horrors of rape and slavery during war.  You cannot rewrite motives to make them understandable – the skill of a writer should be focused on making the unimaginable lives of ancient peoples understandable.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

A is for...

Scope's most recent addition to their extraordinarily awkward "End the Awkward" series of publications is an alphabet of disabled sex.  Forgive me, but this was too good to just leave alone.  Sex and disability is a fascinating and under researched topic, so can't you just imagine the dreary afternoon spent trying to come up with an entire A-Z of disabled sexuality.  I hate to think how many biscuits they all got through.

Going through the list, I will trouble you with my own guesses as to what they might have come up with followed by a little critique of each subject.  So here we go.

A.  Given that I was anticipating a pretty righteous and yet baffling start to the list, I guessed Autustic Sex.  I was anticipating something along the lines of "Wasn't Dustin Hoffman cute in Rainman?".  However, I forgot about the single most sexualised disabled group - amputees.  Given the rubbish a lot of amputees go through online, it would have made for an interesting discussion.  It was, if anything, rather simplified.

B.  Whilst trying to guess, Deb mimed a clue.  That didn't help as much as you might have thought.  I didn't even manage a guess and Burlesque really is scraping the barrel.  Again, you could have interesting discussions about how disabled bodies fit surprisingly well into the Burlesque aesthetic, especially as it's often tainted by the dark shadow of the Freak Show.

C.  Thoroughly unimpressed by B, I guessed that C stood for Cucumber.  Which makes marginally more sense than Coffee.  Or Coffee?  Because Coffee? is the universal euphemism for "Fancy a quick macchiato upstairs?".  Which explains why Starbucks has done so well.  Given that I don't drink coffee, I suggest that we create more euphemistic consumables.  Cucumber is perhaps a little too obvious, although "Do you want to come upstairs for a cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off?" is pretty much on my level.

D.  Given that most Disabled Loos are considered hot spots for illicit sexual activity, I thought they might feature in this list as something to be reclaimed.  But no, they've gone for the rather more chaste option of Dating.  Which seems wantonly Dull.

E.  For epilepsy?  Electroshock therapy?  Or, if we're being a bit more sensible, emotions?  Nope - Experimenting!  Firstly, I felt rather robbed because the person interviewed has non-EPILEPTIC seizures!  So close!  But it's a rather miserable little story about how sex with a disabled person can be 'weird'.  And in the example, it's weird because someone might have a seizure during intercourse rather than any of the hundred other more extreme examples of 'weird' I can think of.  Of course, none of those weirdnesses even compare to the weirdness of, say, having sex with someone who really enjoyed Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town.  Or someone who enjoys coffee.  Or someone who came up with the idea of a Disabled Sex A-Z.  *shudders*  Weeeeiiiiirrrrrd.

F.  Heh.  It's not what you think!  No, it's not that either, I checked.  Ooo, flagellation!  I didn't think of that one!  No, still wrong.  F is for Flaunt it.  Because, as we've learnt with Free the Nipple, the way to change any attitude is for people to post naked photos of themselves online.  In all seriousness, it would be great to see more variety in the images we see around us, and particularly in those of a sexual nature where white, very young, perfectly proportioned and apparently non-disabled women dominate.  However, that's not so much up to us as it is up to advertising companies who think that 'perfection' sells.

G.  Gay!  I got this one straight away.  But this is wonderful - listen to this.

G is for Gay… or bisexual, or lesbian, or trans.

It's not, you know.  Otherwise it would be gisexual, gesbian or grans.  So does this mean that disabled people should start sleeping exclusively with grandmothers now?

H.  So fed up, I didn't even try to guess.  But whoever wrote this thing was either messing around or hasn't got into any trouble while trying to get their lumbar rearranged.  Happy Endings apparently, in this case, have nothing to do with insalubrious salons but is, in fact, the *heart warming* tale of someone who had to wait a lifetime (or at least until they were in college) in order to meet their eventual spouse.  Move over Brief Encounter.

We'll have to wait now for Scope to continue this fascinating series.  I suggest you spend the rest of the day trying to come up with your own guesses for what they might come up with for the rest of the alphabet.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The God of Sleep

The God of Sleep

Content warning for self harm

When I was a child of eight or so, I remember dreaming about drinking whiskey. I knew that spirits were bad for you and yet also something special. And as such, in my dreams, a nice scotch tasted somewhat like liquid ice-cream.

By the time I was fourteen, I had already been ill for two years. I had crippling attacks of muscle and nerve pain. Aware that no doctor wanted to help me, I did my best to blank my mind during the worst bouts. I tried to think about the colour black. Surround myself in a never-ending night. Floating above the pain.

I remember a talk by an ME “expert” at the hospital school I attended. Asked how I coped with pain, I said to the audience about my technique...emptying my head. “Of course, that’s easier for some people...” I got a laugh. I felt euphoric.

But I didn’t cope well with the pain. I spent nights awake, I would hit my leg repeatedly and hard enough to send a wave of tingly numbness over me. I took more than the recommended dose of paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen. Later, desperate and searching for some respite, I’d start having a small drink with the pills. Nothing deadly. Although a few years later, my stomach might disagree with that.

My GPs were terrible and I was scared of them. My friends at the hospital school all knew about being branded a drug-seeker. We knew what sort of a future that led to.

It was thanks to Deborah - her borrowed strength, bravery and wisdom, that led me to first experimenting with Co-codamol. The fizz and astringency followed quickly by a lovely light opiate blanket. Feeling the muscles relax. My family and I moved house and I asked the new GP about taking a stronger dose. This was a monumental psychological shift.

Our culture celebrates those who break the pain barrier, who withstand agonies with a quip and a grin and who, when shot in the shoulder, are not only spared incapacity, but who are then gifted with just enough adrenalin to waste an entire bus-load of bad guys. No one writes books about people who sensibly take a few tablets and have a lie down.

People do write books about people who take too many tablets, do stupid things and suffer the consequences. They write books about people who become hooked on drugs and turn to prostitution. They write books about painkillers and weakness.

This has always been the case, and there’s a good reason - no one wants to read a book about me taking my tablets and having a lay down with season three of The Legend of Korra on DVD. And that’s fine - books are important educators, but only when they don’t send people to sleep.

The problem is that, in the UK at least, there has been a political shift which echoes time and again the phrase ‘Hard Working’. The only good person is a hard working one. And I’ll let you into a very personal secret - the one piece of praise I crave more than any other is being told that I’ve worked hard at something. It gives me a massive glow of happiness. But the problem is that the ways in which I do work hard are not the ways politicians mean it. And scarily, their definition has seeped into the bedrock of society. Indeed, there are times when it seeps into my brain.

As such, not only is the story of me taking my tablets terribly boring, it has become morally incompatible.

Last year Deb and I got our own bungalow together. It is, without a doubt, the best thing that’s ever happened to us. We’re very happy here and everything in the garden is lovely. However, the physical and emotional tolls the move extracted from me left me in quite a poor state. I had already progressed from Co-codamol onto Dihydrocodeine. But talking to The Most Lovely Doctor in the World ™, I was presented with the option of morphine.

In my mind, Morphine had been akin to my childhood imaginings of whiskey. I had wished for it in the nights. I knew that it was not good for you, but it was effective, mesmeric and addictive. Being a classicist, I knew all about Morpheus, the god of sleep. Being a fan of a good Western, I knew about Laudanum and the opium dens of the past. I knew that this substance carried the weight of many cultures. For some reason, it should have been a much bigger step.

But by this point, it really didn’t seem it. As a child I would never have dreamed of snaffling a snifter of some spirit hidden in the back of a cupboard. I’ve never smoked or taken illegal drugs. Now, though, the idea of just trying something to see how it goes makes absolute and perfect sense.

What’s more, I have learnt that, by taking my morphine, I heal more quickly from my worst bouts. I am able to sleep properly, I can relax and breathe. Deborah has to expend less energy in her care of me. It is all wonderful.

If I were ‘Hard Working’, I would achieve much less, suffer more and so I would also take more of Deborah’s already limited time and energy resulting in her also achieving less. “Hard working” is one of the biggest lies told to us by politicians. Balance is the thing we should aim for. But balance is the boring story. The problem is, it’s also the only way anything great and sustainable can ever happen.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2015Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015 will be on Friday 1st May!

As in previous years, I'll be helping to run this tremendous blogging carnival - posting updates on twitter and facebook and updating the main site.  If you fancy joining in, sign up at and please promote the day using the hashtag #BADD2015

Hope to see you there!

Monday, 30 June 2014

In the Land of the Blind: Men in "Orange is the New Black"

Back in April I wrote about the silliness of changes made to World Book Night to make it more appealing to men. And men, I am afraid, are a problem yet again.

Recently we have been watching the first season of Orange is the New Black. We have only one episode left to watch and I am genuinely excited to see it.

However, when we got to the end of episode no. 12, Deb showed me this tweet;
And, you see, the thing is, that throughout the programme, I’ve been saying something deceptively similar.

If you’ve not seen it, Orange is the New Black is a series about a thirty-something white lady who goes to prison having been convicted of transporting money for her drug smuggler girlfriend ten years previous. We follow her prison life and learn about a large cast of female inmates. The dialogue is snappy, there are some good actors, and most importantly, it has Captain Janeway doing a Russian accent (I nearly fell off the sofa. Literally.)

It is a remarkable piece of narrative in that it has a large female cast who are all individual, fully rounded characters of different ages, races and sexual orientations. They are not universally motivated by love, and when they are, that love needn’t be one involving a strapping full-back.

(As an aside, it also features disabled characters. And there is a truly *brilliant* scene involving a troubled youngster in a wheelchair. Worth the cost of the DVD alone.)

It is tremendously frustrating, therefore, to find a really large hole in this magnificent thing. But it is there. In fact, there are four of them! But let’s concentrate on the most important thing - won’t someone please think about the men!

Men. I am one, you know? And as such, I am in a position of tremendous good fortune. If I want to find a role-model in narrative, I have a cubic megatonne to choose from. I do face some limitations (for example, there are relatively few disabled male role-models who don’t overcome their disability to be something tremendously heroic), but they are negligible in the face of the limits placed on women.

When studying the Women in Antiquity course as part of my Classics degree, I read and very much enjoyed Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. And scarily, these are, generally speaking, still the choices left us when we talk about women in fiction (and, often, in life too...). Maybe she is the supporting wife. Or a slave to a passion. A slut to be used and shamed. Or a goddess to save us all.

And so it’s extraordinarily easy to write a typical female character. You’ve got four options and, if you want some variety, just choose two and mix ‘em! If you doubt this, just look at the majority of the female cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

When you’re creating a male character, however, you carefully think about their job, their relationship with family and friends, hobbies and desires etc. They necessarily become rounded and real. A proper person.

When it comes to Orange is the New Black, however, the writers have taken the latter route of character creation and used it to create rounded, complex, interesting and real women (with an exception...more on which later).

And you can tell that as soon as you do this, some people are going to look at the huge female cast and think “Well this is a bit odd - where are all the men?”. And it does feel a little like that, even to me. It’s just I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. But I can understand how someone could see that and say that the men are ‘barely and inadequately represented’.

They’re not, though. There are male prison officers. There is a male prison doctor. There are male relatives and loved ones. There are male villains and victims in the flashbacks of the prison inmates.

That sounds to me about as many male characters as you could possibly fit into a story about a women’s prison! So men are very appropriately represented. They are, as men usually are, all distinct and named. It’s possible that I’ve forgotten and there has been an episode without men in it, but I sincerely doubt it.

However, what I would vehemently argue is that although there is a more than adequate representation of men, they are not written with the devotion lavished on the female inmates.

Although there are distinct men, we never really see beyond the mask. The main villain (a moustacheod prison officer) is truly awful to his charges. We can make some guesses about his life story, but they remain, up to episode no. 12 at least, entirely unexamined. Likewise, the more likeable prison officer has an interesting story of sorts (he is an amputee), but again we do not really see any depth.

The biggest problem for me is Larry, the fiancé of the main character. I find their relationship annoying at best, and a complete mystery at worst. We cannot feel genuinely sorry for any of his suffering because we only see very controlled, minimal signs of a normal life. He is a caricature being used to very poor effect.

Of course, the problem is that as soon as you think these things, you see that they’re not universally the fate of the betesticled cast. There are female prison officers who receive just as little examination and care. But, again, we’re so used to nameless women in the background, they just fade into acceptance.

So what does this mean for the series? We’re to write it off as a failure because it’s not taken universal care of its cast of characters?

Pick five pieces of great narrative. Do the majority treat men and women with equal care and love? I doubt it.

Problematic fiction can be hugely entertaining and fun. You have to suspend a little bit of your brain that argues against it. I’ve watched the first three series of Game of Thrones and there have been times when I have been sickened by the so called ‘sexposition’. And yet I’ve still watched it. And enjoyed some parts of it enough to continue watching it.

The only real problem with problematic fiction is that it can never be truly great. And that’s where I feel that, if Orange is the New Black had managed to tick all my boxes it would be a truly great piece of fiction. And that, of course, would be wonderful.

But not everything can be great. And it is perhaps just as important to have fun, problematic stuff available where women are fully rounded characters as it is to have pieces of truly great story telling now and again.

But that probably won’t stop me from shouting at the television when I desperately want them to spend a minute looking at why a man might be doing something. Because maybe that might make the impact of his actions greater...grrr!


I must just add, however, the other three problems I have with Orange is the New Black. Firstly, no one uses the word ‘bisexual’, and there is such a naivety about the whole subject that I find it distracting.

Secondly, and much more importantly, there are aspects of sexual morality which I find troubling.

1.) there is a sexual relationship between a guard and prisoner which is painted in a very romantic light. Both characters are inadequate, but this is made worse by not really understanding the man’s motives given his lack of three dimensional character. Also, the consequences are discussed, but never in a way that suggests the act to be wrong...only that they might be discovered and punished (unfairly).

2.) there are instances where same-sex intimacy are used as a threat against a religious fundamentalist. Of course, the fundamentalist is a thoroughly horrible character deserving justice...but this kind of ‘justice’ is nothing of the sort and feels, to me, like it’s meant to be chortled over.

Finally, and most upsetting of all the problems - throughout the first series there has been a number of interesting stories told by a variety of women. Because of this we see things we don’t often see -

  • a black woman growing from a terrified girl into a matriarchal business owner who carries out fatal justice for an injured worker.
  • a Russian wife turned gangster turned prison cook.
  • a black teenager who throws away a promising career because a hard-working life looks boring when you’re a kid.

But all of these stories have to be framed around the experience of our blonde, white main character. Ten years in prison having murdered a man who abused a girl? Yeah, a few weeks in and Blondie can relate. It’s sickening. Also, the ridiculous love story, made more ridiculous by the lack of proper character exploration of the chap, is an example of standard narrative being shoe-horned into a much more interesting and individual narrative.

It certainly has problems. But I’m sure I’ll cope.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

BADD 2014 - Need For Speed

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014
Deb and I have tried to get out of the house a little more this year. This has meant that every few weeks you might see us in convoy along the pavement, her in the lead on her wheelchair while I take up the rear on my scooter. I’d like to think that this was entirely due to her wheelchair being fractionally slower than my scooter and so it making more sense to keep to her pace. I fear, however, that I am actually one of nature’s followers. I prefer to be back a ways, watching others out in front. And Deb has pretty hair - I get to see it blowing about in the wind if I’m behind her.

Every now and then we’ll draw level where the pavement is wide enough. If it’s somewhere very quiet, we might go along holding hands (occasionally leading to a very low speed collision).

Every now and then we also get comments. Any mobility equipment user will know the kind of thing. “Cor, can I hop on for a lift!” “Have you got a license for that thing?!” and, most recently “I guess one of the good things about being disabled is not having to walk in cat s**t...”. I s**t you not...

Obviously, most of the comments aren’t meant in a terrible way. Often it’s people, a little surprised by what they’ve seen, wanting to be friendly. And when people want to be friendly at something they are surprised by, that friendliness often falls flat. What’s more, in a society where disabled people are increasingly persecuted, any reference to any part of your disability can feel like an attack.

And yet, I remember as a kid being so totally bowled over by how brilliant scooters were. There was a chap down the road who had one with a great big plastic canopy, and on rainy days it looked like a comfy little tent on wheels. And I don’t think that’s changed much - the other day we happened upon a pair of young boys being mischievous in the woods after school. A bit shocked at being found, their response was “That’s an electric wheelchair! Cooool!”

These things should be cool. And so I’d like to tell you a story.

The other day, you’ll never guess who I met. Go on, guess! You’ll never get it. But go on, give it a go anyway!

No, it wasn’t Nick Lowe, the Classics scholar and writer of Mutant Popcorn film reviews in the SF magazine Interzone. But good guess.

It was actually the former head of engineering from Karelma scooters!

Yeah, I know.

Long ago, I myself had a Karelma scooter. It was the first scooter I bought - a second hand blue-green Karelma Pegasus. Sadly, I began to have problems with it around the time when the company disappeared, and so I sold it and bought myself a Pride Legend XL in black.

At the moment, we’re in a bit of a funny situation, living between our parents. We’re trying to arrange something for our housing in the future, but in the mean time transporting a scooter between two houses would have been very difficult. I was very lucky to receive a scooter for free from the widow of a colleague of my father. So, for a time, we were actually a two scooter household. This CS200 was a fairly old machine. It had scratches along the side (and, rather suspiciously, came complete with a bottle opener on the keys...) but served me very well. It started to have problems and Deb’s wheelchair is also getting a little decrepit. So we decided to get them serviced.

Me sat on a CS200 mobility scooter in a slightly wintery graveyard.  Prescient for the fate of the scooter, alas...

And that’s how I came to meet the former head of engineering from Karelma scooters!

Disability in general, but particularly chronic invisible conditions can be extremely damaging to a chap’s sense of masculinity. Look for a male disabled role-model and you’re either looking at a pirate, super-soldier or bond villain. All of them are active, hyper masculine and...well, not ever such a lot like me. They also tend not to have anything to do with mobility scooters. Electric wheelchairs are OK for villains (and also Tim Mcinnerny in Johnny English Reborn) but on the whole, you’re expected to be propelled by the musky force of your manliness alone. Or, you know, your arms.

A still from Johnny English Reborn - a surprisingly fun film featuring an improbable mobility device.

But do you know what happened when I spoke to the former head of engineering from Karelma scooters (who, for the record, is called Artur)?

We had a wonderfully blokey conversation!

We talked about the amperage of the motor controllers. We talked about the benefits of dual motors over trans-axle designs. We talked about the cost of parts and engineering philosophies.

Honestly, I couldn’t have felt more manly without the aid of a full set of spanners and a two gallons of used engine oil!

And what’s more, I felt pride in that manliness.

Two points relating to this;

1.)  Pride is currently not encouraged for disabled people in our society. Our image, as portrayed by politicians and in the media, is one of which no one could be proud. We must be lacking everything - any sort of capacity, any sort of happiness or fulfillment - to be entitled to any sort of help (and, indeed, any sort of acceptance in society). If we receive help, we cannot show anything good for fear of that help being taken away. This means that our communities tend towards copious displays of lack of ability to justify ourselves.

2.)  I don’t want you to believe for an instant that I mean manliness in a way that excludes women. I think all women should be a little manly. There’s something wonderfully nerdy about being a chap. We watched a programme the other day about men in Georgian Britain and it mentioned how men didn’t have fripperies or toys, they had ‘equipment’. Everyone should be able to have equipment! Equipment is fun! And one of the best things that manliness gives you is a certain self confidence...and an enthusiasm.

The problem with men (or at least one of the many problems...) is that they can let that go too far the other way. That’s when you get arrogant sods and men who, when seeing a couple out on their mobility equipment is a bit annoyed that they will avoid the fate of his excrement-covered shoes.

So, I urge you all to take some pride in your equipment, whatever it may be, and feel enthused, not just in things, but in yourselves. Me, I will feel pride in my mobility equipment. And I look forward to the time when my scooter needs servicing* as I am sure Artur and I will have a fun conversation about the benefits of single-piece control panels for waterproofing purposes. Just two chaps who, in their own individual ways, are both part of a proud disability community.


If you have any problems with your scooter or wheelchair and are in East Anglia, I urge you to give Scootertech a ring. Also, wherever in the country you are, if you’re in the market for a new scooter, you could do a *lot* worse than one of his models. And if you buy one, mention me! With a few hundred commissions, I might be able to get my own Hillclimber Extreme - a name so manly, I think I just heard my chest-hair rustle in excitement!

*Sadly the CS200 had terminal problems and we’re back to being a single scooter household

BADD 2014 - Clippity Cloppity Goat and the Dragon

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014
Far away, beyond the mountains, there are vast plains of shingle, laying flat like a million stony fish scales. To the eye of any normal creature, these vast stretches of grey are barren. But that emptiness is a lie. If you close your eyes and listen, things move under those stones. Scales scratch. And, if you tread on the wrong piece of rock, you might end up with a terribly warm foot. Because this is the place where dragons live.


Clippity had been doing very well after his adventures with Arnold the troll. He had, of course, been in a lot of trouble with his mother. But when she saw what a sensible kid he’d been, she was inclined not to be too angry with him. Very soon he was back to playing with his friends in the paddock, chasing butterflies, butting fence-posts and spreading as much happiness as he possibly could.

One cloudy day, Clippity chased a particularly colourful butterfly all the way across the field, right up to the great steel cattle grid. Concentrating entirely on the brightly fluttering insect, he didn’t notice the ground as it gave way under his hoofs. With a clang and a bang, little Clippity tumbled forward, bending his foreleg painfully. He bleated, shocked and struggled to free himself, but to no avail. The young goat was stuck fast.


Dragons. Creatures of magic, covered in dull metallic scales. Their breath is a caustic heat while their eyes glitter terribly like distant stars on fire. But, being magical, they can, at the wiggle of a single claw, shimmer into invisibility. Which is why, even though we all know that dragons exist, we never see them.

No dragon can hide from his kin, however, no matter how much they might like to try. And Boris desperately wanted to hide. Boris did not want anyone to see him because he knew that he was very different. All his family and friends were monstrously large; miniature mountains in their own right, sliding amid their shingle burrows. But Boris was tiny - little bigger than a blackbird. And while the dragons around him were dull, like old steel, Boris was brilliant green, like a boiling emerald.

After years of ridicule and unkindness, Boris had had enough. His deep red eyes looked away from the cool grey of his home, out over the mountains, the rivers and woods all the way to the brilliant green of the fields in the distance. A green land where he might feel at home...


Poor little Clippity! His foreleg was terribly hurt. No amount of licking from his mother would cure this injury. A vet was called and very soon the fragile limb had been bandaged with a strangely coloured fabric which turned solid as more layers were wrapped around. Finally, Clippity was lifted up and carried to a field he had not seen before. The fences around it seemed particularly tall and uninviting. He was scared, not knowing where he was destined.

The vet could feel the creature tense in her arms and she made comforting noises deep in her throat. The soothing sound relaxed Clippity. But sooner than he wanted, he was placed carefully into the grassy field.

Very quickly, Clippity realised that he could no longer scamper. Gambolling was out too. Bouncing, sprinting, spinning - none of them worked very well at all with his solid, sticky out leg. If he was particularly careful, he could move a few steps without tripping over himself like a newborn kid. With a little goaty sigh, he took stock of his surroundings...


The journey had taken Boris the best part of a week, gliding quietly through the sun-drenched sky on his scaly wings and sleeping at nights, his tail wrapped tightly around the top-most branch of the tallest tree he could find. But he eventually discovered a small field, deep green and surrounded by a tall fence. He dived down into the hedges bordering it, blending in with the leaves. Although he knew no one could see him, he still felt nervous and wanted to completely disappear. He even found himself missing the cool beds of shingle back home.

Eventually, he began to explore his new home and found that he wasn’t alone. Some strangely furry creatures shared the enclosure he’d picked. And they weren’t getting on. “Well,” thought Boris, “If they get even angrier with each other, maybe they’ll leave me alone in my new green home...”. And so, bathed in his invisible scales, he flapped over to where the two goats, for goats they were, stood...


Clippity was not alone. In fact, there were two fellow kids in the centre of the field, glaring at each other. Intrigued, Clippity hobbled over.

One goat (Clara, he heard the other goat call her) also hobbled as she moved. But rather than a foreleg wrapped in brightly coloured fabric, her leg wasn’t shaped like a leg usually is. The lower part of her leg quickly dwindled into a little thin stump with no hoof at all. And rather than put any weight on it at all, she hopped around on the other three legs.

The other goat (Clarence, he heard Clara call him in a not at all friendly voice) had normal legs, normal hooves and could move around on them all apparently normally. However, his bearded face was hollow and his dark eyes flitted around the field as if terrified that some creature might pounce on him.

The strange pair were locked in a bitter argument. Open mouthed, Clippity listened...


It had been easy for Boris to stoke the fires of the argument. Hovering close to the ear of each creature, he whispered the words of hatred he’d been subjected to all his life. It felt good, for once, to have the power to make someone else hurt. And soon these stupid furry animals would storm off and leave him alone in peace and quiet.


“It’s not as if you even have any problems moving around,” bleeted Clara, gesturing with her shorter leg at his four, strong limbs. “You just don’t *want* to run around.”


Clippity’s eyebrows wiggled with surprise. It almost sounded like Clara’s voice had hopped a few inches to the right as she’d called Clarence ‘pathetic’. Clarence, however, was not worried about from what direction the voice had come. He bristled and shuddered at the insult.

“It’s *not* that I don’t *want* to run around! I’m just so scared of I need the high fences and the bushes to hide from the world. You can go wherever you want, it just takes you some extra time. That’s nothing!” Clarence shouted, stamping the ground with anger.


Clara gasped at the insult and was about to charge at Clarence when Clippity piped up.

“Excuse me, but my mother has always told me that when I’m angry, it’s important to count to ten and breathe. Things seem so much better after that.” He smiled, hoping that he might be able to defuse the situation.

It did not work.

Both goats turned to glare at him.

“What do you know, Limpy?”

Clara presumed Clarence had said this and smirked to herself. Clarence presumed that Clara had said it and snorted a short little laugh. Clippity didn’t bother thinking about who said it. He didn’t count to ten or breathe. In fact, if it weren’t for his leg, he’d have charged in and butted them both on the nose. But all he achieved was a spectacular tumble into a puddle.

“What do you know about anything?” asked Clara, derisively, “You’ll be out of this field in a few weeks when that leg’s healed. My leg won’t ever heal - I’ll be here forever!” She tried hard to mask the pain in her voice with anger.

“Yeah, you don’t know anything about what it’s really like to be scared for the future!” shouted Clarence, his heart beating wildly with fear; fear of his own anger, of the pressing sky and the wind that rustled around his ears.


Boris flapped around the three angry goats, the fear for his own future diminishing with the certainty that he would soon have the field all to himself. He did his very best to ignore the loneliness and hurt. Which is a shame, because if he hadn’t, he would have seen that it was actually growing all the time.


The three goats (with the aid of an occasional invisible snide remark) fell about arguing properly. The clamour rose into the summer air. Chloe followed it as one might the scent of a freshly baked cake. She did so carefully and gently, placing one hoof in front of the other until, finally, she was stood only a little way from the uproar.

Her opal eyes did not see, but she could clearly hear the anger of three individuals. She heard hurt, fear and shame. One goat had grown up looking different to those around her and had been treated badly. One had grown up seeing all the fear there was in the world magnified, as pebbles are at the bottom of a clear stream. One had recently suffered an injury and was scared for his future, not knowing how to cope with his new found limitations.

All of them did not fit properly into the world. All of them were the same. Whether differently shaped, hurt in mind or injuried of body. They all faced the same problem because they all struggled to fit into the world around them.

And then Chloe heard a very faint flap of leathery wings and a gentle rustle of metallic scales. She heard another voice full of fear, though it tried to blend with those around it.


“You poor creatures.”

They all froze. A dark goat with ghostly eyes stood only a little way off. Clippity, Clara and Clarence shuffled their hooves, not knowing quite how to respond. They were beginning to realise that they were all being rather silly. But one voice hadn’t been silenced.

“Get lost, blinky!” shouted Boris. But this time the three goats looked at one another, certain that the voice had not issued from one of their mouths.

“And you especially,” said Chloe, slowly moving forwards again, “to be on the outskirts of everything, hidden in the dark. It must be terribly lonely.”

Boris blushed under his scales and clamped his little crocodile mouth shut with a snap. Clippity startled, jumped, caught his bandaged leg under himself and stumbled into Clara. She helped him up.

“I don’t know who you are or where you’re from, but it sounds like you’ve experienced things we should all be able to understand. And if you share your problems with us, maybe we can help each other.” said Chloe, following Boris’ flightpath with her extremely mobile, tufted ears.

“And at the very least, we can all be together. As friends.”

Boris landed in front of Chloe and let go of the magic holding him invisible. The three goats behind him gasped at the sight, but of course, Chloe remained as she had been, just calmly listening.

“I’ve never had a friend before.” said Boris, sadly. He wiped a tear away with a wing, and hid his face.

“Neither have I.” said Clara.

“I had a friend once,” said Clarence, sadly, “but she died when I was still very young.”

“I have lots of friends.” said Clippity, ashamed. “But they all seem very far away.”

“Well,” said Chloe, smiling, “it’s the easiest thing in the world to make friends. You just have to find the thing that’s special about you and believe in it. Have pride in your difference. You’re all exceptional creatures - who wouldn’t want to get to know an exceptional creature?”


And all five exceptional creatures became firm friends. They were all different. But they also knew that, like all things, they would change and grow. They grew around the things that made them different. And their friendship was a part of that. Making them all members of a community. A community which remained intact, even when Clippity was able to walk normally again. Even when, after much hard work and with the support of his friends, Clarence was a little less scared of the pain he could feel in the world. Even when Clara was able to move beyond the high-fenced pen with Clippity to lean upon.

They all gained strength from each other and they all found a home. Even Boris who flitted through the hedgerows, the leaves and branches stroking his scales. Boris, the tiny green dragon, was home.

The End

A brief explanation

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Two years ago, I wrote the first Clippity story for BADD2012. That was a story all about how people react to those with disabilities that keep them shut away from the world. This year I wanted to address some of the issues about the disability community (or the sometimes fractured remnants of what it should be).

I believe very strongly in the social model of disability and believe that the only way to properly deal with both a life as a disabled person and disability issues within a society is to follow this model. It is common to think about disability in an extremely narrow way - be it ‘wheelchair users’ (a pretty diverse bunch in their own right) or people with deafness, people on the autistic spectrum etc. I was lucky to spend a lot of time in a hospital school as a kid and so, early on, was used to thinking of limitations in a very broad sense (including people with behavioural issues who might not have a medical diagnosis at all).

This story was inspired by reading someone who felt very upset to see so many people with invisible conditions dominating the disability community as she saw it. Her childhood experiences of being very visibly different meant that she felt in an entirely separate position. Which of course she is. But just because we’re in different positions doesn’t mean we don’t suffer because of the same thing (societal restrictions/prejudices towards disabilities) and in a way that enables us to understand each other.

Of course, I have ended up using a few disability clichés - the slightly ethereal blind person and the duplicitous person of restricted growth. I hope I can be forgiven for these for the following reasons;

1 - we see that the dragon of restricted growth has been made very unhappy by an uncaring society. As soon as love is given, the character flaws disappear. That’s not the ‘just can’t help himself’ character you usually find in classic literature.

2 - The ethereal blind person is only ethereal in comparison because other people are blinded by anger - as soon as they lose their anger, so they are all equal.

Also, I’ve written this over the course of a few days when I’ve been quite poorly - I always find cliché comforting when I’m particularly unwell!

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it.