Friday, 18 October 2013

What makes us Human? written by Alison Lapper with Liz Coward

Hello and welcome to my blog. It's lovely to see you again for, what is, an EXCLUSIVE issue.
   As you know, months ago, Alison Lapper commissioned me to co-write her essay on What makes us Human? for BBC Radio Two's Jeremy Vine show. Excitement didn't come close and I quickly set to work.
  Ali and I bashed ideas around over lunches and coffees. We wandered down some blind alleys, but eventually there was enough material for me to get my teeth into. After watching The Elephant Man and listening to earlier speakers, I was ready to show Ali the first draft.  She liked it a lot and it gave us something to work on. A few drafts later, the job was complete and last Wednesday it was time to deliver.
  After up-teem read throughs, we had one last practice on the train up to London. Alison read it beautifully despite her dyslexia and the distraction of a ruler keeping her eyes focused on one line at a time. 
  Even before we left Shoreham, she was nervous.  BBC Radio Two gets over 13 million listeners, and the last time she spoke to Jeremy Vine they had had a run in. Moreover, the format of essay then interview, meant that she would be playing to her weaknesses, before she could play to her strengths.
  Nerves worsened when we got into the studio because the microphone impeded her view of the essay. We'd spent hours practising. We'd fine tuned the text;  we'd highlighted words, increased spaces, even changed what" to "wot." We'd done too much to be thwarted by a microphone. However, there was no time to worry, for moments later Ali was live on air. 

The problem with this question is that you have to find universal characteristics that link people like Hitler with Mother Theresa.
I could have a stab at it and say, freedom of choice, and the desire to humanize everything, but an Anthropologist may hiss, “What about X?” A human rights campaigner may snap, “Saudi Arabia huh?”  And you’ll always get that plonker who’ll yell,  “You don’t even look human love, so how can you talk?” 
However you cut it, humans are incredibly different, so this is a nightmarish question, unless you are an expert, of course.  But I’m only an expert on my life, and the challenges disabled people face.
Based on that, I think there are four vital things that make us human, the need to love, the need to be loved, and the need to be accepted and respected as a human being in the first place.
In the introduction to this series, we hear some lines from The Elephant Man.  John Merrick said them when he was chased into a railway toilet and trapped between two rows of urinals. With his back against the wall, he screamed at the mob, “ I am not an animal!  I am NOT an ANIMAL! I am a human being!” and of course he was.  But to be treated like a human being, you have to be accepted as one.
When I was trapped at Chailey, I was too afraid to scream, but then, I was only tiny and didn’t even know that I was different.  I understood that I was one of the 250, “strange little creatures,” that lived there.  But we were in the majority, so acceptance wasn’t an issue.
It only became an issue when we were faced with the outside world.  That was a whole different ball game.
As toddlers, we were taken to Brighton Beach, and we emptied it in 10 minutes because people dragged their kids away.  They said we were disgusting and shouldn’t be allowed out.
We were never asked if we minded being repeatedly sprawled naked in front of 10 to 15 medical professionals, and endlessly poked, pulled, rotated and photographed.  Every Wednesday afternoon, wealthy donors would peer at us through the classroom windows.  They didn’t seem to see children, just poor, pathetic, unloved creatures.
Although we’ve come a long way since then, I’m still stared at.  Some passers-by will do a double-take if I’m heard making an intelligent comment.   
I’m told I intimidate people.  I make people feel uncomfortable, or even turn their stomachs.  Why?  Disabled people aren’t a different species.  We are human beings with the same needs and aspirations as everyone else, and everyone has a basic need to be accepted.
I think that is why John Merrick said to Treves at the end of the film, “My life is full because I am loved.” Now he could die in peace.  Society had finally accepted him for wot* he had always been, a human being who just happened to be disabled.
Merrick also mentioned love, and I believe that loving, and being loved also make us human.
When I was little, the ward sister would say, “Put that crying baby down.  They don’t need a hug.”  In her eyes, children like us didn’t need human contact, let alone love.
We were all treated the same way, so we grew up thinking that that was normal.  Mind you, at the age of five, I also thought it was normal to be taken to Lewes Prison to visit the inmates.  Our surroundings were so alike, it seemed that the only contrast between us, was we were locked away as punishment for being different, and they were locked away as punishment for doing wrong.
Yet, I was aware that kindness made me feel loved.  Kindness, that I had experienced from my foster parents, my sister, some of the nursing and teaching staff at Chailey.   But of them all, my rock was always Nurse Mary Shepherd.  Because of her, I recognised that humans were more than just fed, watered, educated and disciplined.
Despite my up bringing, the need to love and be loved was instinctive.
As I grew up, I felt love and respect toward my friends and myself.   As I grew older, I fell in love, I made love and experienced the joy of parental love.
I still do, but these feelings, feelings that make us human, are often denied to people like me because of our disabilities.                        
So, what do I think makes us human? Four needs, to love, to be loved, to be accepted and respected.


The relief was palpable.

  During her chosen song, I left the studio for Ali didn't need my strengths anymore, she could use her own. She shone in the following interview. She moved listeners to tears and her essay was described as one of the best. 
  For me personally, I'm proud of my friend and my involvement in the project. I'm delighted that I've had my first paid commission, but I'm also mortified that the NewStatesman inexplicably, and unjustly, removed my name as co-writer when they published the essay. That said, no-one can remove the fact that we did a good day's work on Wednesday and, as Ali said, I hope her contribution to the series has helped to change attitudes towards disability.  
Thanks for popping by and see you next week.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

What makes us human? D Day -1

Hello and welcome to my blog. It's lovely to see you again.

With only one day to go before Alison Lapper and I travel to the BBC, we're busily engaged in fine-tuning her essay on, "What makes us Human?"

Due to the nature of Ali's disability, it's not just a case of practising, but mastering tiny, yet important details, like when and how to turn the pages silently.  I'll be doing that bit so wish me luck.

If you can, do join us tomorrow, Wednesday 16th October, on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio Two between 12 - 2.00 p.m

Alison should be on at 1.00 p.m.  If you miss it, a podcast will be available to download.

I'll let you know how we get on next week. Thanks for dropping bye. Ta-ra for now.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Goodbye Shoreham Footbridge. Hello Adur Ferry Bridge

Hello and welcome to my blog. It’s lovely to see you again. 
      The imminent opening of the new footbridge, (christened the Adur Ferry Bridge), is a major topic of conversation on the Beach. Sadly, it's usually in disparaging terms.
      As we know, the old footbridge was in constant use.  Being a short cut to town, kids used it to get to school, disabled people whizzed across on their mobility scooters and pedestrians strolled over to do their shopping, visit the library, and have lunch. In short, you name it, we did it.
      Most of us had never known life without the footbridge, yet the anticipated five-week closure was greeted with resignation.  When this was suddenly extended to a permanent closure, resignation changed to mild irritation.  Then the bridge’s re-opening was delayed in August, so irritation turned to grumbling and criticism.  It's now been more than a year since it closed, so grumbles have matured into frustration and impatience.
      Rumours have circulated of a petition against the delay and a protest march across the bridge. In fact, the mood has been summoned up by a graffiti artist. 


Behind the board are the men responsible for the project. Tony Bathmaker, Project Manager with West Sussex Country Council, and Paul Reader, Project Manager for Osborne, the contractors. 
      Tony Bathmaker is passionate about his job. He knows Shoreham well as he led the team responsible for the award-winning restoration of Shoreham Toll Bridge. He’s proud of that, and this, project.  Both men are, so they have been stung by the criticism of tardiness. 

You may not be able to see people crawling all over the bridge, but that does not mean we’re dragging our heels. We’re working on less obvious aspects of the build, like mechanical and electrical testing on the span section of the bridge; lighting checks; installation of the few remaining glass panels; completion of the handrail on the north side; completion of the ramp on the south side; re-surfacing of the central walkway; training staff on how to operate and maintain the span; dealing with snagging problems as and when they arise and when the time comes, dismantling the site. This will be done, for the most part, when the bridge is open to the public, but it will not be a cause for further delay.
      All the guys here are dedicated and proud to be involved in building an iconic bridge in Shoreham. With hindsight we could always have done better, but the delays have, for the most part, been caused by the persistent very low temperatures during winter and early spring that prevented laying the concrete deck, and the collapse of the supplier responsible for fabricating the glass panels in late summer. 
      They’re not caused by lack of commitment. Our commitment to the job is total and we’re all working as hard as we can to get it finished. We know how important the bridge is to the community so it will not be closed a day longer than necessary.”

I believe him. I just have to learn to be more patient. Talking of which, the essay I co-wrote with Alison Lapper on, “What makes us human?” will finally be broadcast on BBC Radio Two on 16th October at 1.00 p.m. Please listen if you can.
      Talking of listening, we went to West Dean GROW! COOK! EAT! Festival on a glorious Sunday afternoon and after feasting on lots of little cheese samples, we sat down with a hog roast bap and enjoyed the sound of Ward Thomas, a rock-country duo. I reckon they would go down a storm at Ropetackle.
      That’s all for now, but please remember to put 16th October in your diary. It’s the biggest thing I’ve done so far and I’d love to share it with you.

Ta-ra ‘til next time.

PS. Here's a link to details of the official opening.